- Protecting the Belt and Road Initiative:China's Cooperation with Pakistan to Secure CPEC
As China's interests and investments expand globally under the new economic and political architecture envisaged with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), so do the risks. China's global ambitions have progressively exposed Chinese assets and nationals abroad to an increasing set of challenges, ranging from threats emanating from terrorist groups and separatist movements to cautious and critical views about Chinese investments and personnel working in foreign countries. Among the more than one hundred countries that have now signed up to BRI, Pakistan, through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), epitomizes most of the challenges that Beijing is confronting in the implementation of its BRI-driven international design.1 CPEC—designated by Chinese premier Li Keqiang as the initiative's "flagship project"—represents an ideal test case to assess how China is aiming to secure its investments abroad. The economic corridor running through Pakistan has by far the most advanced set of projects coming under the aegis of BRI. The level of investment in the official narrative has increased from $46 billion to $62 billion in recent years, although actual investment will likely be around $19 to $20 billion, including the so-called early-harvest projects already completed as part of the first phase of CPEC.2
Notwithstanding the vast amounts of economic and political capital that China has invested in Pakistan, however, an array of challenges persist. In 2018, three attacks to Chinese nationals, assets, and symbols sounded a powerful reminder of the risks that China faces in implementing its global ambitions. The most prominent of the three incidents occurred in November 2018, when a group of assailants attempted to enter the Chinese consulate in Karachi. The attackers belonged to the Fidayeen Majeed [End Page 5] Brigade—a China-focused cell recently established within the Balochistan Liberation Army—and they were prevented from entering the consulate's premises.3 Nevertheless, the attack was a clear warning of the threats that China faces in its global outreach, even from a country like Pakistan where perceptions of Beijing are largely favorable.
This essay examines how China is cooperating with Pakistan to protect its investment under CPEC. It demonstrates that cooperation to secure BRI projects in Pakistan is articulated around a two-pronged strategy: reliance on the host nation's military, government, and private security contractors to safeguard China's interests; and increased fiber-optic connectivity to protect communications and the digital component of CPEC. Each of these two dimensions will be dissected, as well as some of the adjustments Beijing has made more recently to couple reliance on the Pakistani authorities with initiatives in the social sector that are aimed at mitigating criticism surrounding China's inroads in Pakistan.
The Military and Government Efforts to Protect CPEC
China's reliance on BRI host nations to ensure the security of Chinese workers and nationals has included a range of institutional actors within Pakistan. Since CPEC was officially launched in April 2015, the Pakistani authorities, both military and civilian, have collaborated with their Chinese counterparts to provide a safe environment for Chinese investments and those working to implement them.
The Pakistan Army has played a pivotal role in the overall security framework of CPEC. Military-to-military cooperation is a key factor in the continuity of Sino-Pakistani relations, and the dynamics surrounding CPEC confirm this wider, historical trend. Over the years, China has ensured that the Pakistani military has had the capabilities and means to carry out its tasks, as well as those in China's interests. Since 2011, China has emerged as the major arms supplier to Pakistan. From 2013, when the first memoranda of understanding (MOUs) related to CPEC were signed, to 2018, the total value of arms transfers from China to Pakistan was $3.5 billion. To put this data into perspective, the United States, which is still Pakistan's second-largest supplier, transferred only $493 million in arms, [End Page 6] and Italy (third-largest) transferred $299 million.4 Looking at these figures, it should not come as a surprise that during a visit to Beijing in September 2018, the...