The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
A seaport in southwest Pakistan may hold the key to China’s energy supremacy. At least, that’s what China hopes. The Gwadar port, which China has built and will operate in the province of Balochistan, is situated near the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil-shipping lane that can serve as an energy corridor from western China through Pakistan to the Persian Gulf.
Beijing’s pivot to Pakistan is a substantial one. The story goes back to 2008, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf proposed a railroad and an oil pipeline to link Gwadar to the Kashi port in Xinjiang—allowing China to take advantage of the shortest possible route to the Middle East. In exchange, Pakistan would get an influx of Chinese investment. Indeed, in 2014, the Chinese government committed to spending $45.6 billion over the next six years to build the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will include the construction of highways, railways, and natural gas and oil pipelines connecting China to the Middle East. China’s stake in Gwadar will also allow it to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, a vital route for oil transportation between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Another advantage to China is that it will be able to bypass the Strait of Malacca. As of now, 60 percent of China's imported oil comes from the Middle East, and 80 percent of that is transported to China through this strait, the dangerous, piracy-rife maritime route through the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas.
The United States fears that China will come out of its dealings with Pakistan with more power. But it need not be worried: China’s involvement in Balochistan, a restive area prone to insurgencies, will not end well. Many believe Quetta, Balochistan’s capital, is hiding wanted leaders from the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, small towns in Balochistan are the breeding grounds for a decades-old separatist movement targeting federal agencies. Increasingly, China has been caught up in the violence. In 2004, three Chinese engineers were killed and nine wounded when separatists attacked their van in Gwadar. In 2009, China shelved its $12 billion plans to build an oil refinery and an oil city in Gwadar due to security concerns.
China’s involvement in the region’s politics can only be bad news. In 2012, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution that asked the United States to support Baloch separatists as freedom fighters. The resolution was tabled, but if the United States ever does decide to involve itself in the conflict, China’s strategic interests will be at risk.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, poses another threat. Last year, an intelligence report from the Balochistan government revealed that ISIS had begun aligning itself with splinter groups of mainstream militant organizations. Balochistan borders Iran’s restive Sistan-e-Balochistan province, where anti-Shia groups such as Jundallah are active and may be linked to sectarian outfits in Pakistan. As the possibility of violent escalation grows, Pakistan looks like a weaker and weaker key to China’s energy dominance.