The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar in China with Gwadar Port in Pakistan took another step forward last week, with the announcement of preliminary studies into a railway between the two hubs.
The 1,800km-long rail link will run through Islamabad and Karachi, as well as disputed territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Zhang Cunlin, director of Xinjiang's Regional Development and Reform Commission, announced this project, which will be enormously expensive considering the mountainous Himalaya terrain the railway must pass over.
There are other latent challenges too, with Pakistani militants conducting brazen attacks against key infrastructure such as airports.
A rail line, which has been in the offing for some time, will add to an earlier deal to improve the existing Karakorum roadway (which will include 200km of tunnels), as well as a proposed pipeline that will allow oil and gas offloaded at Gwadar to be pumped all the way to Xinjiang Province in China.
This USD18 billion corridor, supervised by the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor Secretariat inaugurated last August, will form a major trade gateway between the Middle East/Africa and China.
Chinese infrastructure investment in Pakistan includes Gwadar Port managed by China Overseas Ports Holding since February 2013. An international airport will also be constructed at Gwadar, and a fiber-optic cable will be laid from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi.
Pakistan is not the only beneficiary. China financed Sri Lanka's second international airport as well as Hambantota Port. China is funding Chittagong Port's modernization and a new deep-water facility at Sonadia to meet demand for cargo facilities.
The National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), currently chaired by Xu Shaoshi, oversees Chinese involvement in these projects. The monolithic NDRC came in from criticism in March 2013 after it mandate was expanded rather than reduced by the National People's Congress.
Major state-run corporations and banks (e.g. China Development Bank) are the primary agents executing and funding these contracts.
Such visionary and large-scale infrastructure projects on its periphery have India concerned about potential security implications.
Is China deliberately containing and encircling India?
Indian academics and media quickly seized upon the 'string of pearls' theory that China was establishing a series of ports from which to dominate the Indian Ocean region. However, this notion is not backed by any substantive evidence to date, although this is not to say China could exploit such nodes in future years.
Instead, the revival of the 'Silk Road' belt and many other infrastructure projects are perhaps better seen in an economic-security light. China feels particularly vulnerable in that domestic factory floors rely on a regular and secure flow of raw materials and energy resources.
Much of its oil now travels 12,000km by sea through the Malacca Strait chokepoint, for example. In the event of conflict with neighbors and the USA, it would be very easy to place a tourniquet on this arterial lifeblood of the Chinese economy, since the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not yet have the strength to deploy long range to fully protect economic interests.
For a long time, therefore, China has sought to diversify and secure its economic lifelines. Hence the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will allow goods to travel directly from the Arabian Sea to China. The same can be said of rail links and oil/gas pipelines from Central Asia to China. As further evidence of Chinese concern about its sea lines of communication, in 2005 a leaked US Department of Defense report claimed China was willing to underwrite the building of a new canal across Thailand's Kra Isthmus, which would dramatically cut shipping routes by 1,000km.
The Mekong River is another important trade route for China, linking the country's southeast area with Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Chinese trade with Mekong countries multiplied eightfold from 2000-10.
As another example of China's economic interests, an 11,800km railroad that connects Xian to Europe has been operating since 2011. The cost of transporting goods this way is just a fifth of air cargo, and it is 20 days faster than by ship.
The Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe International Railway is thus a cost-effective continental land bridge. These types of projects should alleviate concern that China is only interested in militarily containing India.
In fact, China is greatly concerned about its own internal stability, which is inextricably linked to continuing economic prosperity. If unemployment rises, people are likely to become restless, and this is something the government fears immensely.
China's advancement is patchy too, with its coastal areas prospering whilst inland provinces have been largely bypassed by economic growth. China's new and proposed corridors linking remote provinces with neighboring countries provide an avenue to bolster prosperity in its far-flung interior regions.
As well as solidifying transport links with Pakistan, China is pursuing another trade route – the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. Beginning in Kunming, and stretching to Kolkata, it will encompass transport, energy and telecommunications links. The four countries had been discussing it since 2009, and Premier Li Keqiang said it would "advance neighborhood diplomacy" and "speed up" infrastructure links with neighbors.
China also wants a Maritime Silk Road, an idea first proposed by President Xi Jinping last October. This ambitious oceanic trade route will link China and Europe via stop-off points in Southeast Asia, India and Africa. In May, China provided initial seed money of $1.6 billion for this project.
China clearly has the capital to pursue such grandiose plans. It is not only funding startling levels of domestic infrastructure, but innumerable projects worldwide. Indeed, Beijing has allocated increasing amounts of cash to official development assistance, the amount nearly tripling in the 1999-2007 period alone.
Western countries have largely channeled foreign aid into social or health sectors in underdeveloped countries, while China is happily cashing in on infrastructure development projects. This is evident in Africa. Of course, the reason is not altruism on China's side either – for example, in return for USD10 billion in investment over the past 20 years, 70% of Sudan's oil goes to China.
China clearly has a policy of securing energy and resource supplies in return for infrastructure assistance. It equates to an effective form of soft power diplomacy too, where China can gain more influence around the world through the activities of its state-owned corporations.
There is no doubting that improved rail, road and port links in places like Pakistan benefit China militarily. However, such links could be easily severed by Indian airstrikes in any conflict, and it is difficult to imagine sovereign nations allowing China free use for military purposes under the current security climate.
Tibet, in Chinese territory, is the place where infrastructure projects have increased the PLA's capacity the most. The PLA has worked hard to forge a five-airport network, along with a series of forward landing grounds. It constructed a 5,500m-long runway at Qamdo Bamda, for example, creating the world's highest airport.
A key Chinese goal has been to establish reliable transport routes onto the Tibetan plateau. Highways have been upgraded for obvious military use, as has a network of axial roads leading towards the Indian border. The PLA maintains the 1,930km-long Qinghai-Tibet highway and 1,080km Geermu-Lhasa oil pipeline.
Up to 80% of Chinese military supplies to Tibet use highways. However, the 1,956km-long Qinghai-Tibet Railway that opened on 1 July 2006 has enormous bearing on the military balance. Nevertheless, these road and rail lifelines are extremely fragile and susceptible to Indian intervention during wartime.
Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defence, noted that Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30MKI fighters deployed at Tezpur give India an advantage over the PLA Air Force in Tibet. "For controlling the airspace above Tibet, the IAF enjoys an advantage against China in the quality and quantity of third-generation fighters, as well as its capability for rapid response. The Su-30MKI fighters deployed at Tezpur will be able to launch precision attacks upon the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, while it can also launch aerial raids upon any Chinese air force bases within the territory of Tibet."
China's infrastructural reach is growing. It needs to, to feed its insatiable economic engine.Ends AD