During his official visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ a global infrastructure development project aimed at connecting the world along the ancient Silk Route. This initiative involves the construction of roads, railways, ports, dams, power plants, and other essential infrastructure, with China planning to invest in 150 countries worldwide. Two significant initiatives under the Belt and Road Initiative are the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Corridor (CKU) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Just as the CPEC is viewed as a 21st-century extension of the historic Silk Road, the CKU corridor also holds a similar status. These transportation corridors are integral parts of the overarching Belt and Road Initiative. With declining demand for Chinese goods in advanced economies, the Central Asian market has become crucial for China.
While these corridors aim to enhance regional connectivity, economic cooperation, and cultural exchange, concerns have been raised regarding the potential impact on the influence of the CPEC. The Pakistani government has expressed concerns that the operationalization of the CKU corridor could diminish the relative importance of the CPEC, as it provides Afghan traders with an alternative route. Afghan traders would prefer using the CKU route over the much longer and more challenging CPEC route. This diversion of trade and investments could potentially undermine the significance of the CPEC and impact Pakistan’s ability to maximize the benefits of its exclusive partnership with China through the project. Pakistan is also concerned about the shift in energy dynamics and resources. The Central Asian region is rich in resources such as natural gas and oil, which China has been tapping into for some time. The operationalization of the CKU corridor could affect the energy cooperation aspect of the CPEC, potentially reducing China’s reliance on it for energy supplies.
The slow growth of CPEC-related projects has been quite evident since its launch in 2015. Over the years, the pace of progress has been sluggish, indicating significant challenges and obstacles faced by the initiative in Pakistan. Islamabad’s concerns surrounding the CKU corridor and its potential impact on the CPEC highlight the complexities of regional connectivity and economic cooperation. Growing terrorism, persistent political instability and a struggling economy present a trifecta of challenges, which Pakistan can’t seem to overcome. The country finds itself burdened with an unprecedented level of debt, placing it on the precipice of financial default. Consequently, Pakistan is currently unable to afford new infrastructure loans, which are crucial for boosting its economy and facilitating the timely completion of CPEC-related projects.
The insecurities and unrest that are rising from this situation are driving a wedge between Pakistan and its self-described ‘all-weather friend’ China. China’s extensive investments and support through the CPEC were expected to foster a close and mutually beneficial relationship between the two nations. However, the current financial constraints faced by Pakistan have strained the partnership and created a sense of uncertainty and discontent. Islamabad’s apprehension of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Corridor is proof of that same discontent with Beijing, which has made “vague and broad commitments” lacking any concrete actions.