A Military Face of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative in Pakistan

By Rachel Lietzow

Announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has sought to invest heavily in infrastructure to connect China to international markets through more efficient trade routes [1]. The initiative has two primary components: the “Belt,” a land route which retraces the path of the ancient Silk Road, connecting Western China through the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang Province to Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, and the “Road,” also known as the Maritime Silk Road, which provides China with access to Southeast Asia and North Africa through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Whether or not the BRI would be successful has been debated by skeptics, who see the costly $1 trillion plan as a debt trap for the numerous lesser developed countries that fall along the route [2]. Aside from dubious financial feasibility, the BRI has also received negative feedback internationally for the political and power-balance related implications that the initiative may have. Though the Belt and Road Initiative was launched upon the idea of regional cooperation and filling in the infrastructure gap, many critics in the United States and around the world perceive the BRI to be less of a pro-globalization, win-win program, and more of an aggressive move of China “to secure spheres of economic influence and control” [3]. As China has been increasing its military control in countries along the Maritime Silk Road, more recently it has similarly linked the Belt and Road Initiative to the military, but this time in Pakistan [4].

A central piece of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative lies in what has been titled the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The series of projects involves an investment of approximately $62 billion and is designed to stimulate growth by a China-Pakistan partnership in improving infrastructure—including railways and highways—, advancing research in scientific and technological fields such as space, and guarding the trade corridor with collaborative navy forces [5]. The New York Times revealed the newest development in the CPEC project, hinting at a secret military aspect included in the Chinese-Pakistan plans. New York Times correspondent Maria Abi-Habib discusses an undisclosed proposal agreed upon by Chinese officials and Pakistan’s Air Force, and confirmed by the Ministry of Planning and Development. The proposal, through the creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), “would expand China and Pakistan’s current cooperation on the JF-17 fighter jet” [6] [7]. The SEZ would allow Chinese-designed jets to be crafted in Pakistan factories, along with “navigation systems, radar systems and onboard weapons.” [8]. As this proposal falls under the CPEC project in the Belt and Road Initiative, its militaristic component seems to support the United States and India’s initial suspicions that China constructed the BRI with underlying motives to challenge the current power structure and obtain military, economic, and political hegemony.  

Amidst a year filled with the Trump Administration’s critical words towards Pakistan and the withholding of $1.3 billion in military aid, the recent news does not bode well for the United States in terms of predicted Pakistan compliance [9]. Under the CPEC project of the Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan now can receive desperately needed aid from a source besides the United States, while offering China access to a prime location for an industrial base, a trade route connection to Urumqi, and a critical military alliance that can counterbalance India’s influence in South Asia.

Rachel Lietzow is a senior at the University of Kentucky, where she is studying Chinese, International Economics, and International Studies.

Works Cited

[1] Marston, H. (2018, May 31). The US Needs a Reality Check on China's Belt and Road.
     Retrieved December 21, 2018, from https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/the-us-needs-a-reality-

[2] Bulloch, D. (2018, April 18). After A Brief Silence, Skeptics Of China's Belt And Road
     Initiative Are Speaking Up Again. Retrieved December 21, 2018, from

[3] Kolo, V. (2018, February 19). 'Belt and Road': Imperialism with Chinese characteristics.
     Retrieved December 21, 2018, from https://chinaworker.info/en/2018/02/19/16985/

[4] Marston, 2018.

[5] Toppa, S. (2018, November 14). Why Young Pakistanis Are Learning Chinese. Retrieved
     December 21, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/11/

[6] Abi-Habib, M. (2018, December 19). China's 'Belt and Road' Plan in Pakistan Takes a Military
     Turn. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from

[7] Niewenhuis, L. (2018, December 20). Belt and Road and military jets in Pakistan | Politics
     News. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from https://supchina.com/2018/12/20/belt-and-road-

[8] Abi-Habib, 2018.

[9] De Luce, D. (2018, March 26). Is Trump Ready to Dump Pakistan? Retrieved December 21,
     2018, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/26/is-trump-ready-to-dump-pakistan/

Image Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP)