Pakistan, China’s soft power and Gilgit-Baltistan

China’s rise is a source of optimism for many in Pakistan.

By Senge H. Sering

WASHINGTON, DC: The Beijing Olympics of 2008 was essentially China’s show of growing soft power. It helped China demonstrate her collective strength and emerge as a disciplined nation, methodically executing mega cultural events. While China’s rise does worry some circles in India and the west, it, however, emboldens smaller nations like Pakistan, which see her northern neighbor as the high-value security guarantor.

For China, soft power means using coercive economic levers interwoven with cultural and political engagement to gain “a more prominent position and role in competition for comprehensive national power.”

In this regard, Pakistan is a success model of China where her soft power is working; where she is being liked, respected, trusted, and admired among the government circles. Between 2009 and 2011, a 10% increase in public sentiment in Pakistan was seen in favor of China. No wonder, that both regimes define the relationship as ‘Friendship higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey, dearer than eyesight.’

China’s rise is a source of optimism for many in Pakistan who see her as a counter-weight to India and USA; or a big brother, which elevates Pakistan’s strengths and helps expand geo-strategic influence in the region. It is Pakistan’s faith in China that Tariq Fatemi, the adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign relations sees China as the only country that qualifies as a true friend of Pakistan. For Pakistani experts, China is a developing country which believes in rising together; which is benevolent and believes in enriching and harmonizing the neighborhood. For them, China’s development strategy is peaceful and cooperative in which one poor country is helping the other poorer brother.

At the same time, Pakistan is returning the favor by helping China build long term geo-strategic relations with the Muslim world. For example, China was the only non-Muslim nation to attend the 2007 Karachi expo, dubbed as the Muslim Business and International Gala (Muslim-BIG), which received attendance from African, Asian and European Muslim nations.  It is reassuring for the regimes of both countries that many Muslim political experts perceive China’s governance and economic model – when compared to western democracy and capitalism – relatively compatible with the concept of Islamic democracy and Islamic socialism.

In July this year, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, visited Beijing and signed agreements seeking Chinese investment in mineral exploration, dry ports, cable and fiber optic, oil and gas lines, road and rail building, telecom, industrial development and dam building. As a result, China will invest U$18 billion in a 200-kilometer long tunnel that will ensure year round rail service from Xinjiang and Qinghai to the Pakistani and Iranian ports; something that will revolutionize inter-regional travel and freight carriage.

Most of these projects will be built in Gilgit-Baltistan, a Himalayan region contested by both India and Pakistan. Access to the Pakistani ports through Gilgit-Baltistan will help China stockpile reserves to offset future shortages and avoid dealing with multiple countries and diverse transit fee structures.

It will reduce burden on already saturated ports in East and South China Sea and provide alternate safe and short land access to western and central China. Overland access to the Middle East and Afghanistan through Gilgit-Baltistan will help China mitigate threats arising from adversary presence in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. As we speak, Gilgit’s Khunjerab Pass is gaining the same importance which the Khyber Pass once possessed for the Russians and the British; and therefore, is rightly labeled as the Khyber Pass of China.

But the media-image of China as benevolent developing brother trying to help the other poorer brother is not what common people see in places like Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistani Kashmir and Balochistan, where the Chinese companies are exploiting minerals and denying jobs and revenues to the resource-owners.

For example, Dr. Siddiqa while challenging the claim of an all-weather Sino-Pak friendship states that “the Chinese are competing with the Pakistanis in the mining industry denying jobs and revenues to the locals… In fact, the Chinese prefer their own people than building human resource potential in Pakistan.

Further, government entities like the Oil and Gas Development Corporation (OGDC) are not allowed to compete for drilling bids against the Chinese companies. This is despite the fact that the OGDC has better technical capacity than its Chinese counterparts… The dumping of Chinese goods has almost destroyed the small and medium-sized industry in Pakistan. Chinese manufacturers have even started to make traditional shoes called khusas or jutees, which does not bode well for small and medium enterprises… Nonetheless, the government tends to curb these complaints and sacrifice interests of local business and industry to keep a military-strategic relationship intact.” Similar competition is faced by local farming industry where Chinese fruits and vegetables have flooded urban centers of Pakistan. Further, Pakistan railway claims to suffer “colossal loss of billions of rupees due to supply of faulty locomotives by Chinese firm” forcing the ministry to cancel the agreement and blacklist the Chinese company.

The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan is altogether different. Today, 38 years after the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), Pakistan still ranks 6th and last among the trading partners of Xinjiang. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan do not receive transit fee from the KKH or revenue from the custom check posts. So far, less than 4% of total Sino-Pak trade has occurred over the KKH, of which 87% of trade balance remains in China’s favor.

The situation in the mining sector is even worse. According to Northern Areas Mineral Development Corporation, five hundred million rupees worth of gems benefit more than 100,000 individuals annually. However, a ten-year ban imposed on local mining companies in 2010 deprives the locals of revenue while the Chinese and other international companies continue their operation under the Northern Areas Mining Concession Rules of 2003. Locals claim that the federal government secretly awards licenses to foreigners without the permission of local communities and without awarding royalties.

According to Gilgit-Baltistan Metals, Minerals & Gems Association, 35 tons of uranium rich deposits were smuggled to China from Karkalti village in 2011. In places like Chupursan, Chinese companies work illegally without lease or licensing. Further, foreign companies receive tax break but do not contribute towards the region.

This has caused clashes between the locals and the Chinese. For example, in 2011-12, 120 people of Gilgit-Baltistan were charged for sedition for opposing the Chinese mining projects. In one incident, police killed one person from Ghizer while many others were arrested and tortured for trying to protect their resources and livelihoods. Locals also demand compensation for the damaged irrigation networks, dwellings, and cultural heritage as the Chinese blast their way through valley after valley.

The government of Pakistan including the military has a responsibility towards its citizens, and their interests must come first. China’s mineral extraction projects could fulfill the financial needs of some military generals, federal employees and politicians but will come at the cost of permanent damage to Pakistan’s mineral, farming and manufacturing industry. (Global India Newswire)

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