The implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan is a matter of domestic and regional concern. The CPEC, which is one of the largest and most advanced development schemes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is increasingly turning into a factor that has the potential to influence the power dynamics in South Asia and beyond. This is gaining momentum since it becomes obvious that the CPEC is not only a program to promote economic growth but also serves as an instrument for Beijing to extend its strategic influence from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. This has severe geopolitical implications for the region’s states, the existing security architecture, and particularly for the distribution of power in the extended area. It is argued here that the BRI serves Beijing’s strategic and geopolitical interests rather than the economic ones of the ‘beneficiary countries’. Here, the CPEC serves as the most remarkable showcase for the rapidly growing security and military dimension attached to Chinese international development projects. As evidence for latter rationale, the following indicators should be highlighted:
During the last couple of years Pakistan started to invest in its security sector apparatus and created several new armed units within the military and civilian police domains. To begin with, there was creation of the new Special Security Division (SSD). The SSD consists of regular armed forces and elements of the ‘Civil Armed Forces’ (CAF) which is a federal paramilitary force within the Ministry of Interior. Besides the Pakistan Army (PA), also the Pakistani Navy (PN) has assembled new forces for CPEC protection such as the ‘Task Force-88’ (TF-88) for the seaward security of the Gwadar port and protection of associated sea lanes against both traditional/conventional and non-traditional threats. The PN also raised a Coastal Security and Harbour Defence Force to tackle security threats along the coast and stationed a Force Protection Battalion (FPB, consisting of Pakistan Marines) at Gwadar for the protection of Chinese companies and workers. Furthermore, Pakistan implemented several measures to enhance its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), for example through the establishment of a ‘Joint Maritime Information and Coordination Center’ (JMICC) and ‘Coastal Watch Stations’ (CWSs) as well as stepping up collaborative maritime security practices not only with regional navies but especially with the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Besides the aforesaid security measures focusing mainly on Gwadar and the larger maritime component of the CPEC, the central authorities also boosted their police capacities to ensure law and order along the corridor.
Another crucial component of the security dimension of the CPEC is the intensification of the military and defence cooperation between both countries. These are reflected in an increasing number of joint exercises of all armed services branches, such as the latest sixth bilateral naval Sea Guardians-2020 in the northern Arabian Sea to address security challenges such as maritime terrorism and crime. These joint naval drills strengthen China-Pakistan security cooperation and offer Beijing greater access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The PA and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) increased their military-to-military cooperation via the bilateral land-based ‘Warrior joint exercises’. Whereas the respective air forces improve their collaboration via the Shaheen joint exercises.
In this context, it is important to be aware that not only state actors are contributing to the exponentially growing securitisation and militarisation of the CPEC. Moreover, there are clear indications that the contracting of Private Security Companies (PSCs) to ensure a safe environment for the CPEC will further add to the expanding security sector. Considering the fact that, despite the massive drop in numbers of terrorist attacks, Pakistan’s armed forces and police are still not able to guarantee the protection of Chinese assets, one should expect the increased use of Chinese PSCs in Pakistan (most likely in the form of local joint ventures due to certain legal restrictions). This phenomenon will gain significance with the current start of the second phase of the CPEC aiming at the industrialisation and modernisation of Pakistan via the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) with the Gwadar Free Zone as a centrepiece. A comparative perspective with similar projects in Africa strongly indicates that Chinese entrepreneurs will not rely solely on local security forces and start to employ private security contractors from China.
That said, it becomes obvious that the CPEC possesses not only a strong but also an expanding defence cooperation. Here there are reports about the potential creation of a possible second Chinese Overseas Military base in Jiwani (the first one opened in Djibouti in 2017) or the military use of Pak Port Gwadar. These concerns, shared by Pakistan’s neighborhood as well as broader sections of the global security community, are gaining momentum, given the growing supplies of military hardware and advanced technology by Beijing. The latter has enabled Pakistan to emerge as an exporter of weapon systems, like the JF-17 fighter jets. In this context, one should also point out that Beijing granted Pakistan access to its BeiDou Navigation System, including its military use. This will not only end the reliance of Pakistan’s military on the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS) but also offers - combined with control over the new, solely land-based fiber optic cables as well as the Smart City projects established within the CPEC framework - largescale opportunities for the surveillance and monitoring of the country’s citizenry. Last but not least, Beijing is actively incorporating Pakistan into Chinese-initiated and-guided international security mechanisms like the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism/QCCM (a counterterrorism cooperation and coordination mechanism involving the militaries of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation/SCO (a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance).
In sum, one can assert that the economic purpose (and validity - after an assessment of the first phase of the CPEC) of the whole project remains highly questionable. This raises the question about the real motives behind this ‘development scheme’ and the increased Pakistan-China joint military and defence activities in the broader context of the CPEC. Approaching this puzzle, it becomes evident that the CPEC is increasingly a predominantly security-oriented, geopolitically, and strategically-driven endeavour. As such, it enhances the rationale of critical observers stating that the CPEC is part of Beijing’s aim to establish a new international order more conducive to Chinese national interests. This order will not lead to more cooperation between the great and major powers but instead to severe security competition in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean region, and Indo-Pacific. Against this backdrop, the CPEC bears the inherent threat of reinforcing existing fault lines in South Asia, between the US and China, as well as between India and China. Furthermore, it also becomes evident that Beijing strives for a hegemonic position in the Asian hemisphere as part of its vision for a new multi-polar, global order.