The Hudson Institute has an article this week that provides an excellent summary of disquieting events in Pakistan’s remote northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan. Why should we care? Chinese troops. Regional analysts fear Gilgit-Baltistan is becoming a gateway for China to exert military and political influence in Central Asia. Exhibit A in their assessment is the presence of up to 11,000 Chinese troops in the province. (This MEMRI summary has additional details.)
The Chinese military deployment is of concern for two principal reasons: its potential relevance to the coalition effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak), and its importance to Beijing’s project of bisecting Asia with a Chinese-built, Chinese-controlled transport corridor. Such a corridor would benefit commerce and travel, but would also be of unique significance to the Asian balance of power.
China is very unlikely to take any overt military action against coalition forces in Afghanistan. But China and Pakistan could well make common cause there, backing or opposing local factions to induce an outcome they regard as favorable. The visit of a high-level Chinese military delegation to the AfPak border in October – sponsored by Pakistan – got little coverage in Western media, but raised hackles in the Asian press (see the MEMRI summary). Notably, NATO was kept well away from the event.
It would hardly be unprecedented for China to arm factions that are fighting the US or other foreign powers. The relative political concord between NATO and Russia in Central Asia is no doubt a motivating factor for the Chinese, who don’t want to see their Asian rival profiting from a NATO-guaranteed settlement. But Chinese objectives in Central Asia go beyond the disposition of Afghanistan. The troops in Gilgit-Baltistan have been engaged in tunneling projects and road- and rail-building. These efforts will certainly affect the opportunities for commerce through Central Asia, but they will also help China achieve the strategic advantage of spanning Asia’s temperate zone and major waterways, which neither Russia nor India does.
This advantage is useful beyond commerce, and even beyond the race for oil and mineral resources. Improved roads and rail into northern Pakistan, along with a series of mountain tunnels, constitute military assets, forged through a region sensitive for both India and Russia. Given China’s improvements to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, a project launched in 2007, this infrastructure, when completed, would give China a strategic land link with the Indian Ocean – on the other side of India. With a Pakistani alliance and an advantageous outcome in Afghanistan, China would be in a position to bypass and flank both her continental Asian rivals, trumping them or holding them at risk in multiple ways.
China’s Central Asian gambit is in an early stage at present. The mere idea of road and rail improvements is not something to be resisted, but the US must still take note that China, whose intentions may come into conflict with ours, has moved troops into Pakistan’s territory at a time when our relations with Islamabad are worsening. Failing to reckon with such interrelated developments was one of our chief vulnerabilities during the Johnson years of the Vietnam War.
Regarding China and strategic advantage in Asia, we might take a cue from the old strategy of Great Britain. It would be as problematic for the US to see one nation achieve ascendancy over Asia as it would have been for Britain to see one nation achieve it over Europe. Britain addressed that problem by two methods: promoting a balance of power on the continent and being a friend (if a selective one) to nationalist movements and the establishment of smaller nations. America has no wish for a career of conquest or occupation in Asia, but discouraging the consolidation of an empire there is both central to our security and consonant with the promotion of democracy.