As experiences go, the short time I spent in 1970 in the KKH (Karakoram Highway) Flight (4 Army Aviation Squadron) under the command of Maj (later Maj Gen) HUK Niazi, SJ in the high mountains was one that far surpassed one’s expectations and lives on in the memory for more reasons than one.
Piloting an Aloutte-3, the BMW of the air at that time, the sheer beauty of the landscape was breathtaking. Notwithstanding the extreme weather conditions that does not really set in till November, navigating the high peaks and valleys of the Karakorams is always a hazardous venture. Every morning was a new adventure, combining an infinite trust and confidence in both the machine and oneself. New places to visit, new faces to add to your friends, for a young man it was an exultation of enjoying freedom in a totally different dimension. Passing over the wreckage of the Russian MI-6 was a constant reminder of the inherent dangers flying in such different terrain at high altitudes, the downside hit me only a few months ago with the tragedy at Naltar.
Working with the soldiers of the two Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Divisions constructing the KKH north of Gilgit was the icing on the cake. During early morning one could see them walking from their base camp in their hundreds in their distinctive grey uniforms to the roadheads. Blasting their way through the sides of the mountain invariably accidents happened boring into the rocks and tapping in the explosives manually. Heli-lifting their casualties to the base hospitals was not a pleasant job, the bloodstains on my flying overall a red badge of their courage and fortitude. The sacrifice and the commitment of the thousands and thousands of nameless Chinese soldiers who worked on the KKH is beyond description, what are the right phrases to praise those who died attempting to make the road possible? One rarely witnesses such a display of duty and sacrifice, it was a privilege to be in the company of such brave and selfless men.
Why were the Chinese determined to build this road from “nowhere” to Pakistan? Those who had seen Urumchi and Kashgar than would have not wrong to believe that this was a futile exercise. “You Pakistanis are stupid, you think in terms of 5-10 years, we Chinese think 50-100 years ahead”, said my interpreter. Repeated ad nauseam by my very good friend Ambassador Zhang Chun Xiang who himself served as an interpreter on the KKH in the 70s after graduating from Beijing University, 28 out of his 45 years in the diplomatic service were spent in Pakistan. After serving as the Chinese Consul General in Houston, Texas, he returned to become the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2005. With Urdu more fluent than most of us, get on his wrong side and he can curse freely in Punjabi.
Forty to fifty years later, the dynamics of geo-politics have come to synchronize with the economics of today’s times. From Sinkiang Province across the Karakorams into the plains of Pakistan to Gwadar the vision of the road is slowly but surely coming to its full fruition. While the eastern alignment is the govt’s preference, the Army is determined making the western alignment possible by the 870 kms venture undertaken in a crash program by the FWO.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is critically necessary, far more than any other economic initiative. A lifeline of consequence for Pakistan’s destiny, it is a game-changer that can lift our people out of poverty and the misery that goes with it. A perennial critic of any govt, one must laud the present regime for ensuring that a dream is being converted into a reality. Acknowledging the single-minded determination of Mian Nawaz Sharif as the driving force, Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal must be given kudos alongwith some of his cabinet colleagues like Sartaj Aziz for pushing CPEC for all its worth. Despite having a great need for this road-based opening to the world, for some reason the Chinese showed no enthusiasm of pursuing the CPEC during the PPP tenure, delaying it by 8 years.
To give my views about the likely security issues on what the Chinese call the “One Belt, One Road” project, I was invited by the “National Institute for Strategic Communication” (NISC) to Beijing. Over the three days I had the unique honour of explaining the security threat perception along the CPEC alignments, both the eastern and western ones, to a select audience that was clearly enthusiastic about investment opportunities along the economic lifeline. A part of Peking University, NISC is a Policy Planning Body which harmonizes the various organs of the Peoples of Republic of China on a common platform for common purpose. Mr Zhang Chongqing, Standing Deputy Chairman of the China Group Companies Association (CGCA), hosted the well-attended Session last Friday. Including more than 200 companies, mostly public but also private, CGCA is dedicated to enhance their capacities for commercial business, both within China and outside. Speakers included Dr Hu Yuandong, Head of UNIDO in China, Ms. Yu Dan Secretary General CGCA and Ma Yang Xiaodong of NISC.
Concluding a number of meetings on Saturday, for the panel discussion on Sunday at Beijing University my hosts were Dr Manli Cheng, Dean NISC and Dr Weijia Wang. Both gave extensive briefing on the CPEC. Ambassador Zhang was invited to give his personal recommendations, followed by a lucid and crisp briefing from Ms Pen Yong Chin Director Overseas Operations China State Construction Engineering Corporation. Mr Liu Dianfeng of China Mobile Pakistan spoke with conviction about the ZONG success story in Pakistan and potential Chinese investment thereof.
China’s trade with India has increased manifold but the persisting mutual suspicions about the geo-political relationship remain. While previously the Chinese were never vocal, Indian’s opposing the CPEC tooth and nail has aroused their anger. The Chinese made it clear that they would spare no effort or tolerate any opposition to making the CPEC a success. By South Asian standards of decision-making, the speed with which both CGCA and NISC decided to open representative offices to function in Islamabad and Karachi (and a few days thereafter in Lahore) in less than 30 days immediately was staggering, a clear indication of the Chinese commitment.
One can spout lip-service rhetoric till Kingdom Come, finally we are seeing practical realization of our dreams. Our economic destiny can be force-multiplied by Pakistan’s “Gold Coast”, it is indeed fortunate that it coincides with the Chinese single-minded determination of making “One Belt, One Road” successful.
The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at email@example.com