Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Islamabad today for two days of consultations with his Pakistani counterparts. Massive infrastructure projects are on the agenda, including coal and renewable energy plants, as well as a large highway project that will include pipelines and fiber optic cables leading to the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan. Islamabad is also looking to secure the purchase of up to eight Chinese submarines during Xi’s visit. If the sub deal is finalized, observers are not counting on it to be publicized during Xi’s visit.
Indian policymakers are no doubt watching the visit closely. Beyond the submarines, the development of Gwadar could give the Chinese navy an important foothold in the region. Last week, China secured a 40-year lease to operate the Gwadar port itself, which has been in development for years and could be completed as early as this year.
Pakistani officials have suggested the project could hit $46 billion, but at least one source has pegged the looming deal at $28 billion. In either case, the investment dwarfs the previous U.S. investment project in Pakistan, which totaled $7.5 billion in 2009 and is considered a “massive failure” by some analysts. The United States has contributed $31 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2002, but most of it has gone to bolstering security services.
The project faces several important obstacles: securing such a massive build in the restive Baluchistan province could prove challenging, and China’s own record of runaway corruption in its infrastructure projects across Africa and South Asia is likely to rear its head here as well, given the amount of money involved. Nevertheless, this is a consequential move by China—the first of many no doubt to come in the neighborhood.