A Roundtable Discussion with Lieutenant General PK Singh ON CPEC

Lt. General PK Singh PVSM, AVSM (retd.) led a roundtable discussion convened by the Georgetown University India Initiative at the Mortara Center for International Studies. The discussion was titled “CPEC: China’s Strategic Gateway to the Indian Ocean” and it focused on the $55 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China’s Eurasia trade-centric One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Lt. General PK Singh believes that CPEC serves Chinese strategic interests by providing China access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Other visiting experts present at the discussion were from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the German Marshall Fund, the Hudson Institute and Georgetown University faculty.

Gen. Singh clarified that India is not against connectivity or bilateral deals but feels that any connectivity should lead to higher levels of trust and diffuse national rivalry, and should not add to regional tension. In fact, the connectivity across South Asia is nothing new, but the Partition (of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, after the British left) distorted it. Gen. Singh stated that India cannot ignore territorial sovereignty issues  and that such moves should be undertaken as part of a larger consultative process. He calls CPEC a strategic move on the part of the Chinese, as it contributes to the vision of a ‘maritime sea road’ that provides China access to the Arabian Sea and Gulf.

Gen. Singh largely focused on the port of Gwadar (which was sold by Oman to Pakistan in 1958) and questioned the for selling the port to Pakistan, given its immense strategic value. Today China wants access to the port under CPEC. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, Gen. Singh contends that CPEC has three Sino-centric layers - hard critical infrastructure, the soft economic, financial and trade infrastructure, and the geopolitical layer. Given that Gwadar is not on the Circum-Equatorial Maritime Route (shipping lane), it would be not be economically viable for a commercial liner to stray so much off-course to dock at Gwadar. The usage of phrases like “open ocean protection” (from the previous “offshore waters defense”) in China’s defense white paper indicate that China’s ambitions are more centered around gaining influence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Gen. Singh also invoked deals China made with Sri Lanka, such as the financing of the Hambantota port, when he alluded to what financing under CPEC could look like. He said that non-payment of the loans could likely result in a loss of infrastructure, as equity would need to be transferred to China. Gen. Singh said that CPEC is less about boosting exports and more about utilizing excess industrial capacity, resulting in internal liability changed to foreign diplomatic assets. The fact that Gwadar is the only interest-free project and is receiving 2 percent of CPEC funding is telling, as that could mean that China has motivations that are not merely economic.

Gen. Singh also emphasized that China is pushing Pakistan to legally create a province in Gilgit-Baltistan, as that would prevent the potential billion dollar Chinese investments in the region from being jeopardized. The contested Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region is currently under Pakistani control and is important given that it is the only land border Pakistan shares with China. India states that the Gilgit-Baltistan region is illegally occupied by Pakistan and China and due to preexisting sovereignty issues, this makes the situation worse. However, he stated that a country rejecting to recognize a bilateral agreement is not unprecedented in the South Asian context, given that on November 27, 1959, Pakistan said that it did not recognize the India-China agreement over withdrawal of troops from Ladakh.

In the discussion segment that followed after his remarks, Gen. Singh responded to the question of what countries like the United States can do. The first step is that China should be told to be transparent about its motivations (if Gwadar is to be a military base, then its status should be transparent) and the second step is for adhere to international standards.