Sunday, February 17, 2008


A short news blurb that recently appeared from the Associated Press of Pakistan about the Korakoram Road (also spelled Korakorum):

ISLAMABAD, Feb 16 (APP): President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday launched the project to expand Korakorum Highway, aimed at improving trade and commercial activity particularly with neighbouring China. The 335 kilometre long road from Rai Kot to Khunjrab will be widened by 7.3 metre. The project worth 30 billion rupees will be completed by December 2011.

At the Khunjrab pass, the road reaches an elevation of 16,002 feet (4,877 m), making it the highest paved international road in the world.

Also referred to as National Highway 35 or N35 in Pakistan, and as the Friendship Highway in China, the road was a joint project of the governments of Pakistan and China, and was completed in 1986 after twenty years of construction. That places the beginning of construction in 1966, at a time when Pakistan was worrying Washington by taking an independent course in international politics.

Washington wanted to isolate Communist China, and wanted Pakistan closely allied with the West via CENTO and SEATO to stop the spread of communism. Pakistan, naturally, had its own concerns, chief of which was India, and Pakistan saw a strategic alliance with China, India's other main Asian antagonist, as a useful counterweight to American support.

The Korakoram Highway is, in many ways, very symbolic.

Winding its way from Islamabad and Rawalpindi northward, the Korakoram Highway skirts areas subject to Indian control as it makes its way to the Chinese border. From there, it skirts the Afghan and Tajik borders as it winds towards China's interior.

The current project to widen the road, part of a development package for the Federally-Administered Northern Areas, is expected to have significant impact in Pakistan's north:

Korakorum Highway up to Khunjarab Pass would be widened and upgraded and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) would be connected through a new road network. The National Vocational and Technical Education Commission (NAVTEC) would open vocational and technical education centers in Northern Areas for skill enhancement of local youth and to enable them get jobs in various fields. He [President Musharraf] also announced to upgrade Rehamanpur and Dagoni areas to sub-divisions, so as to meet the requirements of population. The people of Northern Areas, who were neglected in the past, were now being empowered with increase socio-economic development as well as through financial and administrative authority. He said the two new hydel projects - a 16-megawatt and a 14-megawatt project - costing Rs 2.8 billion would be constructed at Naltar near the 18 megawatt hydel project, which was constructed with the finance and technical assistance of China and recently started generating electricity. The government would encourage the setting up of fruit processing industry in the Northern Areas to exploit the economic potential of this area.
Road infrastructure has a profound and enduring impact on the economic fabric with pivotal role in propelling country’s economic growth on swift velocity. The most effective and sustainable way to address the scourge of poverty is to link backward and far-flung areas with the developed areas. Rs 520 billion will be spent on rehabilitation and upgradation of highways and motorways in the country during next five years. Karakoram Highway (N-35) a vital road linking the Northern Areas of Pakistan with the rest of the country, provides connection between Pakistan and China and the link is extended up to Kyrghstan and Kazakhstan through a treaty called Traffic and Trade Framework Agreement. President Gen Pervez Musharraf has inaugurated construction of Rs 8 billion Lowari Tunnel project on July 8, 2007, which would connect the landlocked and most backward mountainous Chitral District with the rest of the country throughout the year. The Northern Areas Central Development Working Party (CDWP) approved Rs 160 million for the construction of various roads in Skardu district.

This connection to Central Asia, specifically via the Korakoram Road, is interesting, in that it helps open up Central Asia to trade, without making the Central Asian Republics dependent on the goodwill of Russia or Iran, or the stability of Afghanistan -- as such, this is of particular interest to Tajikistan, which is snugly wrapped along Afghanistan's northern border (see CIA World Factbook: Tajikistan for general information and map).

A February, 2000, news article helps address the significance of infrastructure development in this region:

[Presenter] A signing ceremony of an agreement to build the Murghob-Qulma road [Murgab-Kulma - eastern Tajikistan, towards the Chinese border] has taken place at the Tajik Ministry of Transport. Our correspondent has the details.

[correspondent] Representatives of the Tajik presidential staff, the extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Turkey to the Republic of Tajikistan, Ayvin Edel, and representatives of the National Bank, the Ministry of Economy and the Finance Ministry of the republic attended the signing ceremony of this important document. The vice president of the (?MTES) firm, (?Meka Akkova), and Tajik Minister of Transport Fariddun Muhiddinov signed the contract to build this road, which is an important one for the Republic of Tajikstan. It is Turkey's MTES firm that will continue the construction of the Murghob-Qulma road, because it won the international tender among six similar companies. As [word indistinct] in his address, Akkova said that the MTES company had fullfilled many projects both in Turkey and other countries and they all were fulfilled to a high standard.

[passage omitted: the contract is very complicated as the road lies 3,000 metres above sea level]

[correspondent] The construction of the Murghob-Qulma road will begin as early as March this year, Tajik Minister of Transport Muhiddinov told us. He also noted that the money needed to complete the work, 12m dollars, had already been received, and 1.5m of it has been put to use.

[Muhiddinov] [passage omitted: the road will be finished this year] The main thing, the end we are pursuing, is to take this asphalted road out the Korakorum highway and further to China, Pakistan, and, let us suppose, the port of Karachi and India. That is, we already have independence, an independent exit from Tajikistan straight towards the Korakorum highway. The main financing issue has been settled and the remaining issues- we are ready to build the road.

[correspondent, passage omitted: Tajik production assocations will work on the construction; work has been estimated to take six months] The road is very important for our country' economy. The exit to the Korakorum highway via the Qulma pass will bring our republic out of isolation and then Tajikistan will obtain colossal opportunities and reserves for bringing the economy to a proper level, and for developing it further.

Source: Tajik Radio first programme, Dushanbe, in Russian 0400 gmt 26 Feb 00

The Pakistani infrastructure improvements are being financed by the PRC:

BEIJING, Mar. 23 (APP): China Development Bank (CDB), a top-ranking financial institution assured its support to Pakistan, undertaking major infrastructure projects, aimed at strengthening mutually beneficial cooperative partnership between the two countries.

The bank will provide financing for projects in sectors like energy, construction of dams and roads, up-gradation of Korakorum highway, oil and gas exploration, moderation of railways and urban development, CDB’s sources said here Thursday.

The sources told APP that Bank's Governor Chen Yuan has personally assured financial support to Pakistan, when he met President General Pervez Musharraf during his recent visit to China. Chen termed his talks with the President as very productive.

The next three paragraphs from the article on Chinese financing are interesting:

CDB's financing projects are usually larger and more comprehensive than the ones of commercial banks. CDB reported a net profit of $2.8 billion in 2005, a record high, and an increase of 31 per cent from a year earlier. At the end of 2005, the bank's total assets reached $234.3 billion and total lending portfolio grew to $213.8 billion, up 22.9 per cent.

According to the sources, CDB appreciates the impressive economic performance of Pakistan, with all economic indicators showing positive trends. The Bank received very favourable response from the Chinese companies to undertake joint ventures in Pakistan in almost all sectors of the economy.

Bank was looking forward to establishing a long-term and mutually beneficial partnership with Pakistan, the sources added.

As alluded to above in the news article about road upgrades in Tajikistan, the Korakoram Highway upgrade, significant by itself, is nevertheless part of a broader plan, reaching all the way to the development of new port facilities in Gwadar, as the Wikipedia article touches on:

China and Pakistan are also planning to link the Karakoram Highway to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends up to Rawalpindi.

Why is this highway symbolic?

Politics can be shifty. Internal American politics alone can be shifty, but when coupled with a dynamic international political scene, American foreign policy can seem downright schizophrenic.

Pakistan was an ally, as we tried to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Pakistan played a particularly important role in supporting the jihad against Moscow in Afghanistan, which in turn helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this time, Washington for the most part overlooked development of Pakistani nuclear weapons -- I plan some posts on this topic.

Afterwards, however, the US dramatically shifted course. With the Soviet Union collapsing, the US in some ways forgot about Afghanistan, which helped allow the rise of a regime that gave a home to Islamic terrorists there. Across the border, Pakistan was now no longer a favored US ally, its development of nuclear weapons overlooked; rather, Pakistan was now isolated, with instability in Afghanistan to its north, and ongoing tensions with India, whose armored columns could strike into Pakistan in a crisis, and cut the nation in half.

Of course, with 9/11, that all changed again, didn't it?

The Korakoram Highway, built under Benazir Bhutto's father, seems to symbolize Pakistan's pragmatism, given the dynamics of international politics.

Perhaps if our foreign policy were a little wiser, with more of a long-term outlook on matters, there might be more stability and peace in distant parts of the world.

For that, though, we need an electorate that is interested in these things daily, and not just after hijacked aircraft crash into skyscrapers.

I leave you now with another Wikipedia image: a truck winding its way along the Korakoram Highway, near Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.

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