But that is not to say that China does not have strong interests here. Most important, Pakistan serves as a check on the rising influence of India, China’s main rival for Asian supremacy.
Pakistan’s location is also strategically important to China. A Chinese-built deep-sea port in the southwestern Pakistani city of Gwadar offers Chinese companies a potentially faster route to natural resources — including energy supplies — in the Middle East and Africa. It also gives China a possible shortcut for transporting goods from its western regions to foreign markets and for extending its growing naval influence into the Arabian Sea.
But the port, which opened for business in 2008, has been a disappointment. Although then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hailed it as the next Dubai, Gwadar has attracted little business. When Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar floated the idea last month of China building a naval base at Gwadar, Beijing politely declined.
Much of the problem is Gwadar’s isolation: The port is in Baluchistan, a remote and relatively lawless province that lacks a viable road network.
In the long term, China hopes to link Gwadar with the Karakoram Highway, another major Chinese investment in Pakistan that has yielded few dividends. The highway, which is the world’s highest paved road, is an engineering marvel that slices through 15,000-foot-high mountain passes but attracts sparse traffic: A landslide last year buried a miles-long stretch of the road under water, and any goods being transported between Pakistan and China must now make part of the journey by boat.
Still, China is upgrading the road, which enters the country near its western border in the restive and underdeveloped Xinjiang region. Long-term plans call for the addition of an oil pipeline.
“We should have capitalized on the China opportunity far earlier. We had a highway into China in the 1980s. We could have had the first-mover advantage,” said Sakib Sherani, a former top Pakistani finance official.
But Sherani insists that it is not too late: With China focused on developing its western regions, Gwadar and the Karakoram Highway could fit in perfectly with those plans. “There’s a much bigger business opportunity for us, if we can get our act together,” he said.
Zaman and others in Abbottabad, connected to the Chinese border via the highway’s vertiginous turns, certainly hope so. City leaders dream of the day when Chinese trucks come barreling down the road laden with cheap manufactured goods and head back bearing granite, precious stones and other minerals mined from the surrounding hills.
“People will have job opportunities, business opportunities. And we’ll collect a lot of taxes,” said the white-bearded Zaman, who retired as mayor last year but remains a force in local politics. “Why do we like China? Because they don’t want to make Pakistanis slaves like the Americans do. They just want to do business.”