China Ascendant: $46 Billion Spent on ‘New Silk Road’ in Central Asia

AP Photo/Greg Baker

Up here on what is often referred to as the world’s highest paved border crossing, there still are not many signs that billions of dollars in investment — and goodwill — could soon flow across these peaks in the Karakorum Mountains.

At an elevation of more than 15,000 feet, yaks far outnumber cargo trucks crossing over Pakistan’s border with China. And just one border agent stands guard on the Pakistan side, when he hasn’t ducked into a steel shelter to avoid wind-whipped snow.

A few miles down the mountain into Pakistan, where the air is a bit thicker and the summer sun melts the snow, Mohammad Noor fulfills a generations-old family tradition: escorting more than 1,000 goats and sheep to summer pasture. This year, however, he keeps his footing by walking on a new section of Karakorum Highway, recently built by China. And with each step, Noor says, he feels as though he’s heading into the future.

“The young people now are more educated and don’t want to look after sheep and goats,” said Noor, 44. “The future is Pakistan and China.”

Noor was standing on China’s new gateway to the far-distant Arabian Sea, the spine of an ambitious project by Beijing in a country that has a history of frustrating the well-intentioned plans of others. Americans, disillusioned by decades of unfruitful involvement in Pakistan, are skeptical that China will have any more success here.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping is intent on extending China’s influence in Asia, confident that his country can avoid the old pitfalls and achieve a new economic and political predominance in the region.

Here, trucks carrying Chinese goods could soon begin a 1,700-mile descent through Pakistan, to a saltwater port where the freight will be put on ships bound for markets in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The journey will embody China’s efforts to re-create the old Silk Route that for centuries linked Asia to the Middle East, and brought wealth to both. And along the way, China will try to use its “Belt and Road” economic development strategy to lift Pakistan toward prosperity. It plans to spend $46 billion here on an array of projects.

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