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3 - In and out of the shadows: Pakistan-China trade across the Karakoram Mountains

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 November 2020

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Summary

Abstract

This chapter describes overland trade between Pakistan and China since 1969 until the present. Overland trade between the two countries takes place over the high-altitude Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan’s mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan region to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China. The Karakoram Highway is popularly described as a contemporary silk road; this idea has been reinforced by the 2013 announcement of the One Belt One Road initiative, which includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In this chapter, I explore the relationship between a documented, regulated silk route trade and its shadows; shadows take the form of traditional pathways between the two countries that are no longer used, as well as the undocumented movement of licit goods and smuggling of illicit substances.

Keywords: border trade, informal economy, high mountain regions, Pakistan-China, shuttle trade

Introduction

The Khunjerab Pass (4693 metres), the Pakistan-China border crossing in the Karakoram mountains, is increasingly represented in Pakistani electronic media, such as online advertisements, blogs, and social media. The legibility of this place, until recently considered remote, is new. It dates back fifteen years and is primarily due to two landmark state initiatives: the 2006 opening of the Sost Dry Port along the border, and a long-overdue upgrade, between 2008 and 2013, of the Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan and China's westernmost Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Both initiatives were undertaken to streamline overland trade with China. More recently, the crossing at Khunjerab gained importance following the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was announced in May 2013 and became one of six economic corridors under President Xi Jinping's signature One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Pakistan now sees itself as pivotal to Chinese plans for global connectivity; Pakistani leaders have described relations between the two countries as ‘higher than the Himalaya, deeper than the ocean, sweeter than honey, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight’ (The Nation, 2010).

The Karakoram mountain range, on the western terminus of the Himalayan mountains spanning South Asia, is the most glaciated region outside extreme latitudes (Hewitt, 2006). The Karakoram is located in Pakistan’s northernmost administrative region, Gilgit-Baltistan. The region is sparsely populated, with its approximately two million residents clustered along the Karakoram Highway.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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