Facility in disputed Kashmir could be completed nine months before its December 2021 deadline
Workers arrange a welcome billboard featuring the Chinese and Pakistani flags in Islamabad in this file photo. A Chinese company is making good progress on the development of a hydropower plant for Pakistan in Kashmir. Photo: AFP
China is racing to finish one of the biggest hydropower projects in Pakistan ahead of schedule, yet its location in the long-contested region of Kashmir will draw ire from India.
Construction of the 720MW Karot power station on the Jhelum river began in December and looked set to finish nine months ahead of its December 2021 completion date, a first for a Pakistan hydro-project, said Qin Guobin, chief executive officer of the state-owned China Three Gorges South Asia Investment Ltd.
The company has put in place an aggressive strategy to cut the project’s financing costs.
“For us, Pakistan is a strategic market,” Qin said at the site. “If we managed to complete it earlier we can save financing costs and make it more competitive.”
Pakistan’s energy demand is expected to grow by 6 per cent to 35,000MW by 2024 as its population of more than 200 million people grows along with the economy. For more than a decade, it has been struggling to overcome daily power shortages that have left industry and residents in the dark.
China has stepped in to meet some of those shortages, financing projects worth more than US$50 billion in an economic corridor that runs through Pakistan. The route is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to connect Asia with Europe and Africa with a web of ports, railways and motorways links for trade.
Three Gorges’ focus in Pakistan is clean energy and it has a US$6 billion portfolio in three hydro and three solar power plants. The Karot project is in the Pakistan-administrated part of Kashmir, which India and Pakistan both claim and have fought two wars over since independence in 1947.
India’s foreign ministry said its views on “Pakistan’s illegal occupation” of Kashmir was “a matter of record”.
“We have objected, they have proceeded nevertheless,” said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. “This has been going on since the 1960s and 1970s, when they built the Karakoram highway” that links Pakistan with China through the disputed territory, he said.
China has a neutral stance on the Kashmir dispute, said Zhao Gancheng, director of the Centre for South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
“The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ cannot be delayed or sidetracked by the territorial disputes,” he said.
Relations between China and India hit a recent low during a dispute between a three-way junction between Bhutan, China’s Tibet and India’s Sikkim, which was resolved with both sides standing down in August.
More broadly, New Delhi is wary of Chinese investments in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while Beijing is irked by India’s lack of support for its infrastructure and trade initiative.
India’s concern did not bother Qin. “It’s a political issue and not the concern of a private investor,” he said.
Pakistan considers the hydropower site a national security priority. It is dotted with army pickets and plain clothes security officials. None of the Chinese staff can leave the camp office without registering his or her name at the main gate. Of the 2,070 workers at the site, 750 are Chinese.
The concern is being taken seriously by both sides. Pakistan had created a special force of 15,000 troops to defend the Chinese projects and that number might be doubled, according to people with direct knowledge of the plans, who asked not to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Yet risks remain after two Chinese nationals were killed in southwestern Balochistan in June. Islamic State claimed their murders.
The stakes are high for Pakistan, with the planned power generation projects potentially adding US$13 billion to its economy in the next seven years, according to an International Monetary Fund report published in July.
Pakistan’s hydropower generation potential is an estimated 40,000MW, although the existing installed capacity was only 7,116MW in the 2015-16 financial year, according to the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority’s latest report.
Three Gorges is now eyeing the contract for the construction of a 4,500MW Diamir-Bhasha power project in northern Gilgit-Baltistan and northwestern Chillas district.
“Pakistan’s total installed capacity is equal to one big Chinese city, like Shanghai,” Qin said. “That’s not enough.”