On July 12, Pakistan’s CPEC Chairman, retired Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa, announced the commercial launch of a new segment of the China-Pakistan Fiber Optic Project (CPFOP), a major project that, once completed, will connect China to Pakistan’s strategic port cities of Gwadar and Karachi via the Khunjerab Pass, Islamabad and Rawalpindi (where the country’s army headquarters are located). The segment recently launched links Islamabad to the Khunjerab Pass. Although the contractors for this segment connection are unclear, the first phase of the project, announced in February 2019, which linked Rawalpindi also to the Khunjerab Pass over 820 kilometers, was implemented by Huawei.
The next phase of the project will extend this fiber optic connection to Karachi and Gwadar and is reportedly about to commence. Gwadar is being developed with significant Chinese investment and is widely speculated to be serving dual-use military purposes
Importantly, the CPFOB traverses into Pakistan from China via the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, where some reports have claimed, Pakistan has handed “de facto” control to the People’s Liberation Army. China has reportedly been building dual-use tunnels and roads throughout the region since 2016. Most recently, in 2020, China’s construction of the controversial Diamer-Basha hydropower dam in Gilgit-Baltistan raised controversy (particularly within India), for these and other reasons. The fiber optic cable, and the strategic cities it intends to connect, adds additional strategic significance to the region, enhancing its importance to Beijing and Pakistan.
As the cable represents Pakistan’s only land-based internet infrastructure, it has been touted as a means to bring improved internet to the north of the country, but also as an alternative to the country’s present dependency on sea-based internet connections that enter primarily through the country’s southern port cities.