A new international trade route in Southwest Pakistan opened up in late 2016 by a Chinese ship exporting goods to the Middle East and Africa. The route that is being developed by the Chinese in Pakistan is expected to make huge amount of economic gains for the country.
When China decided to develop the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015, the idea was to deepen economic ties with Pakistan and ensure security for China’s larger ‘One belt, one road’ project. Involving an investment of $46 billion, the project is the means by which China can ensure the quickest availability of energy resources from the Middle East by avoiding the Malacca straits and the South China sea.
Over the year, however, the project has witnessed a large number of obstacles, especially resulting from the poor economic conditions in Balochistan which forms the bulk of the area in which the CPEC is being developed and the opposition to the project meted out by the locals.
What is the CPEC?
The CPEC is one of the most important projects of the ‘one belt, one road’ project initiated by China that aims to connect the Asian economic giant with Europe and Africa, thereby making the country a bigger player in world economic affairs. Consisting of a number of road, rail and pipeline ventures, the CPEC connects Xinjiang in Northwestern region of China with Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian sea, going over the Pakistan occupied Kashmir territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and the disputed region of Balochistan. Reportedly, the port at Gwadar will have the capacity to manage 19 million tons of crude oil which will be directly transferred to China.
The project had been conceived much earlier in the 1950s, but failed to achieve completion over the years due to political instability in Pakistan. Its present form was announced by the Chinese government in November 2014 and work started off in April 2015. As a multi-million dollar project, the CPEC is reported to have brought Pakistan twice the amount of foreign investments the country received since 2008.
How does it benefit Pakistan?
In the words of Pakistani leaders, their relationship with China is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”. For Pakistan, the Chinese investment in the south-western region of the country is a game-changer for the economy, especially considering the fact that despite the high concentration of mineral resources in the region it has remained the poorest district.
The $46 billion promised by China will be used in generating close to 17,000 megawatts of electricity at a cost of $34 billion through coal, nuclear and other renewable energy projects. The rest of the money would be utilised in building up transport infrastructure. According to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the development of the Balochistan province could make Pakistan a regional hub of economic activities.
Why is it opposed by Balochistan?
All of Pakistan is not unanimous in its claims of high gains being made from the Chinese initiated project. The strongest opposition to the investment comes from the disputed territory of Balochistan that has historically had strained relations with the government of Pakistan.
The province of Balochistan is the largest district in the country and its importance lies in the high concentration of natural resource. Despite this, it has remained the poorest province in Pakistan. The conflict with the Pakistani government is rooted in a feeling of nationalism that stretches back to the 1948 when the province was allegedly made a part of Pakistan on unfair terms. That apart, there is also a feeling of political and economic isolation that the government of Pakistan has not been able to erase in all these years.
The strongest grievance of the Baloch nationalist groups against CPEC is that benefits from developmental projects like these are almost always, unfairly distributed, majority of the employment opportunities and profits going to non-Balochs, especially Punjabis. The Baloch Republican Party, a separatist group, recently made its opposition to the CPEC very clear, stating that an economic pact between China and Pakistan would lead to both countries utilising the resources of Balochistan that belong to the locals. They further believe that an increase in military operations and abductions are a direct result of the pact between Pakistan and China. There is also the fear that the initiation of the project would lead to the influx of a large number of non-Balochs, thereby demographically outnumbering the Balochs in the region.
Abductions of activists and even civilians have for long been a problem in Balochistan. Allegedly, they are carried out by Pakistan’s military forces in order to subjugate the separatist movement. As per the International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (IIVBMP), a protest group formed by families of missing people in Balochistan, between 2001 and 2013, about 18,000 people have gone missing in the area, out of which around 2000 have been killed.
In the wake of the thriving separatist movement in Balochistan, the Pakistan government has vowed to increase military surveillance in the area in order to quell Chinese fears. Reportedly, a sum of $250 million has been promised by the Pakistani government for the sake of building a new security force in the region.
A result of these new arrangement has been a strengthening opposition to the project by the Baloch nationalist groups. Protest movements are being held outside Balochistan as well. In August this year, separatist groups staged a protest outside the Chinese embassy in London. Baloch activists have been particularly reaching out to India, asking the country’s media and bureaucracy to raise the issue of atrocities against Baloch nationalists onto the international stage. In September, a group of Balochis along with Indians held a joint protest outside the United Nations headquarters in New York asking for UN intervention in order to protect the Balochis.
What are the challenges being faced by China?
For the Chinese, security in the province of Balochistan has been the biggest concern. Reportedly, Baloch separatists, especially those from the Baloch Liberation Army, have been abducting and killing foreigners, particularly the Chinese. In May 2014, a Chinese tourist had been kidnapped from Dera Islmail Khan, close to the balochistan border. In March 2015, five oil tankers carrying fuel from Karachi, reportedly for a Chinese company was set on fire. The Balochistan Liberation Army was accused for the attack. Further disruptions to the infrastructural projects are being anticipated by other Islamist groups and splinter factions of the Pakistani Taliban. The prime motive of these acts is to make the Pakistan government appear incapable of providing adequate security measures.
However, the Pakistani government has been continuously assuring the Chinese state of security to their personnel and assets in the region. Although the CPEC is being funded by China, at the initial stage of the project, only Pakistani personnel would be involved in the construction. Chinese personnel are expected to come in after the first stage, by which time the Pakistani government has promised to take requisite measures to curb militancy.
How is India responding?
India is not exactly welcoming towards the Chinese funded project, mainly because of the fact that it crosses through the Pakistan occupied part of Kashmir. Earlier in September, PM Modi expressed his concerns over CPEC to President Xi Jinping of China at a bilateral meeting between the two leaders. He is reported to have told the Chinese president that both countries need to be ‘sensitive’ towards their respective strategic interests. A response to the Chinese development of Gwadar is the bilateral agreement between India and Iran to develop the Chabahar port.
In the recent past though experts on South Asian politics have been ringing alarm bells that any act on the part of India that explicitly opposes CPEC might lead to strained relations between India and China.