China's challenges in Pakistan: Can CPEC surmount the Balochistan hurdle?
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been dubbed the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the second forum of which concluded last month in Beijing. Undoubtedly, CPEC is one of the major spokes in the larger concept of President Xi Jinping that seeks to link China with markets and natural resource centres globally. Formally launched in April 2015 during Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan, CPEC heralded a new era of economic ties in a bilateral relationship that had been dominated by security and political cooperation.
Gwadar in Balochistan is the critical element in the entire project because without an outlet to the sea, the CPEC will dissipate into the wilderness of the province. Though there are 12 projects slated to come up in the area and China has converted some loans into grants, 91 per cent of the income generated from the Gwadar port for the next 40 years would be appropriated by China. Apart from getting financial and management control of the port, Beijing has also proposed that the yuan be given legal tender in Gwadar’s free trade zone. Though Pakistan has not accepted this for the moment, it is indicative of Chinese long-term intentions.
The Baloch have been alienated by the manner in which the development of Gwadar is taking place. The elected representatives for Gwadar have lamented that the opinions of local leaders and of the people of Gwadar have been disregarded in CPEC–related decisions. Disaffection is fast increasing as the locals and especially the fishermen fear displacement from their homes and their fishing areas due to the development of the port.
Moreover, the Gwadar region faces severe water shortages due to lack of rain and inadequate storage, making economic activity difficult. In 2017 drinking water had to be shipped to Gwadar on a naval ship and even otherwise, water is supplied to the town in water tankers. Stories in the media indicate that during burglaries water containers are invariably stolen.
The greatest fear that the Baloch have is of being converted into a minority due to the influx of the Chinese. Such fears were confirmed in a report of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) that stated that given the current rate of influx of Chinese nationals into Balochistan, the local population of the area would be outnumbered by 2048.
In an interview, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) and former chief minister, warned, ‘Take my word for it, CPEC will turn out to be no different than the East India Company. The Chinese, with their huge population and all, will make Pakistan look not like a country, but China Town.’
Moreover, as the example of Hambantota in Sri Lanka shows, the Chinese would be looking to take over on long-term lease, areas that they consider strategic, in lieu of accumulated debts. Gwadar and its surroundings would be one such area. Another major issue for the Chinese is that their expanding economic footprint in Pakistan has raised serious concerns about security threats to its interests and personnel. There are an estimated 30,000 Chinese nationals living in Pakistan, besides a large number visitors, estimated at about 70,000.
Security issues came to be highlighted from about 2004 when Chinese engineers and workers started being directly attacked. More recently, on 11 August 2018, a bus carrying 18 Chinese engineers was attacked on the Quetta-Taftan Highway by a suicide bomber. On 23 November 2018, militants of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi.
Apart from Baloch nationalists, groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and IS have all threatened to target Chinese nationals as a warning over China’s treatment of Muslims.
The Chinese are clearly aware of the dangers to CPEC posed by the restiveness among the Baloch and the Islamic groups, who have made no bones about targeting them. According to a February 2018 report in Financial Times, China had been in touch with Baloch separatists for more than five years to protect their investments in CPEC. Though, as expected, these reports were denied, yet what it underlined was perhaps the growing scepticism of the Chinese in Pakistan’s ability to handle the Baloch insurgency. Such fears continue to persist despite the Pakistan army raising a 12,000- strong Special Security Division (SSD) under a major general.
To make use of the opportunity that CPEC offers, Pakistan would have to ensure that it is implemented in consultation with the local people and provinces most affected. Else it would only aggravate social and political divisions, fuelling tension and potentially conflict. As Pakistan’s Daily Times warned: “CPEC will be a failure if it fails to accommodate all concerned parties, especially Gwadar’s local population. The project cannot be executed successfully if the local populace views it with mistrust”.