China could pay high price for pursuing CPEC ambitions in Pakistan

BRUSSELS: Recent kidnappings, drive-by shootings and bomb attacks in Balochistan and in other parts of Pakistan have led a concerned China into believing that it might have to pay a high price for prioritizing the development of the Gwadar deep-sea port, located 300 miles west of Karachi, as part of its ambitious desire to gain commercial and naval influence further west.

An editorial published in the web site, while acknowledging China’s strategic ambition to extend its maritime power across the Indian Ocean through its so-called string of pearls”, a ring of ports around the Indian Ocean, including in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, the Seychelles and Pakistan, has cautioned Beijing about the challenges it faces in pursuing its commercial objectives in Balochistan such as terrorism, a separatist rebellion and the region being a focal point for the smuggling of guns, fuel and drugs.

Acts of violence over the past few months, including the murder of two Chinese teachers, has left Beijing in no doubt about these risks.

Pakistan has sought to cast the murder of these teachers as a one-off, saying they were targeted because they were missionaries, not because they were Chinese. The Chinese foreign ministry has vowed to support Islamabad’s battle against terrorism and Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong insists the relationship with Pakistan has “attained new heights, which will be further strengthened in days to come.”

For Pakistan, the nation-wide investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project are a vital component of national regeneration.

According to the editorial, “The scale of the Chinese investment, however, means Pakistan has to negotiate a domestic political minefield. Many in Balochistan feel aggrieved that they will never see any of the cash from Beijing, which would either be seized by the other provinces or would turn into profit back in China. It is these discontented Baloch who pose the most stubborn threat to China’s plans.”

Balochistan forms 45 percent of Pakistan’s landmass, but has only six percent of the population: some 13 million people. It is Pakistan’s least educated, least connected, and most deprived. It is also plagued by political violence.

Chronic neglect and discrimination have also fueled a violent separatist insurgency that has targeted military bases, railway lines, school teachers, and migrants, whom many believe threaten the livelihood of the native Baloch.

As far as Gwadar is concerned, much of the Chinese investment is centered around it, and Baloch fishermen have been barred from entering the port area, and told to do something else to earn a livelihood.

Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the Baloch government’s spokesperson, was quoted by Politico, as saying that the administration will not be callous towards these fishermen, and adds that it could take six months to a year for the situation to be a win win for both Pakistan and China.

The Baloch government has projected that Gwadar will soon emerge as a modern trade and tourist hub, but residents and politicians counter this claim by saying that when there is a lack of drinking water and electricity, how can one visualize the port as becoming the next Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong.

Baloch separatists accuse the country’s military, and particularly the paramilitary Frontier Corps, of conducting extrajudicial killings and “disappearing” opponents. Official statistics indicate that more than 4,500 bodies of forcibly disappeared people were recovered between 2010 and 2015.

For China, a strengthened Pakistan helps muscle out India, which has long been Beijing’s main foe across the Himalayas. The two countries fought a war in 1962 and soldiers again clashed along the Himalayan border this week.

According to the German Marshall Fund, a strong Pakistan would “distract India on its western border and keep it tied down in South Asia.”

The Pakistan state is trying to meet the security challenge. In addition to its regular and paramilitary forces of some 650,000, Pakistan assembled a 15,000-strong force called the Special Security Division specifically instructed to protect the Chinese-backed projects and the people working on them. The size of this special security force could be doubled as work on the projects intensifies.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has reassured the Chinese ambassador that Beijing has no reason to worry about its USD 62 billion CPEC spending plans, and committed that he would “personally supervise the speedy completion of all the projects under CPEC.”

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