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Pakistan Army Chief Seeks To Sell Chinese Deal In Restive Balochistan

A Pakistani soldiers guarding port cranes in Gwadar, a seaport in Balochistan.

Khuzdar has no hospital and no commercial flights into its airport, but government officials who recently visited the desert city in southwestern Pakistan are touting it as a future hub of commerce.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s new army chief, was among the dignitaries who visited Khuzdar, a city of 400,000, to proclaim the benefits of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for southwestern Balochistan Province.

In recent months, there has been considerable debate about exactly how much ordinary residents will benefit from the $57 billion network of energy projects, roads, and a deep-water port linking China with Pakistan’s coast. Critics maintain that Chinese banks and companies will gain the most.

At a seminar in Khuzdar, however, Pakistani officials assured students, officials, and citizens that CPEC would bring prosperity to the country’s largest, least populous, and poverty-plagued province.

"Balochistan unfortunately had been neglected in the past for a host of reasons, but not anymore," Bajwa told the gathering at Khuzdar's Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology.

Heading the army is one of the most powerful positions in Pakistan, where the military not only controls security but also operates a vast business empire and often dictates key points of foreign policy.

Many students in the audience were skeptical about whether CPEC would benefit the province.

Balochistan has rich reserves of natural gas, copper, and gold, and has long complained that the government takes more than it gives back. A long-running ethnic separatist rebellion has taken this dissatisfaction to another level.​

Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa looks on during a seminar on Chinese investment at The Engineering University of Khuzdar on January 5.
Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa looks on during a seminar on Chinese investment at The Engineering University of Khuzdar on January 5.

A recent study by the Applied Economics Research Center estimated CPEC would create 700,000 jobs in Pakistan, and a Chinese newspaper recently placed the number at more than 2 million. But in Khuzdar, officials skirted questions about how many CPEC jobs would come to Balochistan.

"I want to know what share Balochistan will get, and what the other provinces will get, and on what basis?" a female student asked during a question-and-answer session.

A national official, Ports and Shipping Minister Hasil Khan Bizenjo, also voiced concern about how much Balochistan will benefit.

"We just want to make sure that under CPEC the same thing does not happen to us as 1952, when gas was found in Balochistan and yet in 2017 there is no gas in Khuzdar," said Bizenjo, leader of a major political party in Balochistan and a speaker at the conference.

Other officials, however, spoke of Khuzdar as a center of trade and industry.

Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri said Khuzdar would be one of 29 Special Economic Zones under CPEC that would "greatly benefit the people of the city."

Although Khuzdar does not connect the provincial capital, Quetta, to the port city of Gwadar, officials highlighted its significance as the province’s second-largest city and a potential transit point between Quetta and Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city and economic hub.

"We believe Khuzdar has the ability to attract a great deal of local and foreign investment," said Anwar Ul-Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the Balochistan government.

The Khuzdar university's vice chancellor, Mohammad Amin, said he hoped CPEC could bring investment and jobs because being located a four hours' drive from Quetta makes it difficult to attract even faculty at the school.

"No one is coming because there is no infrastructure here as yet," Amin said of the university. "We will offer any PhD who accepts a job here a brand-new Toyota Corolla and a 100 percent pay increase."

Reporting by Saad Sayeed for Reuters