Pakistan has portrayed China’s $46 billion investment in the country as an antidote to its sluggish economy and a major boost to national unity and security.
Instead, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 2,500 kilometer network of infrastructure and energy projects, now faces substantial threats of sabotage and growing opposition from among the country’s underdeveloped minority provinces.
The head of an influential parliamentary committee recently said that Gwadar, a new port on the Arabian Sea in southwestern Balochistan Province seen as a lynchpin for CPEC, is a “non-starter.” Chinese and Pakistani planners expect it to be a major regional trade and transit hub linking the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang with the Middle East.
Senator Taj Haider, the chairman of the Pakistani Senate’s special committee on CPEC, says Islamabad in unlikely to make Gwadar operational by the end of next year.
During his recent visits across Pakistan, Haider discovered that instead of focusing on building Gwadar, Islamabad is engaged in upgrading its existing major port: Karachi. The commercial hub of 20 million people sits more than 600 kilometer south along the Arabian Sea in the neighboring province of Sindh.
In another startling revelation, Haider says the so-called “western route” -- a rail and road network that connects Gwadar through the western provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan -- is not being built.
“Gwadar is a non-starter. Work on Gwadar port, which is the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and western route, has not even begun,” Haider said. “Development work under the economic corridor is only being carried out in [the eastern province of Punjab] and Sindh.”
He says this speaks for Islamabad’s priorities in developing CPEC.
“Four deep-sea berths have already been constructed at the Karachi port, and another six are in the pipeline,” he said. “Islamabad promised to construct a four-lane motorway [connecting Gwadar to the rest of the country], which hasn’t started yet. But here [in Karachi], an eight-lane motorway is under development and may be completed in a few months.”
CPEC has been mired in controversy since Islamabad and Beijing inaugurated the project in April 2015. Leaders from the minority provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have been pushing the dominant province of Punjab to resist manipulating CPEC to further strengthen its stranglehold over resources and institutions in Pakistan.
Their protest prompted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to meet the leaders of most major political parties in January to reiterate that “working on the principle of one corridor, multiple passages, the western alignment for CPEC will be constructed on priority, with a timeline of two years and six months, i.e. July 15, 2018.”
But nine months on, politicians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are crying foul.
On October 3, the secular Awami National Party protested against the alleged changes in the CPEC’s western route.
“Currently, there is nothing in the corridor project for the Pashtuns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, or the tribal belt,” party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan told supporters. “The original agreed route of the corridor passes through northern parts of Balochistan and southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, some changes have been made to it by the federal government and thus leaves the two provinces on the receiving end.”
Former lawmaker Sanaullah Baloch says that for the past 70 years the marginalized Baluchis have been promised much but have received little. “The result at the end of these 70 years has been more than 81 percent poverty, 70 percent illiteracy, and the highest level of malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality in Asia.”
In a recent article Baloch argued that despite providing Pakistan with most of its gas and mineral resources such as gold and coal for decades, Balochistan has received little. “How will a meagre share in CPEC -- $600 million out of $46 billion -- bring miracles in the life of the Baluch?” he asked.
He says that without massive investments in human development, roads, rail, and industrial infrastructure, Balochistan is even unlikely to benefit from the development of Gwadar. “How will a strategic deep-sea port and an airport [in Gwadar] change the life of a poverty-hit population?” he asked.
“Since the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, they have proved at every step that only Punjab is Pakistan,” said Sardar Akhtar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party. “We really don’t matter much. They [the Punjabis] only need our resources, and that is their real concern because they see themselves as the real owners.”
Late last month, Allah Nazar Baloch, a former physician who now heads a major separatist guerrilla faction, the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF), said his fighters will continue attacking CPEC.
"We are attacking CPEC every day because it aims to turn the Baluch population into a minority,” he said. “It is looting, plundering, and taking away our resources."
In an unprecedented move, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan issued a statement to reiterate that the western route is still part of the corridor.
It said Beijing and Islamabad were working on the principal of "one corridor with multiple passages," aiming at directly benefiting the socioeconomic development of Pakistan.
“CPEC is for Pakistan as a whole and will bring benefits to all Pakistani people including the people from the western parts,” the October 5 statement said.
Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s minister for planning and development, reiterated his position that the game-changing investments should not be used for political point-scoring.
“After clarification from the Chinese Embassy, there should be no ambiguity over this issue,” he said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.