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Pakistan's Minority Provinces Oppose Changes To China Trade Route

File photo of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (center L) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (center R) observe a signing ceremony.
File photo of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (center L) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (center R) observe a signing ceremony.

A series of major Chinese-financed infrastructure and development projects expected to change Pakistan's economic landscape has run into controversy.

Leaders from two of Pakistan's minority provinces have called on the country's dominant eastern province of Punjab to refrain from changing the route of the China-Pak Economic Corridor.

The 2,000-kilometer rail and road link will connect western China to Pakistan's newly developed Arabian Sea seaport, Gwadar.

Politicians in the underdeveloped provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan worry the proposed changes to $45 billion worth of projects will divert the much-needed roads, rail networks and accompanying industrial zones from their constituencies to prosperous Punjab, the key powerbase of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

With its nearly 100 million people, Punjab is home to most of Pakistan's industry and agriculture and claims a lion’s share in national resources and institutions. But most of the country's resources originate in the remaining three provinces and mountainous territories adjoining India, China and Afghanistan.

In Pakistan's nearly seven-decade history, leaders in these regions have often accused Punjab of exploitation and stealing their resources. Punjab's history of domination has now prompted Islamist and moderate politicians in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to unite to stop Punjab's leaders from diverting historic foreign investment from their violence-riddled homeland.

Approximate routes for the Pakistan China Economic Corridor. This map is for illustrative purposes only.
Approximate routes for the Pakistan China Economic Corridor. This map is for illustrative purposes only.

"If they change the route, it will mean that Nawaz Sharif is the prime minister of Punjab alone and he is not interested in being seen as the leader of the entire country," said lawmaker Aftab Sherpao, leader of the Qaumi Watan Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "We will press this issue in parliament because it promises economic prosperity and jobs for our people."

Sherpao says the proposed link through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the shortest route between the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang and Gwadar in Balochistan.

Senator Afrasiab Khattak, leader of the Awami National Party, agrees.

He says the original proposed route goes through the Baloch-populated regions of Balochistan after originating in Gwadar, a Baloch city. Khattak says the route goes from Balochistan's capital, Quetta, in the south to Swat in the north and then through districts inhabited by the Pashtuns in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

"We will strongly resist diverting this vital route into Punjab and will not allow anyone to force changes," he said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government also opposes the proposed move. "We are asking the federal government to keep the first route. We expect this trade corridor to change the destiny of the southern impoverished districts of our province," said Provincial Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani.

"Any changes to this vital project by the central government will be seen as as a step against our province," he said.

Lawmaker Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI) political party, has gone a step further.

Earlier this month, he met with Pakistan's top policymakers and Chinese diplomats to lobby against taking away the economic lifeline from the regions comprising his key support pockets in the two provinces.

"We expect this project to help pacify militant violence by bringing jobs for our youth," Rehman's spokesman Jan Muhammad Achakzai told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "This is why any changes to this route are unacceptable to us."

Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.
Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.

Achakzai says they want to keep the route because it also offers easy access to Afghanistan and in near future can connect the landlocked nation and its Central Asian neighbors to Pakistani ports and Chinese markets.

Senator Abdul Rauf, a leader of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, told Gandhara that he began protesting changing to the routes last month. Rauf and lawmakers from Balochistan recently met with Chinese diplomats in Islamabad to discuss the issue.

"We told the Chinese diplomats that we will mobilize all political parties against any effort to divert this trade corridor," he said. "We told them that our two provinces offer the shortest possible route."

Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz political party, however, questions the claims of changing the proposed route. "There is no definitive indication about how this project will eventually be implemented," said Amir Muqam, a political adviser to the Pakistani prime minister.

"I am working hard to collect facts and figures about this. If it is proved that the route is being changed, I will be the first to protest," he said. Muqam represents Shangla, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in Pakistan's parliament.

It is not clear what route the Chinese prefer, but sources within the Pakistani government and lawmakers say Beijing is likely to go ahead with any route backed by Islamabad.

The proposed investment is considered a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In 2013, he first presented the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. Since then, Beijing has expressed interest in investing hundreds of billions of dollars in energy and infrastructure projects in neighboring South and Central Asia countries.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story. It is based on reporting by Ghulam Ghaus and Riaz Musakhel in Peshawar and Islamabad, Pakistan. Qasim Khan Mandokhel contributed reporting from Prague.