In a remarkable show of national unity, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accompanied leading politicians from two minority provinces to inaugurate a connecting road on December 30. Islamabad hopes the highway will become a major artery linking China to the Arabian Sea.
The development is a visible effort on Sharif's part to quell the fears of leaders from the two restive western provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. In the lead-up to a formal agreement over Beijing's $46 billion investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in April, leaders from the two provinces accused the dominant eastern Punjab Province of manipulating the project to cement its control over the country's resources, economy, and institutions.
The criticism prompted Sharif, who counts Punjab as his homeland and key support base, to call a conference of the country’s major political leaders in May. He promised participants that Islamabad will construct a "western route" through Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
He now appears to be trying to meet his commitments. During a grand ceremony in Balochistan's remote Zhob town, Sharif went out of his way to show that his administration is committed to the development of Balochistan, which is reeling from a decade-old simmering separatist insurgency and decades of Islamabad's neglect.
"Balochistan is now the source of our prosperity. Pakistan's prosperity begins here," Sharif told the gathering, after inaugurating the 81-kilometer road that will link Zhob to Dera Ismail Khan, a city in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. "The development of Balochistan is our top priority."
Sharif says his administration will build thousands of kilometers of roads to connect Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. "We also need to be connected to Afghanistan and through there to [the Central Asian states] of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan," he said.
During the past year, Sharif's administration has tried to reach out to exiled Baluch separatist leaders, whose followers have been fighting Pakistani forces since 2004.
Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and guerillas have died in the simmering violence in Balochistan. The Baluch separatists now oppose the CPEC, and are particularly concerned about Islamabad's plans to convert Balochistan's Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea into a hub of Chinese trade with the Middle East.
"The people of Balochistan have the first right over the abundant natural resources of the region," Sharif said. "Nobody will be happier than me if Balochistan proposers."
Even his allies are cautious about Islamabad's apparent interest in Balochistan's economic transformation. Lawmaker Mahmood Khan Achakzai, leader of the Balochistan-based Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, called for increased local control over resources. "Gwadar is part of the Baluch homeland and they need to be in charge," he said.
Sharif, however, has a long way to go to win over critics into backing his vision for transforming Pakistan into a regional trade and transportation hub through Chinese investment.
Critics are already pointing out that, despite agreeing to road and possible rail networks through the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, most CPEC industrial zones and energy projects have already been allocated to Punjab and the southern Sindh Province.
Iftikhar Hussain, a senior leader of the Awami National Party, says that Pakistan can only prosper if Islamabad focuses on less developed parts of the country, such as Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
"Right now we are underdeveloped and victims of terrorism and have suffered for so long, I hope the prime minister follows through on his promise [of transforming our homeland]," he said.