As Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his latest trip to Pakistan, the multibillion-dollar investments he inaugurated have prompted an escalating conflict.
Leaders from two of Pakistan's minority provinces have called on the dominant province of Punjab to stop manipulating the investments to serve its interests, further cement what they call its stranglehold over Pakistan's economy, resources and institutions.
Xi, who left Pakistan on April 21, formally announced projects worth $28 billion. They are part of a $46 billion investment in infrastructure and energy schemes called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The more than 2,000-kilometer corridor aims to link the Xingjian region in western China to Pakistan's southern Arabian Sea seaport, Gwadar, through roads and rail links. More than $34 billion will go into electricity generation.
Islamabad is touting the initiative as transformative because of its potential to resolve Pakistan's acute electricity shortages and turn the country into a regional trade hub.
Leaders from the underdeveloped provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, however, accuse the current Pakistani government of maneuvering roads, rail networks and power generation away from their homeland into Punjab.
The region is the key powerbase of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party. Home to nearly 100 million people, Punjab already boasts most of Pakistan's industry and agriculture. It dominates the rank and file of the country's powerful military and claims a lion's share of national resources and institutions.
Pakistan's natural resources, coastal and trade routes, however, are located in the remaining three provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and mountainous territories adjoining India, China and Afghanistan.
Afrasiab Khattak, a senior leader of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa–based Awami National Party, says the real issue is not the rail and road networks but rather electricity generation and the industrial zones that are now largely slated for Punjab.
"Most people in Pakistan welcome Islamabad's alliance with Beijing and are eager for Chinese investment," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "But we Pashtuns are worried that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the adjacent FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and Balochistan are being left out of CPEC."
Khattak says Punjab's politicians and civil and military bureaucrats have dominated resource distribution and decision-making since Pakistan's creation 67 years ago.
"They see Punjab as Pakistan's core heartland while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and Balochistan are considered disposable peripheries whose prosperity never matters," he said.
Days before Jinping's arrival in Islamabad on April 20, Khattak's party was briefed about the project. Ashan Iqbal, Pakistan's planning minister in charge of overseeing the Chinese-financed projects, attempted to quell skepticism over whether the project will only benefit Punjab or will bring jobs, security and investments to other regions.
Khattak says Iqbal tried to assure ANP and other political parties that none of the three road networks linking Gwadar and Xingjian will be changed. The minister, he added, assured them a western road from Gwadar through Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be constructed in addition to upgrading the existing Indus Highway and the Islamabad–Lahore–Karachi motorway.
The Indus Highway connects Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's capital, Peshawar, to the southern seaport of Karachi and mostly runs along the river Indus in central Pakistan. The Islamabad–Lahore motorway was opened in 1997 and is being extended nearly 1,100 kilometers to link Lahore with Karachi, which in turn is connected to Gwadar by a coastal highway.
Khattak says Iqbal gave no details about the investment in electricity generation and industry. "He only said the government has not yet decided the location of those projects," he said. "The corridor really means the location of industry and power generation, which is still not clear, and this is the main issue."
The "Wall Street Journal" recently reported that most of the coal mining and coal-powered power stations, hydroelectric dams, solar power parks and wind farms are located in Punjab and the southern province of Sindh.
The controversy has united moderate and nationalist political groups with leftists and Islamist political parties in the two provinces. Fearing protests, Islamabad closed the main road linking Islamabad to Peshawar on April 20. Political leaders issued emotional statements and #RejectAlternativeRoute trended on Twitter on April 20.
Some politicians have even lobbied Chinese diplomats and officials.
"In a brief meeting with Jinping, we told him the corridor should focus on regions ravaged by terrorism," Khattak said. "We emphasized this will prove instrumental in defeating terror. He told us we were absolutely right."
ANP leader Iftikhar Hussain warned the controversy might turn the two provinces against China. "If someone is determined to commit an economic genocide of our people, it is my duty to resort to everything possible to defend them," he told journalists in Peshawar. "If our legal and peaceful protests are not heard, we will be forced to adopt illegal and extraconstitutional means."
In Balochistan, passions also ran high. Osman Kakar represents the province in Pakistan's upper house, or Senate. He told Radio Mashaal Sharif's administration is so committed to Punjab it even refrained from building a single electricity generation project in Balochistan where the potential for coal, solar and wind power is abundant.
"It seems this corridor is a joint venture between China and Punjab rather than between Pakistan and China," he said.
Kakar's Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party was behind a provincial assembly resolution in Balochistan in February that called on Islamabad to make investments in the province.
"The Pashtuns have rendered great sacrifices in the war against terrorism. More than 40,000 or our people were killed and millions displaced," he said. "Why should we always be the losers while Punjab reaps all the perks and privileges?"
CPEC, however, faces complete opposition from Baluch separatists, who accuse Beijing of being complicit in helping Islamabad exploit their resource-rich, marginalized homeland.
Baluch separatists have repeatedly warned China to refrain from investing in the region because of fears it will attract a population movement from Punjab and Karachi, reducing the Baluch to a minority at home.
Separatist Baluch militants are also suspected of being behind attacks on Chinese workers in Gwadar and other parts of the region in recent years.
"[The development of] Gwadar [port] is a matter of life and death for the Baluch," wrote Sanaullah Baloch, a former lawmaker from Balochistan. "Any unilateral decision by Islamabad concerning the fate of Gwadar will be opposed by the Baluch at all levels."
Prime Minister Sharif attempted to address these concerns while speaking to Pakistani Parliament on April 21. "It will benefit the entire country and all the provinces of Pakistan," he told lawmakers minutes before the Chinese leader was to speak. "Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir [will benefit]."
Khattak, however, says they won't be swayed by empty promises.
"The Pakistani establishment has only gifted extremist madrasahs, terrorist training camps and misery to Pakhtunkhwa," he said. "But industry, development, prosperity and new technologies are always granted to Punjab."
Khattat says the dispute over Chinese investments doesn't bode well for Pakistan's future stability.
"Pakistan cannot be an unequal federation. How can you drive a car with a wheel from a bulldozer and a scooter?" he concluded.