China’s CPEC Hits a Pothole in Balochistan

Growing militant activity from activists who find nothing in it for them

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative, which in far too many areas of Africa and Asia is built with Chinese labor, using Chinese inputs and benefiting largely the Chinese while unloading massive debt on the recipient countries, has created a textbook example in Pakistan. It is also triggering a new wave of sporadic militant activity in the poverty-stricken Balochistan province, whose inhabitants are growing increasingly antagonistic over the fact they aren’t in line for any of the prosperity their land is being carved up for. 

Whereas many BRI member countries including Pakistan are still struggling to realize any real benefits, the largely one-sided nature of Chinese business ventures has led also to a situation where sub-national regions like Balochistan in Pakistan have largely failed to change their fortunes. The fact that the CPEC projects have been designed and are being implemented in ways that leave nothing for Pakistan’s most deprived province, where the deep-sea port of Gwadar is located, has triggered a new wave of militant activity that is targeting the CPEC.

The project, which includes highways, rail lines, the port, an airport, and other infrastructure, was originally forecast to cost US$47 billion. That has ballooned to US$62 billion. However, it is not only not changing the status quo, it is directly contributing to maintaining it by implementing projects that largely exclude the local population, directly contributing to Balochistan’s sense of deprivation.

A report on the implementation of CPEC prepared by the Pakistan Senate’s CPEC committee shows that Balochistan, even at the provincial government level, remains “confused about the lack of progress on the Western route.”

While the key to CPEC is the deep-sea port, Balochistan’s share in the project stands at a “meager 2-3 percent” and that six years of CPEC development have proved that “the provinces aligning the Eastern route will be the larger beneficiaries of CPEC investments.”

As the report shows, the pace of development on the Western route not only remains slow, but that the incumbent government of Pakistan continues to pay no heed to the way massive discrepancies are appearing, directly contributing to the emergence of new wave of violent politics.

As it stands, ethnic fault lines in the province are sharpening like never before, leading to a situation in Balochistan where the hard-line Baloch nationalists have started to increasingly look at the CPEC as a modern form of East India Company.

The reference to East India Company is crucial, denoting as it does the CPEC as a modern form of imperialism rather than a source of development.

The Baloch militants, who have been fighting an interventionist state of Pakistan since 1948, are responding to neo-imperialism in the form of any typical anti-imperial movement. In this context, the recently founded Baloch National Freedom Movement, an alliance of mainstream Baloch separatist groups, has a particularly anti-CPEC thrust.

For the Baloch separatist groups, the increasing presence of China, and the fact the port of Gwadar has not only been leased to China for 40 years but is now being practically sealed off, is likely to make their goal of establishing an independent Balochistan a lot more difficult.

Therefore, Baloch National Movement is particularly targeting CPEC projects and other Chinese establishments outside Balochistan as well.

Of particular significance was a 2020 attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) in Karachi. While the attack was unsuccessful and the armed Baloch militants were killed, it did show how China was coming increasingly under the sights of Baloch guns.

In 2017, a consortium of Chinese bought 40 percent of the Stock Exchange, making it their hub in the heart of Pakistan’s own financial hub, Karachi.  The acquisition tells the story of how China has been able to largely establish its tentacles into Pakistan in general, and in Balochistan in particular. As it stands, to accommodate China, Pakistan amended Stock Exchange regulations 2012 to allow an increase in the limit on foreign persons or institutions holding PXS shares.  China’s overwhelming presence and the extent of its influence in the PSX is evident from the way Richard Morin, a Canadian national, was appointed as the director of PSX on Chinese “recommendation.”

Elsewhere in Balochistan, 14 security men — seven personnel of the Frontier Corps and as many civilian guards employed by the OGDCL — were killed last October in an armed attack on their convoy on the Coastal Highway in the Ormara area of Gwadar district. It is significant to note that the attack was on a convoy of the oil and gas development authority, Pakistan’s premier agency involved in the exploitation of Balochistan’s oil & gas reserves.

On March 7, Baloch armed men ambushed a vehicle transporting Pakistan navy personnel in Gwadar district, killing at least one sailor, and seriously wounding two others.  

Pakistan, in response to the increasing Baloch militant attacks, has not only sealed off the port of Gwadar, but also taken steps to beef up its military presence. While policy remains focused on shielding the CPEC against Baloch attacks, it is the very militarization of the province and a policy of excluding the local population that continues to drive Baloch people away to an anti-state politics that is avowedly militant and seeks to achieve independence.

As the history of the Baloch national movement indicates, it is the very policy of exclusion and militarisation that had led them to declare a large-scale insurgency in the 1970s. While that insurgency was limited to two tribal areas of Balochistan, it was brutal enough to consume thousands of lives on both sides and paralyze a large part of the province.

Were the Baloch militant groups to start a movement on similar lines – and there is little doubt to the fact that some are already planning this as their recent most attacks indicate. Were the province to witness yet another such war of attrition, a major casualty of this war would be the CPEC, with its hundreds of miles of exposed rail and road as well as communications.

There is no doubt that Gwadar will be the most attractive target. As it stands, the Baloch militants have repeatedly attacked the port in the past. This is one crucial reason why it now has been completely fenced off.  

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