China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the project that Beijing has showcased as its ‘flagship’ to other votaries of the Belt and Road Initiative, has run into serious trouble due to the worsening security scenario in Pakistan.
At the CPEC’s northern end, where China has heavily invested in infrastructure that is already operational, the return of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan has raised prospects of threats from terror groups. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) are getting active not far from the route. While the Afghan Taliban are fighting the IS-K, the Imran Khan Government is desperately seeking to reach a peace deal with the TTP. The latter broke off peace talks even though the Kabul rulers sought to mediate. A dangerous mix of militant groups is working in both, collusion and at cross-purpose at the same time, to suit their immediate plans. This has endangered the Corridor. At the CPEC’s southern end, recurring protests in Gwadar port that China planned, funded, built and now operates as its principal gateway into the Indian Ocean to ensure speedy fuel supplies from the Gulf nearby, has tied both Beijing and Islamabad in an unenviable fix. An uneasy calm has returned after the latest, 32-day resistance movement. It ended after the Pakistan Government conceded most of the protestors’ demands.
Pakistani media reports, however, are doubtful about both, the Pakistan Government’s willingness and its ability to meet these demands in foreseeable future to the satisfaction of the protestors. The unanimous comment is that the federal government has bought time. It has always used military force in the past to quell any protests and could do that anytime, should the movement resume. And this could come soon, judging from the massive support it received this time over. Some observers view that the CPEC was launched without taking into confidence the Balochs provincial government, or the local political and economic interests that have over the years evolved into a ‘nationalist’ movement.
Balochistan, the country’s largest province in terms of size, enjoys little political clout at the federal level and each time protests have heated up, they were repressed. This has been the case ever since the province, ruled by the Khan of Kalat, was forcefully merged into Pakistan in 1947, and the army has been frequently deployed. “Bombing of Balochistan” was the buzzword in the last century and the province has become one large military garrison, severely alienating the local populace. Thousands of ‘nationalists’ have ‘disappeared’ (detained by intelligence agencies), or have been killed. The recent Gwadar protest movement was led by Maulana Hedayatur Rahman, a cleric of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a mainstream political party that has been close to the military establishment, but has been side-lined in favour of numerous militant and Islamist groups that are treated as “state assets.”
JI, one of the most influential parties in South Asia even before Pakistan’s emergence, has strong grass-root support that does not always translate into electoral votes. But JI has a culture of solid political work, which, those who observed the protests, noted, was reflected in the way the cleric led the protest. Maulana Rehman stuck to the political and economic demands of the local Balochs and held back his party’s own agenda. He was able to carry along the Baloch ‘nationalist’ groups. People, including women, not only from Gwadar port city, but from nearby districts of Balochistan converged by the thousands and stayed on for a month.
This has been the biggest protest movement since Gwadar, a sleepy port town, gained prominence as a city with a modern port. Analysts believe there has been development, but the same has not generated jobs and resources for the local populace, fuelling simmering anger. The Maulana and other leaders carefully shepherded the movement raising solid local issues but avoiding anything that could be considered “anti-national” or a “security risk” to invite stringent army or police action. This was an unprecedented tactic and was successful. The Khan Government, the provincial set up and the media that ignored the protests initially, were forced to take note. Khan dispatched his ministers and himself visited Gwadar to quell the resistance, reportedly after the Chinese expressed alarm and sought early settlement.
The local Balochs, demanding a share in the development that CPEC is supposed to bring, have also been upset about their fishing activity and marine products’ exports in jeopardy. While they are restricted from going into deep sea, the Chinese trawlers and those from the Sindh province next-door corner all the marine wealth. The Chinese are thus seen by the locals as party to the exploitation. There was also an “Iran angle” to the protests. The federal government has been trying to regulate Gwadar’s economic activity citing security considerations. This essentially implied curbing of smuggling of goods from Balochistan to the sanctions-hit Iran, which was a source of profit to the locals.
The locals also feel humiliated by the cantonments and check-posts manned by the military in and around Gwadar where they are treated as aliens with permits imposed and movements restricted. This has added to their “alienation and simmering anger,” as per an editorial in Dawn newspaper (December 19.2021). The newspaper has observed that resolution of the crisis in Gwadar, on which the success of the CPEC heavily depends, would be determined by the extent to which, and how early, Islamabad is able to fulfil the promises it has made. Even more than that, whether it would do so with understanding and without resorting to force of which it has a long past record. Experts note that China has heavily invested in the CPEC as a short route that allows it to avoid the circuitious Gulf of Malacca and South China Sea region. However, the emerging deteriorating security scenario in the Af-Pak region, through which the CPEC traverses, could jeopardize Beijing’s long-term plans in the region and beyond.