There are no two opinions that the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) launched last month during the Chinese president’s visit to the country is going to be a game-changer for energy-hungry China and investment-starved Pakistan. But will it be a game-changer for the restive province of Balochistan? The CPEC involves the construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines connecting western China with Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. It will open up an energy corridor from Central Asia and the Gulf across Pakistan to western China. Traversing the territory of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the proposed corridor would link Khunjerab in western China to the Gwadar port in Balochistan. China is the builder and operator of the port, which is strategically located on the mouth of the Arabian Sea, close to the Strait of Hormuz, a potentially key route for global oil supplies. The CPEC would enable China to cut the time and distance for its oil transportation from the Gulf. For cash-strapped Pakistan, the Chinese investment in infrastructure and the energy sector will be a game-changer.
It must be noted that it is Balochistan that will enable China to achieve its goals associated with long-term energy security and it is also largely Balochistan through which Pakistan claims its geo-strategic importance in the region. The Gwadar port will be an essential part of the CPEC without which the project will lose its strategic worth. Presently, Balochistan suffers from a separatist insurgency, while the country’s armed forces are engaged in crushing it. A week before the Chinese president’s visit, at least 20 labourers were killed by gunmen in Turbat. The incident reflects the gravity of the security challenge both Islamabad and Beijing face while executing the game-changing project.
The CPEC could change the current socio-economic landscape of Balochistan by revolutionising its communication sector and improving infrastructure and socio-economic indicators. The project would initiate a mega development process with huge investments, which could make the province a new economic frontier for the country. On the other hand, a restive Balochistan might also provide a well-suited pitch for the players of the global energy game. A volatile province sharing borders with Afghanistan and Iran presents a mouth-watering prospect for the players of this ‘new great game’. The actual game being played out involves the monitoring of the supply routes for energy shipments from the Persian Gulf and ensuring the control of these proposed trans-national energy pipeline routes. A fully operational Gwadar port under the Chinese upsets certain regional players. India is afraid of the Chinese dragon being unleashed in the Indian Ocean through its strategic presence in Gwadar. The US also sees China’s growing presence near the Straits of Hormuz with suspicion. If China ever opts for a naval presence in Gwadar, it will raise eyebrows in Washington, which would perceive its military bases and fleet in the Gulf to be vulnerable in such a scenario.
Will the proposed CPEC project turn the province into a centre for a greater geo-political game? Or will the grandiose schemes bring prosperity to it? Balochistan is the key to the success of the CPEC and the strategic goals associated with it. We must engage the disgruntled Baloch in a dialogue process, and bring them back into the national mainstream. The local people have apprehensions about the proposed development projects given their bitter experiences of the past. The government must ensure that the province becomes a major beneficiary of economic gains for being the major stakeholder of the CPEC. Such steps on the part of decision-makers will at least help make distinction between those struggling for political and economic rights and those whose only agenda is to destabilise the province. The issues that should have been settled politically have become complicated due to the undue use of force by the state. Peace is key to executing the mega projects meant for Balochistan and saving it from turning into a centre for the ‘new great game’.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2015.
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