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Sino-Pak love affair in troubled waters

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Sino-Pak love affair in troubled waters

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  • Recently, the Chinese consulate in Karachi came under attack with three gunmen trying to enter it and killing four people in the process. The Balochistan Liberation Army took responsibility for the attack. This attack is part of a series of assaults on Chinese projects and personnel in the restive province of Balochistan over the years as China’s footprint has grown in the region. Though Chinese interests have been repeatedly targeted over the years, Beijing so far has continued to repose its faith in the Pakistani government’s ability to manage the security situation so as to guarantee Chinese investment.

Why Balochistan is important ?

  • Balochistan sits at the very heart of the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s flagship investment project in Pakistan estimated $62 billion. Despite being rich in minerals, gas and coal, Balochistan is Pakistan’s most impoverished region, resulting in perpetual political turmoil. Baloch nationalists have gained traction by accusing Islamabad of pursuing exploitative policies and never giving the region its rightful share. The ongoing tussle between security forces and Baloch nationalists has made the region’s security precarious, diminishing the region’s economic prospects.

Baloch Perspective

  • Baloch nationalists have long been opposed to the Chinese presence and investments projects in Balochistan. They are apprehensive about CPEC developments in their province as many Balochs fear the wave of investment will bring about demographic changes, turning them into a minority group in their own province.

  • The multibillion dollar project originates from Balochistan’s Gwadar port. That means China cannot simply pull up stakes and move to safer ground; instead, Beijing has to find a way to safeguard its CPEC investments in Balochistan. Chinese engineers have been killed while working in the province in the past, and Baloch separatists have repeatedly taken to social media to threaten assaults on CPEC projects.

  • Balochs are apprehensive because their consent was not sought at the time of the announcement of CPEC — despite the fact that their land makes the backbone of the corridor. Also, Balochs themselves foresee a wave of Pakistanis from outside their province arriving and investing in Gwadar following CPEC.

  • It is a common fear among Balochs – not only Baloch nationalists — that these CPEC-related projects will bring about a demographic change in the near future. Already, many people in Gwadar have sold their lands at cut-rate prices to investors from outside of Balochistan. Baloch nationalists see this trend as a “take over” that it will be demographically a disaster for Balochs, because it will change the ethnicity of the area.

  • CPEC projects are likely to escalate the conflict between the Balochs and the state, as these two forces did not trust each other from the very beginning. Pakistan has already announced that it will provide a 10,000-strong security force to protect CPEC, while Baloch separatists have carried out attacks on workers along the route.

  • Pakistan has a history of trying to achieve objectives in a rush, without taking the time to develop a grounded understanding of the issue involved. That history is playing out again in Balochistan with CPEC.

Gains to Pakistan from Chinese government's perspective

  • China, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as part of which it plans to link its western Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan. With a network of highways, railways and pipelines in conjunction with energy, industrial and other infrastructure development projects, the CPEC aims to enhance connectivity across Pakistan and as well as the country’s overall economic growth prospects.

  • CPEC is being talked about as a potential game changer as it could revive the economic profile of a region that has traditionally been an economic backwater.

Gains to china

  • Chinese policymakers also view an overland link across Pakistan to the Arabian Sea as a means of overcoming their nation’s Malacca dilemma given that almost 85% of its oil imports traverse through the single choke point of the Strait of Malacca development.

  • Beijing’s efforts to stem the growing tide of insurgency and radicalism from flowing into its own territory by providing economic development.

The Malacca Strait is a narrow and congested waterway separating Indonesia and Malaysia, with Singapore located at its southern tip. As the shortest route between the Indian and Pacific oceans, the strait is one of the world’s most important waterways. More than 60,000 vessels transit the strait each year, carrying 25 percent of global trade. The Lombok/Makassar Strait passes through the Indonesian archipelago and is used mainly by Very Large Crude Carriers. In terms of volume of oil shipped, this route is of near equivalent importance to the better known Malacca Strait. 

For China, the strategic significance of these straits increases every year where 80% of their energy needs(oil imports) pass en-route from the Middle East, Angola etc(shipping lanes); through the Malacca Straits(between Malaysia and Indonesia). This area is also prone to piracy sometimes.

As a heavy user of the Malacca Strait, the PRC has a vested interest in the elimination of transnational threats in the waterway. Yet Beijing remains uneasy at the prospect of a greater role for external powers in securing the strait. 

 

Challenges to CPEC domestically

  • There is growing domestic political opposition in Pakistan—not only from Baloch nationalists, but also due to widening differences between provinces and the central government—over the allocation of investments. This has been exacerbated by Pakistan’s economic crisis, which has seen Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves rapidly depleting and the country facing a mounting balance-of-payments crisis, requiring about $12 billion to meet its liabilities. CPEC has been blamed for part of this problem, with imports of heavy machinery and other equipment resulting in Pakistan’s massive trade deficit. 

Challenges from other countries.                          

  • Its relationship with the US has nosedived under the Donald Trump administration which has warned the International Monetary Fund against lending money to Pakistan, arguing that a bailout package could not be used to settle Chinese debts.

General Outlook of the project

  • A key thrust of the plan lies in agriculture. Pakistan will also become a market for agricultural produce from Western China and this will adversely impact local producers, alleged Pakistani civil society activists. From provision of seeds and other inputs, such as fertilizer, credit and pesticides, Chinese enterprises will also operate their own farms, processing facilities for fruits and vegetables and grain. Logistics companies will operate a large storage and transportation system for agrarian produce, as per the CPEC master plan. Chinese enterprises will take the lead in each field.

Increasing skepticism on China's Debt trap diplomacy

  • China is also coming under growing global criticism for its BRI projects with nations as diverse as Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives all voicing complaints about the terms of the loans from China. China’s debt trap diplomacy is facing a global pushback, and the CPEC cannot remain immune from this.

Concerns for India

  • India has criticised the Chinese-funded CPEC, which links China’s Muslim dominated Xinjiang province to the Gwadar deep-sea port in Pakistan. The project passes through Gilgit-Baltistan in PoK, which New Delhi considers its own territory.