Rise to Peace blog

Progress or Plight?: CPEC & Baloch Separatism in Pakistan

With a valuation pegged between $50-60 billion USD, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, most commonly referred to as CPEC, presents Pakistan with one of its greatest developmental opportunities in the country’s 73-year history. Despite US backing during the Cold War, and early economic liberalization efforts in the 1980s, Pakistan’s economy has floundered in the era of globalization in large part due to two tenets that remain extant today: ubiquitous insecurity and political instability between the state’s civilian and military authorities

While much of South Asia has seen its political and economic clout grow in international relevance over the past three decades, Pakistan has lagged its regional neighbors on a number of socioeconomic indicators. In addition to the growth witnessed in India, the likes of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal have also eclipsed Pakistan in average GDP growth over the past 5 years. Chronic debt woes have compounded problems related to tax revenue collection, a dearth of foreign direct investment (FDI), and soaring unemployment that has increased nearly fivefold over the last decade.

Nevertheless, much of Pakistan’s economic revitalization ambitions remain pinned on the projects that comprise CPEC’s portfolio, most notably the construction of overland and maritime transport networks, coupled with the urgent need for quality energy infrastructure. Financed by a mixture of Chinese loans and Sino-Pakistan joint ventures, CPEC’s success is not only a priority for Pakistan but a crucial harbinger of China’s vaunted Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) that promises to scale similar initiatives throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Such improvements, if implemented, will undoubtedly alter the commercial landscape within Pakistan. However, given the poor quality of Pakistan’s institutions and the present power dynamics that favor the country’s military and security establishment, CPEC’s fruition depends on far more than capital or manpower. The country’s chronic security woes continue to hinder developmental efforts in all 4 provinces, with the province of Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province, particularly salient for the viability of CPEC’s construction and operating efforts.

In addition to being one of 2 Pakistani provinces with a coastline, Balochistan’s abundance of natural resource wealth figures prominently into CPEC’s plans. The maritime port of Gwadar, located in Balochistan, is seen as a linchpin for CPEC given its proximity to markets in Central Asia as well as Iran, with which the province shares a border.

Yet, Balochistan’s restive history with separatism remains a considerable threat, not just to the port of Gwadar, but to all CPEC projects within its provincial borders. A perfunctory review of conflict history in Balochistan offers a microcosm into a similar group of issues that defined, and continue to inform, political challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. The gradual accession of the province to Pakistan in 1947-1948 by princely rulers has since been complicated by the intricacies of tribal politics, the desire for autonomy from central authorities, and the preservation of ethnic identity, in a fashion not too dissimilar to other regional areas of contention like Kashmir. Attempts to channel these grievances in the Baloch context has largely relied on engaged conflict with the Pakistani military.

At present, active armed groups in Balochistan view CPEC as an attempt to further relegate ethnic Balochs to an inferior economic, political, and social position in Pakistan. The significant involvement of the Pakistani military in the management of CPEC has confirmed such sentiments in the eyes of Balochs, who have subsequently targeted military convoys, the Karachi Stock Exchange, and even Chinese workers, who have filled the majority of CPEC jobs as per the financing arrangements cinched between Pakistan and China. The extraction of Balochistan’s natural resources has further irked militant groups, who claim the resources should be harnessed to generate Baluchi wealth instead of benefiting Pakistani or Chinese entities.

Much of the ire expressed by these groups view the Pakistani government as representing the agenda and interests of the Punjabi population, whom make up over 40% of Pakistan’s total population. Once more, regional parallels can be seen in the accusation of Punjabi majoritarianism, whether through the religious brand of Hindutva in India, or through latent anti-Pashtun sentiment in Afghan provinces that have a sizable population of minority ethnic groups. Following its inception, CPEC had and continues to be widely heralded by the civilian government as an opportunity to reinvigorate industrial activity to generate jobs, tax revenue, and improve the provision of public services. Yet, the opacity surrounding CPEC’s financing terms, tenders, and job growth has yet to enact the transformational change

Thus far, kinetic efforts by the Pakistani government to resolve the insecurity has led to accusations of human rights abuses by the military, which controls much of the oversight bodies and exerts significant influence on the project when compared to provincial, or even federal, civilian authorities. Pakistan’s characterization of the Baluch separatist movement tends to concentrate on allegations that Baluch militants enjoy political and financial backing from India, dismissing genuine grievances and regarding their actions as a foreign plot to subvert the nation-state.

Given CPEC’s stature and the strategic value of Balochistan, attacks by Baluchi militants are likely to go unabated in the absence of reforms that address the demands delineated by both armed and non-armed organizations based in Balochistan. By incorporating more local participation by Balochs, either through dialogue and/or job quotas in the CPEC initiative, both Pakistan and China can begin to allay these concerns before they escalate and evolve into a full-scale conflict, a scenario that portends less progress, low growth, and high insecurity for all Pakistanis.

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