CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) is one segment of the proposed ‘One Belt One Road’ program of the Chinese government aimed at expanding Chinese economic and strategic influence in Asia. It involves a road and rail link from the Baloch town of Gwadar to Western Chinese city of Kashgar. Several special economic zones will be established along the entire length of the Corridor. The Baloch have been expressing their reservations on this project. The majority of the Baloch nationalist consider this as a corridor of death and destruction for the Baloch. This article is an attempt to explain and analyse the Baloch fears regarding CPEC.
CPEC in context
The development of Gwadar as a deep sea port was originally envisaged in 1990s. In order to counter the emerging Sindhi nationalist movement, the state establishment in 1980s manufactured a militant political organization, the MQM. This party drew its support from the Urdu speaking Indian immigrants, who settled in Sindh after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and became part of the ruling alliance of the state along with the military and religious elite. However, after some years, the MQM evolved as a Frankenstein monster and the only port city in Pakistan, Karachi, became the hostage to its criminal activities. Intermittent strikes and blockade of the only outlet for the transport of goods to and from the Punjab was perceived as a grave threat to the survival of the state. As an alternative to Karachi, it was decided that Gwadar should be developed as a deep sea port and connected with the Punjab via Rathodero thus bypassing Karachi.
After the 9/11 events in the United States, the relationship between the Pakistani establishment and the West deteriorated because the Western establishments became suspicious about the actual designs of Pakistani military establishment in their war against terrorism. Many in the West believed that Pakistani security agencies are supporting Taliban, Al Qaeda and other militant organizations and they are freely using Pakistan as a base in order to carry out subversive activities in Afghanistan, India and other parts of the world. In this context, the military establishment of Pakistan decided to shift its loyalty from the Western powers to the emerging economic and military power of China. Gwadar was offered to China as a naval base and economic centre linking the Persian Gulf to its western border, in exchange for military and economic aid, should the West finally decide to abandon Pakistan. In the second decade of 21st century, the concept of this link road was further expanded and named as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Possible impacts of CPEC on the Baloch and Balochistan
The Baloch nationalist politicians and intellectuals believe that with the completion of this project, there is bound to be drastic political, socio-cultural and economic changes in Balochistan and the Baloch as a national entity would certainly face a crisis of existence.
- Socio-cultural impacts
The Western Alignment of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor begins from Gwadar and traverses the heart of the Baloch landmass for 1500 kilometres to Zhob in eastern Balochistan. It will be flanked by special economic zones along its route. These economic zones need thousands of workers and the infra-structure needs thousands of operators. Taking into consideration the track record, it is certain that there will be no employment opportunity for the Baloch neither in the work force nor in the security apparatus of CPEC. In other words, thousands of people from outside Balochistan will be brought in and the majority of these will settle permanently. In 2002, the Pakistani finance minister Shoukat Aziz disclosed that 2.5 million people will be settled in Gwadar region after the completion of Gwadar deep sea port. So far, according to Baloch sources, about 90 percent land in Gwadar district has already been acquired by the armed forces or purchased by Punjabi businessmen or Pakistanis settled in Europe and North America. The military establishment in the name of national security has acquired lands not only in Gwadar district but also thousands of acres of land on both sides of the CPEC road and rail links routes. The Baloch fears that these will be developed as housing complexes and business centres run by the military, bringing thousands of outsiders into Balochistan. The demographic balance has already shifted against the Baloch with the settlement of nearly 2 million Afghan immigrants in northern Balochistan since 1980s. The influx of up to another three million people from outside Balochistan will change dramatically the demographic picture of the region. According to Baloch analysts, after a few decades or so, the Baloch will become a minority, ending nearly 800 years of the Baloch domination of the region.
With the introduction of Urdu as the national language and medium of instruction in the educational institutions, the Balochi language is already at the verge of extinction. The Baloch have been complaining that in its zeal to create an artificial Pakistani nation, the state establishment has controlled and distorted their history, centuries’ old secular socio-cultural traditions, and religious beliefs. A North Indian religious narrow mindedness and superfluous cultural traditions are being imposed on the Baloch in the name of Islamic brotherhood. They believe that the CPEC will increase the pace of what they called “the cultural imperialism of the state”.
- Economic impacts
The Baloch believe that the economic exploitation of Balochistan is the main objective of the CPEC. The Baloch are among the economically poorest people of the world but their land is one of the richest in natural resources. There are unimaginable natural resources beneath the Baloch soil which include metal and mineral deposits such as chromite, copper, manganese, lead, zinc, tin, tungsten, as well as deposits of non-metallic elements. It is estimated that there are more than 20 million tonnes of gold reserves in Balochistan. The volume of un-explored oil and gas reserves in Balochistan are far bigger than any of the Gulf States.
The Chinese firms have already depleted a vast area in Chagai district of gold and uranium deposits. It is an open secret that the CPEC is not only a transit route for Chinese goods, but also an easy way to exploit the huge natural resources of Balochsitan. Taking into consideration the track record of the ruthless exploitation of natural resources in African countries by the Chinese, there is no doubt that within a few years, Balochistan will be exhausted of its precious resources plunging any future generations of the Baloch into further economic misery.
- Political impacts
Many among the Baloch equate CPEC with that of the Indo-European Telegraph Line Project of 19th century. In the 1860s, the British authorities in India embarked upon an ambitious project of a telegraph line from Karachi to Basra (Iraq) passing through Southern Balochistan. The Indo-European Telegraph project changed the geopolitical balance of relations in the area and brought tremendous misery, death and destruction for the Baloch. The Baloch tribes resisted the project and there were frequent attacks on project installations. In the ensuing conflict, thousands of Baloch were killed during joint operations conducted by the British and Persian authorities. Dozens of Baloch chiefs were murdered or imprisoned by the British and the Persians. A wave of mass migration occurred and thousands of displaced Baloch from Southern Balochistan, migrated to Sindh. The majority of Baloch nationalists believe that the telegraph line was one of the causative factors in the division of their land into many countries of the region.
For the Baloch nationalists, the significant political impact of CPEC would be on the Baloch struggle for national sovereignty. After the incorporation of Balochistan into Pakistan in 1948, there has been a protracted conflict between the Baloch and the Pakistani state what the state termed it as insurgency while the Baloch call it their struggle for national rights. The CPEC will cause further escalation of this conflict with its accompanying devastations.
As the Baloch view CPEC as an assault on their national interests, it is certain that they will resist it with all the strength they can muster. The Pakistani army has already announced a ten thousand strong special force to ensure the security of the route. There will be a military check point every 20 Kilometres. Several Baloch settlements in Kech and Awaran districts have already been destroyed by the security forces in their scorched-earth policy in order to eliminate any danger to the route. Already in many power circles of Pakistan there are talks of settling the Baloch population away from the CPEC routes. Many among the Baloch fear that in the name of securing the routes, the Baloch population will ultimately end up in reserved areas.
The Baloch political parties are under tremendous pressure from the security agencies and any voice raised against CPEC has been officially declared as anti-state and anti-Islamic. In order to counter the Baloch nationalists and to dilute their secular democratic struggle, the authorities have already created several religious and sectarian organizations in Balochistan. According to Baloch nationalists, numerous death squads responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of nationalist activists are made up of religious fanatics under the active supervision of security agencies. The Baloch fear that with the curbing of nationalist political activities and active patronization by the security establishment, the ultimate supremacy of religious extremists will be established on the Baloch political scene within foreseeable future.
- Balochistan as the centre piece of a new “Great Game”
By all practical purposed, the CPEC is not only an economic project, but also the part of Chinese strategic ambition. China has emerged as a global competitor with wide ranging, economic and strategic interests, which threatens the existing unchallenged Western supremacy. For the first time in history, China is extending its strategic objectives outside its mainland and actively considers itself as the real rival of Western economic and military supremacy in Asia especially in the strategic, politically and economically important region of the Persian Gulf where the West has reigned supreme for almost four hundred years. The Presence of the Chinese air force and naval fleets at Gwadar at the mouth of Persian Gulf is tantamount to the castration of Western military power in the area which has been the only pillar of Western influence for centuries. This would certainly be indigestible to the West. The new ally of the West, India, perceives the leasing out of Gwadar port to China as part of the Chinese design to encircle it and curb the Indian economic and strategic influence in Central Asia and the Gulf. The planned corridor passes through the territories of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir, which India consider as its integral parts. India’s Prime Minister and other officials have on many occasions termed the corridor as “unacceptable”.
There is observable frustration in Western power circles concerning the Chinese expansionism. It is obvious that the loss of their overwhelming influence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is unthinkable for the West. It is certain that serious counteraction is being planned in Western capitals against the Chinese onslaught on their vital economic and strategic interests. These measures will certainly initiate a ruthless power game between China and the West in the region.
During 19th century, a “great game” of espionage and subversion was played between the Czarist Russia and the British Empire in Central Asia and the Middle East. The aim of this protracted struggle between the two great powers of the day was political and strategic. It was to undermine or contain each other’s influence. Russians were afraid of British flirtation with its Muslim population in Central Asia where Britain was organizing the Muslim sentiments into a Pan-Islamic movement to oppose Russian occupation. While the British were fearful of the Russian advances towards India and Persia. They were much alarmed by French-Russian alliance and continued Russian thrust towards the Indian Ocean. In the grinding jaws of these great adversaries, several nations, countries and communities faced occupation, division and socio-economic misery. As a casualty of this great game, Balochistan was occupied, its social system was totally changed by the British colonial administrator Robert Sundeman, and it was divided between Iran, Afghanistan and the British India. With the advent of CPEC, it appears that history is repeating itself for the Baloch. This time, it is the West under the leadership of the United States versus the emerging China. A great game with new players but on the same turf, is about to begin.
Islamabad has repeatedly accused India and the Western powers of conspiring against the CPEC. With increased attacks on CPEC installations by the Baloch nationalist forces, the Pakistani government claims that Baloch insurgents receive training in camps in Afghanistan established by India. The Pakistani leadership on several occasions, has publicly accused India and Afghanistan of involvement in insurgency and terrorism in Balochistan. They also blame certain Western powers of covertly encouraging the Baloch nationalists.
The Baloch believe that this new “great game” in the region will undoubtedly bring unimaginable miseries to them. With the intensification of the conflict, the Pakistani response will be increased atrocities, and ruthless suppression of any nationalistic activities on the part of the Baloch, coupled with more funding and patronization of religious elements among the Baloch. Perhaps the Baloch nationalists may get some kind of material support from quarters opposed to the Chinese influence in the region; however, it would be quite simplistic at this stage to believe that the Western powers are going to support an independent united Balochistan. If the support for the Baloch nationalists would be just to disturb or delay the Chinese advance, then the result for the Baloch as a national entity would be catastrophic. The net result would be that Balochistan would be converted into a war zone, where civil strife and the great power’s tug of war would result in the mincing of the Baloch people.
CPEC: the corridor of death and destruction?
For many among the Baloch, this project will create existential challenges. The introduction of China in the economic exploitation of Balochistan will be a double whammy for the Baloch. The Baloch believe that as part of “One Belt One Road” program which is, in reality, an ambitious military economic complex, CPEC will give access to the emerging imperial power of China to the economically and strategically important region of the Middle East. This will result in the great power rivalry in the region with its accompanying devastations. They believe that CPEC will change their social outlook, political future, and economic prospects, thus endangering the survival of the Baloch as a national entity forever. In Balochistan, the majority of Baloch analysts are visualizing a scenario after a few decades of the completion of the CPEC. They are visualizing that the coastal towns of Balochistan becoming attractive places for Chinese tourists. They are visualizing that there would be numerous industrial establishment with their own townships throughout Balochistan. The shops and high streets of these townships would be bustling with different kinds of business activities but there will be no Baloch in sight. The historical account of once a proud nation, who happened to be the master of this land, would end up as a myth.
Dr. Naseer Dashti, a graduate in Medicine, obtained his master’s degree in public health from the University of Leeds (UK) in 2000 and a PhD research degree in anthropology from the University of Greenwich (London) in 2007. He fled Pakistan to escape persecution and became a refugee in the United Kingdom in 2008. He had published three books (two of them were banned by Pakistani authorities) on socio-political issues facing the Baloch in particular and south-central Asia in general. He is affiliated with Balochi Academy and Asaap Group of Publications, Quetta.