How China’s Presence in Balochistan Is Intensifying Regionalist Tendencies

The political and economic outcomes of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intersect with the local politics of (dis)trust and regionalism in Balochistan. The history of political exclusion and resource exploitation by the elite Punjabi military-bureaucracy nexus manifested in Balochs’ conception of CPEC. The acquisition of Gwadar port, exclusion of Baloch firms and labor from Gwadar and associated CPEC projects and exclusion of native fishermen have heightened pre-existing feelings of regionalism in Balochistan, with Baloch nationalist forces either wholly rejecting the project or voicing for greater share in these projects.

A recent bomb blast on a Chinese convoy symbolizes the deep distrust of regionalist forces against China-led development, which they view as extractive and exploitative. CPEC is adding to accumulated separatist feelings among the Baloch population. The central government should incorporate the genuine concerns of political parties and local communities in its development strategies in order to make these projects more inclusive and less exploitative.

Political Sidelining and Resource Exploitation in Balochistan

Balochistan has, historically, been opposed to the hegemonic designs of central government and championed a stronger provincial role within federation. Today’s insurgent tendencies are rooted in the two-state solution – dividing the subcontinent into India and Pakistan – orchestrated by colonialists. This solution rejected the voices of various ethnicities vying for independent ethnic-based statehood. Although tribal leaders of Balochistan opted to join Pakistan in 1947, there was strong opposition to this decision. These voices demonstrated their dissent both through political rallying and armed insurgencies. The elite Punjabi military-bureaucracy countered these calls for autonomy with a strong military response, including arrests of tribal leaders, and anti-Baloch propaganda.

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Due to these conflicts and other constitutional reasons, Balochistan did not have elections until 1972. In 1972, the National Awami Party (NAP) won elections in the province and called for greater autonomy for the province and a share in its resources. This led to the central government dismissing the elected provincial government and reinstating governor rule, which only increased calls for Baloch independence within the state. Armed conflicts between Baloch nationalists and the army raged till 1977, when these confrontations ended. Through the conflict, distrust between the army and Baloch nationalists widened and separatist feeling permeated Baloch political narratives.

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Underpinning Baloch nationalism is a widespread belief that the province has been kept under-developed to ensure exploitation of its resources. This distrust is so prevalent in political narratives that even development undertakings are seen as means to fulfill the extractive designs of central government. The state- and military-led resource exploitation of the province manifests in the exploitation of gas reserves: although the province is the country’s major producer of natural gas, Balochistan only receives a very small share and 12.4 percent in gas royalties.

These same sentiments of exploitation now apply to Gwadar port, the terminus of CPEC. Baloch nationalists contend that Chinese companies and the Pakistani central government are taking a greater share of Gwadar port and associated projects. Balochs claim that the contracts have been given to non-Baloch firms, and that most of the labor employed on these projects is non-Baloch. Once again, there is a strong sense that a natural advantage given to Balochistan is being usurped and exploited by outsiders, whether Punjabis or Chinese.

The CPEC Route Controversy

The anti-center, anti-military tendency in Balochistan is further exacerbated by armed militant violence committed by nationalist militant groups and Islamic terrorists like against functionaries of the state. This makes Balochistan a dangerous place for CPEC. However, instead of using CPEC to alleviate the genuine concerns of the provinces, the Pakistani state opted for highly centralized CPEC planning. The state-regional clash of interests and perspectives has been exemplified through the CPEC route controversy, where Balochistan’s provincial government has rejected unilateral changes to the planned routes of road and railway networks to be established under CPEC.

The project envisaged that the Western Alignment portion of the route that connects Gwadar to Kashgar in western China, passing through various southern and eastern districts of Balochistan, will start after the completion of the Eastern Alignment. However, regional elites have raised their voices against prioritization of the Eastern Alignment by the center. The Eastern Alignment connects Gwadar to Karachi via well-developed areas of Punjab and Sind and it excludes many districts of Balochistan. Although there the government has not released any of the planning documents, media reports reveal that original route-planning was altered in ways that benefit central Punjab.

In response, elite tribal forces in Balochistan have opposed CPEC and violent groups have been involved in act of sabotage. Consequently, instead of uniting multiple voices, especially regionalist forces, CPEC served to further exacerbate the divide between state and regionalist forces due to the exclusionary and Punjab-centric planning and implementation of CPEC projects.

Fish Controversy Further Alienates Local Population

Most recently, Gwadar has seen protests against CPEC in the specific context of fish resource exploitation by Chinese trawlers. Many of the local fishermen vacated their fishing spots due to construction of Gwadar port in hope of better future. However, the federal government granted fishing permission to the Chinese fishermen ignited widespread unrest. This unrest culminated in a 28-day sit-in in 2021, led by Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), in which a massive number of people, including men, women, and children, participated.

The participants voiced concerns against the hegemonic designs of the center in allowing Chinse fishermen to exploit fish resources at the expense of local fishermen. Although this protest was first staged against government’s permission to allow Chinese trawlers to fish, other concerns – such as the lack of basic facilities including healthcare, electricity, and clean drinking water – were also raised.

The protesters ended the sit-in after an agreement with the federal government. The government accepted all the demands of protesters, calling these demands legitimate. However, many Balochs fear that these demands would not be fulfilled by the government.

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The Gwadar port project and associated networks of roads and railways have not resulted in integrating Balochistan with the rest of the country. Contrary to expectations, locals have not found jobs and despite commitments neither a hospital nor a vocational training center has been established. Instead, local fishing grounds have been taken over by Chinese. The locals view development and economic activities carried out in Gwadar as extractive and exploitative. This has exacerbated anti-state feeling that can lead to violence, as exemplified in a recent bomb blast in Gwadar targeting a Chinese convoy.

The political sit-in and the extremist act of a bomb attack point to different thought processes regarding China-led development. Political parties and local communities seek a greater share and participation in these projects through their demands for healthcare, educational opportunities, and electricity infrastructure in Gwadar. Meanwhile, regionalist forces, through their acts of sabotage, have fully rejected this development. It is important that both Pakistan’s central government and Chinese companies can capture the genuine concerns of local population and incorporate them into the policy, planning and implementation framework of CPEC. Greater local, grassroots-level political support is the key to the successful and peaceful implementation of these projects.