Once acclaimed as a historical venture involving international development of infrastructure, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been losing sheen for the past few years. Pakistan was amongst the first countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which the CPEC was called the ‘flagship’. However, despite being claimed to be a ‘game-changer’ for the Pak economy, the umbrella of projects has struggled to keep up with its timeline. Hailing the $62 billion project as the testimony of their ‘iron relationship’, China-Pakistan had portrayed it as the harbinger of future growth in the region. Nevertheless, there have been substantially differing accounts of the progress achieved by the two countries under first phase of CPEC with many crucial projects having hit the wall. Since the announcement of CPEC phase-II in 2022, the conditions around it seem to have changed for worse.
Most of the problems causing delays in completion of CPEC projects have a political background to it. On a broader level, the change of guard from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Ied by Imran khan resulted in stalling of various parts of the project for years. Confusion Pak Army’s role and mandate of now disbanded CPEC authority also led to problems in coordination. However, the major cause of concern for China and its companies working on CPEC is the volatile security environment faced by Chinese workers and managers across Pakistan. Unfortunately, what both sides refuse to acknowledge is that the core of security issue is a lopsided conception of the project which preferred the powerful and relatively prosperous province of Punjab over others.
Balochistan, a poor province with large minerals deposits remained at the receiving end with no hopes of revenue accruing from the CPEC projects on its land. This feeling of being left out has powered a popular uprising against the CPEC in Balochistan. The presence of Chinese personnel on several project sites here makes them easy targets for Baloch fighters opposing the project. Several attacks on Chinese workers on or off the project sites are indicative of popular resistance against the perceived Chinese exploitation. The emergence of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a fighter group is said to be a
manifestation of young population’s anger against Chinese dominance. BLA keeps on striking in the region at regular intervals to keep Chinese companies on edge by disrupting their regular operations. The group was recently in news again when it set mobile network towers of Chinese company Zong to fire in Kech district of Balochistan. There were similar instances earlier when properties of Zong became target of BLA. The locals suspect that China is expanding its telecom network in different areas of Balochistan for spying on them.
Three Chinese language teachers were killed in a suicide attack at a university in Pakistan’s Karachi in 2022. Earlier, China Gezhouba Group Corp. had to stop work on the Dasu hydro-power project on Indus River in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province after a suicide bomber killed 12 people, including Chinese citizens in 2021. Reacting to the spike in attacks on Chinese projects, Beijing views the activities of BLA and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as inimical to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan. It appears that Pakistan’s failure to curb these attacks has emboldened Baloch separatist forces to align with other terror groups from Afghanistan and Xinjiang to target Chinese projects.
Beijing’s unhappiness over Pakistan’s inability in handling CPEC’s security is getting increasing visible on social media as well. The deteriorating security situation has triggered concerns among the Chinese netizens who have started questioning their government over viability of CPEC in Pakistan and the necessity of channeling investments into it. According to various posts on the Chinese social media platforms, a large number of Chinese engineers/workers are now apprehensive to travel to Pakistan for working in CPEC projects. As a result, several firms have been forced to pay extra allowances to encourage workers to work on CPEC projects. Significantly, the arrest of a Chinese engineer employed by the ‘China Gezhouba Group Company Ltd.” constructing the Dasu Hydropower Project on the charges of making blasphemous remarks, has shocked the Chinese netizens.
Against this backdrop, Chinese enterprises have started issuing regular advisories for their personnel. During the recent visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to Pakistan, the security of Chinese workers was reportedly discussed between the two sides. While the leaders reiterated their full support for CPEC, the on-ground situation remains difficult to handle for both the countries.