Pakistani PM Sharif has inaugurated a two-day China-Pakistan Economic Corridor summit in Islamabad, hailing the project as a milestone for his country. But opposition to the project is increasing amid new conflicts.
Addressing the inaugural session of the two-day CPEC Summit in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Monday, August 29, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the project would be a "game-changer" for Pakistan. He said the CPEC would also bring peace and prosperity to the entire region.
Last year, China announced an economic project in Pakistan worth $46 billion (41 billion euros). With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter US and Indian influence. The CPEC would link Pakistan's southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China's western Xinjiang region. It also includes plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.
Pakistan is grappling with an acute economic crisis. Experts say the CPEC can certainly stir the much-needed economic activity in the country.
Nationalist parties claim that Islamabad changed the intitial CPEC route to generate more economic activity for the Punjab province
Opposition to the project
But the project has been strongly opposed by local communities, ethnic groups and leaders of the smaller provinces who say that the bigger Punjab province want to reap all the benefits while using their lands and resources to implement the CPEC.
From the northern Gilgit-Balitistan region to the western Balochistan and southern Sindh provinces, the signs of an imminent conflict between Islamabad and local groups are already emerging.
Syed Masood Alam, an expert based in the northwestern Waziristan region, told DW that the military and civilian establishments had changed the route of the economic corridor for the benefit of the Punjab – Pakistan's most populous and politically strongest province.
"The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan and Sindh provinces are against the CPEC in its present form. We will go to any extent to oppose it. The CPEC could even lead to violence and bloodshed in the country if the government didn't change its stance," Alam said.
Military's upper hand
Ignoring the concerns of the local communities and their leaders, Islamabad vowed to continue with the CPEC at all costs. The military says that those opposing the CPEC are against Pakistan's economic prosperity and are "traitors."
"We [Pakistan's security forces] will not stop unless we achieve our end objective of a terror-free Pakistan" irrespective of the costs. These costs appeared not only in the form of remarkable human and material resources but also in the willingness of the soldiers to sideline with civilians and to scrutinize the latest achievements in democratic transitions for the sake of CPEC implementation," Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif recently said.
But experts say that the South Asian country's military is aiming to take an upper hand in the implementation of the economic corridor plan.
"The CPEC will further entrench the military in the country's politics and subsequently, harm any attempt to bring the country back into the process of democratic transition," wrote Brussels-based South Asia scholar Siegfried O. Wolf in a paper on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
"An example for autonomous decision-making by the military is the Karachi security operations. Here we have a similar situation like with the Zarb-e-Azb operation in the northwestern areas: the decision to carry out decisive measures against terrorists was made by the military and the rangers (a paramilitary force headed by the army) themselves," O. Wolf added.
Sattar Khan, DW's correspondent, says that the fight over the control of Pakistan's economic hub and port city Karachi is also intensifying as the security forces continue to crack down on the city's most popular political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
"China's influence is not limited to the CPEC. The Pakistani authorities are doling out all kinds of business contracts to Beijing. Karachi is economically very important for Islamabad, therefore it doesn't want any challenge to the new economic initiatives in the city. The MQM leadership, particularly its exiled leader in London, Altaf Hussain, is challenging it," Khan said.
CPEC to 'aggravate rights abuses'
But the trickiest part of the proposed Sino-Pakistani economic projects could be their implantation in the face of Islamist militancy and a protracted separatist insurgency in Balochistan.
The Baloch separatist groups have vowed to resist these projects, claiming the CPEC is a further exploitation of their resources and rights.
In an interview with DW last year, Brahamdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Republican Party living in exile in Switzerland, said that the multi-billion dollar economic corridor deal between China and Pakistan could spur rights violations in Balochistan.
"I think there will be massive human rights abuses in Balochistan because of this deal. To secure their financial interests in the province, Islamabad is likely to intensify its military operation there. They will do so in the name of providing security to the multinational and Chinese companies that are investing in the project. They would not even allow peaceful demonstrations and protests against the CPEC," said Bugti.
Development analyst Maqsood Ahmad Jan told DW the CPEC would turn Pakistan into "China's economic colony."
With money pouring in from China for the establishment of the economic corridor, those demanding more transparency about the Balochistan province are likely to face the ire of Pakistan's security agencies.
China's 'economic colony'
Analysts say that Pakistan is more than willing to support China in its regional ambitions and be a "client state," given that the US has very little to offer economically and geo-politically in the present circumstances.
"Pakistan knows that China is going to be the superpower in ten years. Islamabad is getting closer to Beijing and its alliance with Washington is slowly and gradually taking a back seat," Ali Shah, a Pakistani researcher in Karachi, told DW.
For Pakistan, China has become more important than ever before, said Jan.
'The CPEC will further entrench the military in the country's politics,' says expert Siegfried O. Wolf
"Islamabad has no other option but to increase cooperation with Beijing and do what it says," Jan told DW. "Saudi Arabia can't be as big an investor as China, the US is unreliable and the Pakistani government needs money urgently," he added.
Jan goes on to say that Pakistan has sold out to China for $46 billion. "I think the Chinese aid is not for free. Pakistan's economy is not that big, so Beijing will now take over most of our income-generating sectors."
But Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's minister for planning and development, believes the forthcoming economic deals with China would be beneficial for his country. "The real opportunity of this China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is that it changes the scope of the relationship from geopolitics to geo-economics," Iqbal told journalists, adding that the projects would have a "significant transformative effect on Pakistan's economy."
Jan, however, does not agree with Iqbal's assessment of Sino-Pakistani economic ties. "This will turn us into China's economic colony instead."
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.