Ever since its launch in 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been facing a lot of cynical scrutiny, with the United States cautioning that CPEC projects are neither transparent nor cost-efficient, and warning Islamabad that it is subjecting itself to expensive loans under China’s Belt and Road Initiative – through which Beijing has pledged more than US$60 billion so far.
However, supporters of the project, including the Pakistani government, say that Islamabad will not end up being a client state of Beijing’s, and that the CPEC is its best shot at economic development.
Indeed, the CPEC has not progressed as planned, with several large projects shelved and others still uncompleted. The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to slow things down further, even though Pakistan has approved a US$6.8 billion upgrade to railway lines.
The Chinese-operated port of Gwadar – a key connectivity hub for the CPEC – recently saw a ship unload 16,400 tonnes of fertilizer from Australia to be transported by road to Afghanistan. In an article published on the China Economic Net website, Cheng Xizhong, visiting professor at China’s Southwest University of Political Science and Law, said it was the first time Afghanistan had used Gwadar to import such “important materials”.
One looming danger now is whether infrastructure plans can materialize because of the growing threat of militants targeting Chinese interests and workers.
On July 25, Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar – an umbrella organization for Baloch separatist groups – announced an alliance with the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army, another armed group that operates in Pakistan’s southeastern Sindh province. In a statement, the groups said that the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan are equally affected by China’s “expansionist” and “oppressive” policies that aimed to “subjugate” them.
Zhou Rong, a senior fellow at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies said the groups had joined forces as they were individually weak, with terrorism in Pakistan falling to “2 to 3 per cent of what it used to be in 2009”.
According to Zhou, separatists in Sindh are capable of little more than “toppling telephone poles and damaging railway tracks”. There are concerns that external forces are supporting these militants, who are already waging their own separatist struggles with Islamabad.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said that while separatist groups in Pakistan had not been able to mount “effective” attacks against Chinese interests, they had improved their capabilities, “which speaks to some level of external support”.
“There is an elevated sense of concern at the moment around the fact that China-India tensions have become so bad, and this might lead to the Indians providing more discreet support for Baluchi groups, which is something that they have done in the past,” he said, referring to the recent military stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing at Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Syed Inam ur Rahman, a professor at the International Islamic University in Pakistan, said that “countries like India and the US are trying to create disturbance in the region and create hurdles for the early completion of this project”.
The CPEC could get caught up in the storm amid deepening strategic rivalries between superpowers US and China and neighbors India and Pakistan. The risk of external factors derailing the controversial megaproject are now higher than ever.