Pakistan has deployed two security personnel for every Chinese national, as construction work of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has begun in the South Asian country.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has assured the National Assembly that his government strengthened security in Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, where Chinese nationals were working. He told the Parliament that 14,503 armed personnel were guarding around 7,036 Chinese professionals in Punjab, 3,134 in Balochistan, 2,654 in Sindh, 1,912 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 439 in Islamabad. According to the PM, his government will never allow Balochi nationalists and other terror outfits to pose a threat to the corridor.
In the past, the Balochi nationalists and Taliban guerrillas targeted the project and abducted Chinese nationals working in Pakistan. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist outfit commonly known as the ‘Pakistani Taliban’, warned in 2014 that it would hit Chinese interests in the country to counter the “persecution” of Muslims in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China. Other local groups, associated with East Turkistan Islamic movement working with TTP factions, al-Qaeda and Jundullah, also opposed the CPEC project. In Gilgit-Baltistan, an alliance of around 23 religious, nationalist and political groups even demanded a complete withdrawal of the Pakistani forces from its soil.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sharif made clear that he would try hard to complete the construction work of the 3,218km-long CPEC in the next 15 years. The premier described the project as a “game changer” for his country, saying that the USD 46 billion (around 20% of Pakistan’s GDP) Chinese investment would help Pakistan emerge as the next ‘Asian Tiger’ in the coming years. Speaking at a media conference in Islamabad earlier this week, Sharif said that the CPEC would consist of highways, railways and pipelines that would connect the Gwadar Port with Xinjiang. He informed the media that the Gwadar International Airport and the Gwadar Port would be upgraded by the end of 2017. Later, the Karakoram Highway, connecting China with Pakistan, would be expanded and the placement of fibre-optic line would ensure better communication between the two “friendly” Asian nations.
The PM further thanked China for helping his government boost security in the troubled Pakistani regions, stressing that it was not possible for Islamabad to set up a police station in Gilgit-Baltistan without Beijing’s support. The police station, with 300 personnel and 25 vehicles (gift from China), ensures the smooth flow of traffic on the 439km stretch of the CPEC project. The Pakistani and Chinese Navies are also collaborating on Special Marine Battalion to ensure the security of Gwadar port. The local government in Sindh has announced that it will hire 2,000 retired Army personnel for the CPEC’s security in the province and charge those protesting against the project under anti-terrorism laws.
Both Pakistan and China consider the project as strategically important, as the CPEC will make it easier for them to counter India’s growing influence in West Asia and northern Africa. Islamabad believes that if all projects are implemented, their value will exceed all foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country since 1970. The Pakistani authorities also hope that the project will create 700,000 direct jobs in the next 14 years. As China’s vital energy supply route will pass through Pakistan, the Asian giant will be compelled to support its security. Moreover, Chinese naval assets at Gwadar port will check neighbouring India’s aspirations to dominate the Arabian Sea through Iran’s Chabahar port.
Similarly, China believes that the CPEC project will give Beijing a locational advantage to compete with major West Asian ports and also help Chinese vessels reach European destinations via West Asia in 10 days instead of the current 45 days via the Strait of Malacca. The alternative sea trade route will also allow China to counter the US’ purported ‘Contain China’ policy, apart from uplifting the economy of Xinjiang – home to more than 10 million Uighurs.
New Delhi has always objected to CPEC on point of principle, saying that its projects are located and/or pass through the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK), which actually belongs to India. India considers the corridor as a challenge to its security mainly because of the Chinese role in developing the PoK. Even, a Chinese daily warned Beijing on Tuesday, saying that both China and Pakistan should be prepared for “potential setbacks”. In an editorial, the daily said: “It is unlikely to be plain sailing for China and Pakistan in their attempts to push forward the CPEC due to challenges, such as a complex regional environment, and people in the two countries should be prepared for potential setbacks.” According to the daily, it might be a mistake to link Xinjiang Province to Gwadar Port by a corridor that “passes through some turbulent regions, Kashmir included”.