One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s one trillion dollars transport and trade infrastructure grand vision to connect China to the rest of the world. Announced in 2013, belt refers to the road and railway networks and the road to the sea routes. It features several economic corridors: China India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor, China-Central Asia West Asia Economic Corridor, New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It’s a part of China’s OBOR initiative aimed at promoting Chinese trade in the Middle East. Covering an area of 2,700km, the CPEC connects the western Chinese city of Kashgar to Balochistan’s port city of Gwadar, passing through Gilgit-Baltistan, Punjab and Sindh.
Gwadar, located in southwestern Balochistan, is supposedly derived from two Balochi words: gwat meaning air or wind and dar meaning door.
The Gwadar deep seaport has international significance for its strategic location. In 2017, Pakistan government handed over Gwadar to China on a 40 years lease for the implementation of the CPEC, a long-term plan to build ports, an airport, motorway, railway tracks, highways, energy projects, electricity power stations, coal power stations, hydro power stations, gas power stations, thermal power stations, metro lines, electric lines, communication lines, fiber optic lines and dams.
The plan was officially announced in November 2014 by China and the construction work began in April 2015. It was initially supposed to cost USD 46 billion but the amount has now surged to USD 62 billion.
Why China wants CPEC project implemented at all costs
- The trade route is too long for China to expand to Middle East and the rest of the world. China’s economy depends almost entirely on imports and exports. One third of the world’s traded oil supplies pass through the Strait of Hormuz and transported to India, Pakistan, China and other countries. Around 80 percent of China’s oil supplies come from the Middle East covering a distance of 13,000km. The CPEC project, after its completion, will shorten the route for China’s energy imports to 2,700km which will save China two billion dollars a year.
Currently, China uses three routes for its exports:
a: Pacific lane
b: Atlantic lane
c: Indian lane
And If China wants to export to Europe, the goods must pass through 15 ports.
- Over 55 percent area of China is undeveloped and 94 percent of Chinese live in the eastern coast and only 6 percent live in the western coast because the trade route comes from the South China Sea to the eastern China and there is no seaway for trade to the western coast. China wants to industrialize its remote areas.
- China faces many regional challenges. For example, oil comes to China after passing the Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Strait of Malacca and after crossing the South China Sea and Nine-Dash Line, finally reaching the east China provinces like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. There are a number of disputed islands, including Paracel, Spratley and Scarborough Shoal, which are jointly claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Paracel and Spratley are two important groups of islands. All the warring parties want one or another part of it, and Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have all stationed military forces on some of these islands and have started construction work. But China, the richest and the most influential of them, has heavily militarized the region claiming the South China Sea (Nine-Dash Line) has belonged to China for thousands of years. All the other warring parties want China to withdraw its military from the region. China wants to control the South China Sea because it’s an important trade route for most East Asian countries and it has large oil and natural gas reserves.
- China has always been greedy for Balochistan’s natural resources. The story began in the 1970s when China and Pakistan found deposits of natural resources in the Chagai area in a joint geological survey. China soon realized how valuable Balochistan is — a sparsely populated land mass which supports a huge part of Pakistan’s economy. It has huge reserves of gas and minerals. Pakistan and China, without the consent of the Baloch people, have signed a contract for the development of the Saindak copper-gold mines worth $350 million .
How the CPEC is impacting the local people
Since construction work has begun on CPEC-related projects, security forces have burnt dozens of villages located around the CPEC route, leading it to earn the nickname of “the corridor of death”. Thousands of locals from Gwadar and other areas of Balochistan living around the CPEC route have been forced to migrate and more than 2,500 families have been forcibly displaced. Also, security forces have forcibly disappeared thousands of civilians from Balochistan during raids and operations including Baloch students, teachers, doctors, intellectuals, poets and laborers. They are subjected to inhuman torture in secret detention, and after few years of disappearance, their mutilated and tortured bodies are thrown in desolated and remote areas to suppress any rebellion against Chinese designs in the region.
Pakistani forces have converted 2,400 schools in Balochistan into army camps and more than 20,000 Baloch are missing after being forcibly disappeared. Human rights groups claim 7,000 have been killed by the security forces.
Despite being the largest province, Balochistan still has the lowest health, education and living standards indicators in the country. Having natural resources worth billions of dollars, Balochistan remains one of the least developed regions in the world.
Gwadar’s local residents have been mostly engaged in fishing and fish trade for several centuries. When construction began on the CPEC, the government promised to hire locals first for most jobs. However, the residents of Gwadar have lost their fishing habitats and they are hardly given any priority in CPEC-related jobs.
No one can openly criticize the CPEC because intelligence agencies treat the critics as enemies, often labelled as anti-state, anti-Islam and Indian agents. Military-sponsored death squads and intelligence forces have targeted Baloch nationalists, writers and human rights activists who spoke against the CPEC. Over 60 journalists have been extra-judicially killed in Balochistan since the project’s launch.
The Baloch insurgency and its impact on CPEC
The origins of the Baloch separatist insurgency in Pakistan can be traced back to 1948, a month after Pakistan militarily occupied Balochistan in March the same year. However, the current phase of the insurgency, more intense and widespread than its predecessors, began early 2000s after the Pakistan government, led by the then dictator General Pervaiz Musharraf, announced plans to build a deep seaport in Gwadar. Baloch nationalists feared it will convert the Baloch into a minority in their homeland. Since then, Baloch separatist groups have launched several attacks on Chinese assets based in Balochistan. In 2004, the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) killed three Chinese engineers in Gwadar. It was the first major blow to China’s grand designs.
In 2018, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) carried a series of attacks on Chinese workers and nationals. On Aug 2018, a BLA militant carried a suicide attack on Chinese engineers in the Dalbandin area in Chagai. In November the same year, BLA fighters attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi. In May, 2019, the same group took control of the five-star Pearl Continental hotel in Gwadar where Chinese nationals working on CPEC-related projects were reportedly staying. The BLA claimed to have killed several Chinese nationals and Pakistani military officials in the attack.
India and US’ insecurity over CPEC
India and the United States are looking closely at China’s economic and military expansion in the region.
India claims Gilgit-Baltistan as a disputed area where Pakistan does not have the authority to let China use it for its economic and military interests. India’s authority will be immensely undermined if China and Pakistan team up in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir region.
Similarly, the US is extremely concerned that China will use the Gwadar deep seaport for its naval presence in the region, which will allow increased Chinese influence in the Pacific Ocean.
Other South-Asian countries fear that China will cut Japan’s and other countries’ oil supplies from the Middle East.