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Can China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) be a Messiah for Balochistan?; By Anurima Sitara Ghosh

C3S Paper No. 0096/2016


Pakistan and China signed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) development project in 2015. This $46 billion project in Pakistan will see China developing road and transport facilities, fiber link optics and oil pipelines. The corridor will pass from Gwadar, Balochistan to China’s western province, Xinjang. The corridor will also fast track the process of the construction of the Gwadar sea port. According to this project, China intends to build a railway facility of 3,000 km that will connect Xinjiang in western China to Gwadar. The Gwadar deep seaport project is not a new initiative. Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1994 decided to develop a sea port in Gwadar. The idea was to build a sea port in Gwadar which will enable free trade routes to its allies.

The Gwadar port is a strategic location. Geographically, Gwadar is on the southwestern coast of Balochistan. Balochistan is the largest province in Pakistan covering 42 per cent of the entire country. It is situated in the south west province. Balochistan shares borders with various regions. It is 625 miles with Afghanistan to its north west, 475 miles with Iran to its west and 562 miles of the Persian Gulf’s Makran Coast. Arnold Toynbee, a British historian said that Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, is an “eastern roundabout of the earth.” According to Mr. Toynnbee, it is possible to monitor developments or perhaps even influence developments in the Gulf, South Asia and Central Asia.

 The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a $46 billion project and Gwadar is the most expensive projects under this banner. Why is China interested in Gwadar? China needs Gwadar for economic purposes. China imports about 80 per cent of crude oil from the Middle East. The oil is shipped for 12,000 km via the Strait of Malacca which is an expensive affair. Gwadar will become an alternate route for oil shipments and reduce the overhead costs by 85 per cent. The Chinese will stand to gain the most from it as they are the ones who are funding the Gwadar sea port project. Though China cannot control the Indian Ocean from Gwadar they most definitely can monitor the traffic emanating from the Straits of Hormuz. The Chinese to an extent also have limited surveillance of the West Arabian Sea.

James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara wrote an article called “China’s naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean” in which they say that when it comes to energy security, Gwadar could be a huge support system and act as a “strategic hedge.” In case the United States of America orders a blockade in the Strait of Malacca for reasons concerning the security of their country, China would not have to face the brunt as Gwadar would back them up.

A very important aspect of the Gwadar deep seaport project is the status of the Balochs people in Gwadar. Historically the Pakistani government and the Balochs have been clashing causing severe insurgency issues in Balochistan. Since 2000, matters have begun to get worse especially after the Gwadar deep seaport project was announced and it was learnt that the Chinese will be taking over the project.

History of Conflict in Balochistan

When Pakistan was under the British rule, the Khan of Kalat, the ruler of Balochistan had a special relationship with the Whitehall in London. According to the 1875 treaty, Britain recognized Balochistan as a sovereign state.  In 1947, British transferred state powers to Pakistan. The British held a referendum to decide if Balochistan will be part of Pakistan or India. Quetta’s municipality chose Pakistan as well as the Pashtun dominated areas chose Pakistan. In order to be able to govern efficiently, Pakistan merged the Pashtun and Baloch area and called it the ‘One Unit System.’ According to this system, Balochistan was being ruled from Lahore. The system decreased Baloch representation in any federal office. They were denied provincial rights. Balochs had asked the government asked for a provincial assembly but the government took no action even after a decade of gaining independence. The Balochs feared that this system would create further colonization by the Punjabis. This did not sit too well with the Khan of Kalat and he tried to proclaim independence for Balochistan but was taken down by force in 1958. In 1970, the one unit system was dismissed and the Balochs were given the right to provincial assembly elections. These elections brought the National Alwami Party (NAM) in Balochistan. But then Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto removed NAM stating that the party was allegedly conspiring against Pakistan with foreign nations in 1973. This resulted in one of the deadliest Baloch insurgencies in history of Balochistan. According to Selig Harrison, a well known scholar and journalist estimated that there were 55,000 Baloch fighters and 80,000 Pakistani troops who fought during this insurgency. The death toll was estimated to be 5,300 Balochs and 3,300 Pakistani troops.

Economic and Human Rights Issues in Balochistan

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is definitely an ambitious project for both strategic and economic reasons. But from the perspective of human rights, can CPEC help Balochistan? Some authors and officials believe that CPEC can prove to be gain for Balochistan. According to Yaseem Aftab Ali, an author and journalist believes that “The completion of the Gwadar port will become an economic elixir not only for the country but also for the people of Balochistan that will provide jobs for the locals thereby improving their economic condition.” Considering economic conditions, Pakistan gave away 2,000 acres of land to the Chinese in order to develop the Gwadar deep sea port. The main source of income for the people of Gwadar is fishery. By giving away lands to the Chinese, the federal government has snatched away the livelihood of the people in Gwadar.

The Balochs fear the influx of foreigners in Balochistan as the project continues. Balochs and Pashtuns have clashed since the British regiment. With the CPEC employing Pashtuns and Punjabis in the development projects, some Balochs fear they might go extinct. It is essential to understand that even though Balochistan is a large province, demographically the province is small. The Chinese are resorting to similar tactics in Africa. Instead of employing the locals, they are hiring Kenyans and in rural areas where the industries are set up.

Now the military is being sent into Balochistan in order to protect the Chinese workers and factories. Balochs fear intrusion not just economically but also personally. According to an official Senator Mir Kabeer Ahmad Muhammad Shahi said that in Balochistan they follow a system called Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan. Legislation should be passed before any development project assumes in Gwadar, in order to protect the Balochs from being exploited in any form. But the federal government has refused to fall through any of the proposed legislations to protect the Baloch.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, Chief of the Balochistan National Party and former Chief Minister of Balochistan in an interview said that the development project was signed without taking the Balochs into confidence. Another official who is part of the Senate Special Committee on China-Pakistan Economic Border, Senator Mir Kabeer Ahmad Muhammad Shahi told The Nation, “We are not against the Gwadar deep sea port, CPEC or any other developmental project but it meant to marginalize the native people and make them like Red Indians then we will not allow it to happen.”

The core and essential point that neither China nor Pakistan has addressed is “What does Balochistan stand to gain other than just employment?” If China wants to ambitiously complete this project, Balochistan’s welfare needs to be taken under consideration. The provincial legislations need to be implemented and regulated by a body in the CPEC committee. If the CPEC is unable to do so, there will be more back lash against the Gwadar deep seaport project and other projects under this banner. China understands that it has now become a part of the politics between the Pakistan government and Balochistan. Chinese workers in Balochistan are becoming a pawn in the battle between the Pakistani government and Balochistan.

China clearly has a strong hold on Gwadar. China can prove to be a successful mediator in this issue. It needs to protect its people in Gwadar from harm and if they can persuade Pakistan to prepare proper legislations to protect the rights of the Baloch people, China indirectly will be able to keep the Chinese people safe in Gwadar.  Chinese companies in Gwadar need to create employment opportunities to the Baloch people. Instead of bringing in the Punjabis or Pashtuns, Chinese companies must employ Balochs. Reservation needs to be fixed by the legislators and it can only be fixed by an honest legislation. A committee needs to be set up that consists of an equal number of Balochs and legislators from the Pakistan government.


In 2015, oil tanks were put on fire and the four drivers were abducted. Apparently the tankers were being carried to a Chinese company who were working on a Saidnak Project in Chaghi district of Balochistan. China is obviously unhappy and has voiced their concern on the growing violence against their people in Balochistan. The Pakistani government formed a special security force of 10,000 to 25,000 men to protect the Chinese workers.

Terrorism is a problem in Pakistan and China needs to keep reminding themselves that if the Balochs are not provided with their needs, they will be forced to take assistance from certain splinter groups that have pledged alliance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This could be fatal, as ISIS has already begun to show up in Afghanistan.

In the past Pakistan has been alleged to have harboring various terrorist groups. Andrew Bridson, an energy expert at BMT consultancy told the South China Morning Post that terrorism is a concern. “It is faster and cheaper, but it is more vulnerable. There could be a strike anywhere during the journey.” China needs to understand that if ISIS can gain a foothold in Balochistan, these railway links will be enough for them to reach the Kashgar city in Xinjiang which is in the western province of China. In Xinjiang, China is facing their separatist concerns regarding this region.

India–China Quotient

China’s involvement in Gwadar had definitely got India’s attention.  India needed a counter measure to protect its trade and transit routes. In order to counter China’s move, India and Iran signed the Chabahar port deal in 2015. Chabahar is 72 kilometers away from Gwadar. Like Gwadar, Chabahar is a strategic point and if this deal pans out properly, India will have a new trade route for Afghanistan and Central Asian goods. Initially India had to avail Pakistan’s land route to trade with Afghanistan and only limited commodities were allowed to pass the land route.

Iran and India have signed the International North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC).The international North-South Transport Corridor is a land, rail and sea freight facility that will connect India with Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and other Central Asian countries. Chabahar falls under this corridor route which is beneficial to India. The Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations in India performed a study found that the NSTC corridor is 30 per cent cheaper and 40 per cent shorter than the traditional route, which was through the Persian Gulf. This corridor will also connect India with the European nations.

There are challenges that both Gwadar and Chabahar face. Insurgency issues are definitely a major concern. Baloch people are suffering from an ethnic crisis and it is definitely affecting the Gwadar deep seaport project. In the case of Chabahar, the insurgency problem is not directly in Chabahar but when the goods reach Afghanistan, the Taliban creates a hindrance. The Taliban is definitely not India’s fan after India supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

India’s agreement with Iran regarding Chabahar states that India would only be a guest state and will only be able to use the facilities provided by Chabahar. No control will be imposed by India on Chabahar. This is not the case with China and Pakistan. Pakistan has given complete control to China in respect to Gwadar. Even though Pakistan cannot do anything to the goods passing through Chabahar, the Pakistani Navy will definitely be surveying the international waters.

In the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan relationship, India needs to remember that Pakistan has a good rapport with some of the ethnic tribes in Afghanistan. Presently Iran’s relationship with its neighbors is not the strongest. Tehran will not make any kind of move that will make the relationship more volatile. In this case, India’s dreams of trading with Central Asia are also in a volatile position.

There are discussions regarding China’s role in Chabahar as part of the ‘Road and Belt,’ initiative by China. Under this initiative there is an agreement between Iran, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China which commits to railroads being linked for trade purposes. This could lead a problematic position for India.

 It is clear that even though India benefits from Chabahar, the hold that China has on Gwadar is stronger than what India has on Chabahar. China is experienced in the infrastructure projects area and with Gwadar’s strategic position, it is a powerful combination. And if Tehran gives permission to China to build land or sea routes in Iran, it would definitely be a setback for India.

Another aspect India needs to keep in mind is Iran’s position in the international community. After violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which banned Iran from testing any nuclear missiles, Iran has been receiving a lot of negative attention from the international community. This is not good for the Chabahar deal as they would need sanctions from the powerful countries. Iran has been very anti- America but surprisingly the United States of America has supported the Iran-India Chabahar deal. The question is why is America supporting the deal? The U.S.A-Pakistan relationship has been volatile so this deal could help with the security issues in the Arabian Sea.


The Gwadar deep seaport project is an impressive development project that will benefit Pakistan and China, economically and strategically. But the focus should be on the welfare of Balochistan. The largest province in Pakistan might just end up at the shorter end of the stick if the Pakistan government does not start thinking about the welfare of the Balochs. The more they try to suppress the Balochs with military force the retaliation will be twice as much. The current situation in Gwadar proves the fact that the Chinese in Gwadar are suffering because of the historical conflict between the Pakistan government and the Balochs.

As mentioned previously, Balochistan has a system to protect its people. It is only fair that the Pakistan government work according to the system in order to restore peace for a while. The legislations can protect both the Balochs and the Chinese who are currently stationed at Gwadar.

Terrorist activities are another aspect that needs constant surveillance. Since ISIS has been reportedly been seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan alleged links with terrorist organizations, it is only fair for the Chinese to always be on the lookout and protect their own people in Gwadar. The Chinese have always been quiet about terrorism and terrorist activities even in their own insurgency-prone region, Xingjiang. When it comes to Pakistan’s allegedly harboring terrorist groups, China uses their veto power in the United Nations to protect Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and  Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which are Pakistani terrorist groups. Therefore in the case of terrorism, China is protecting Pakistan and in turn protecting the terrorist groups.

In the international front and the comparison between Chabahar and Gwadar, it is clear that both have its significant benefits. But the real power play is between India and China. The relationship each country has with the Central Asian countries and Afghanistan has a lot to do with who will benefit from the strategic locations. We do understand that though Chabahar is a counter measure for India against Gwadar, China has complete control over Gwadar which India does not have over Chabahar. Some contemplate that Gwadar might become China’s naval base but as of now it is a trading route. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not just a project connecting countries. It is definitely a corridor which is binding the two Asian powers with the rest of Central Asia.


The Strategic Importance of Balochistan- Jason R. Murtha

Pakistan’s Baloch Insurgency: History, Conflict drivers and regional implications- Mickey Kupecz

The Foreign Policy of Pakistan- Ethnic Impacts on Diplomacy by Mehtab Ali Shah

China’s international relations in Asia- edited by Li Mingjiang

Senator seeks laws protect Balochistan – The Nation

Chinese operations in Balochistan- The Diplomat

Chinese workers killed in Pakistan- BBC News/ South Aisa/ 15 February 2006/

Chinese firm takes control of Gwadar port free-trade zone in Pakistan- South China Morning Post

Dark Corridor- The Economist

Understanding Balochistan’s importance- PakistanToday

International North-South Transport>Publications>Issues brief

5 reasons why Gwadar port trumps Chabahar.- Muhammad Daim Fazil

‘US has no complaints about India-Iran pact to develop Chabahar Port’- The Indian Express (June 1, 2016)

(Anurima Sitara Ghosh is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course at Madras University, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article however are of the author. She can be reached at

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