KARACHI – To quell stiff opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, key to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government launched a major development package for the country’s south-western Balochistan Province. .
Khan announced the package during a visit to Turbat, 160 km northeast of the port city of Gwadar, a major preparation point for the economic corridor. The Prime Minister’s Accelerated Development Package for South Balochistan, as it is called, consists of projects worth tens of billions of Pakistani rupees.
The package aims to create 120,000 jobs, build 1,100 km of roads, build 210 health units, expand Turbat International Airport and provide gas and electricity to 320,000 households in southern Balochistan.
This includes loans for 2,000 fishermen to buy boats and funds to build 16 dams to irrigate 60,700 hectares of land. The plan also includes building part of the M8 highway, a project already part of an ongoing $ 50 billion economic corridor project.
“China’s annual trade is $ 2 trillion and Gwadar will link Pakistan with this trade,” Khan said at a ceremony marking the start of the program in Turbat.
The official aim of the package is to bring southern Balochistan on par with other Pakistanis in terms of development. However, insiders say another goal is to silence opposition to the economic corridor, which is strongest in the Makran division in South Balochistan.
In May 2019, the Pearl Continental Hotel, near the port of Gwadar, was attacked by Baloch separatists. Last month, a military convoy escorting Oil and Gas Development Co. employees. be targeted in the same area.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a South Asia analyst based in Washington, believes Makran has been the epicenter of the Baloch resistance to economic corridors and the Belt and Road in recent years. “It is important to deal with local people’s grievances and lead them to rally support for CPEC,” Akbar told Nikkei Asia.
Other experts are skeptical the development package will serve its purpose.
“I doubt that the announcement of a new aid package by the Pakistani government for the Makran division will end opposition attacks on Chinese interests,” said Jeremy Garlick, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Economics in Prague. He added that although some local residents were happy, the opposition groups which strongly oppose the building of Gwadar in China will not change their minds overnight based on the investment pledge, as they will see this package as an attempt to “buy into their agreement.”
There is also political opposition to the way the package was announced. “People in northern Balochistan will feel discriminated against because of that [the announcement of] a targeted development package in southern Balochistan, “said Aslam Bhootani, who represents the Balochistan coastal belt in the Pakistan National Assembly. He told Nikkei that the elected representatives were not appointed before finalizing the package south of Balochistan.
Bhootani argues that building a highway and expanding the airport under the package will do little to help people in the region, who lack water and the means to make a living. He suggested that the package should include a way to import electricity and gas into the Makran region from Iran, while applying for an exemption from US sanctions on Iran.
As Pakistan is still negotiating with the International Monetary Fund to proceed with the $ 6 billion Fund Extension Facility suspended in February, experts say it is a mystery where the government will find funding for the South Balochistan package. The facility was suspended after Pakistan failed to comply with IMF requests to raise electricity prices and impose additional taxes, fearing a public backlash.
Garlick is also skeptical. “It’s hard to see where a cash-strapped government will get that kind of money unless the funds come indirectly from China,” he told the Nikkei.
Akbar is more hopeful, saying the government often makes big promises about projects and then forgets about them. But according to him the South Balochistan project is different. “This project appears to be a priority for Islamabad to see if they can create a region in Balochistan that is modern, thriving and welcomes CPEC. The South Balochistan project has the support of Islamabad and it is a priority for the Pakistani government to eradicate the ongoing insurgency and clear up areas of violence separatists, “said Akbar.
He added, with that context, the packages might be disbursed sooner than previously promised.
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