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Gwadar port open, but question remains: is CPEC too good to be true?

Catch Team | Updated on: 7 February 2017, 1:21 IST

The ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) saw the first Chinese ship leave the important Gwadar port in Balochistan on 13 November.

This comes at a time when Balochistan is still reeling under incidents of terrorism, especially targeting the minorities.

There has been a lot of disquiet over $50 billion project in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, the North-West Frontier Province and Khyber-Pakhtunwa provinces.

The provincial council in Khyber-Pakhtunwa had recently threatened to move court over the implementation of the project, including protests on land acquisiton.

India, too, is opposed to the corridor since it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Nawaz Sharif's reassurance

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief Raheel Sharif were both present at the ceremony in Gwadar, just one day after a deadly blast at the Sheikh Noorani shrine in the Balochistan province, which killed over 50 people.

"We will leave no stone unturned in ensuring the CPEC and all the projects under its umbrella are materialised within the given time," PM Sharif said at the ceremony.

"This idea was conceived only two years ago, and this day marks the breaking of the dawn of a new era," Sharif said, highlighting the importance of the project for Pakistan, when India, Iran and Afghanistan are co-operating on the development of the Chabahar port project in the neighboruing Sistan and Baluchestan province of Iran.

"CPEC is for entire Pakistan, and no region or province will be left out of it," Sharif sought to clarify at the ceremony.

His statement assumes significance since CPEC has been facing a lot of flak over its implementation, and ignoring what is called the western alignment, while favouring Punjab.

The East-West divide

The Chinese convoy, comprising of 150 containers, was reportedly shifted to Pakistani trucks at the Sust border crossing, travelled on the Karakoram highway, turning East towards Jund around 100 lilometres from Attock in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where it was joined by two other convoys within Pakistan, Sialkot and Lahore, before moving to Kohat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Dera Ismail Khan, Zhob, Quetta in Balochistan then moving to Kalat, linking to the Makran coastal highway. This route essentially constitutes the Western Alignment.

"It is meant to send a message to provinces like NWFP and Balochistan, that they are not being ignored," said a security expert.

However, the expert pointed out that this was a trial run, and it would be interesting to see if the Chinese used the same route back to Kashgar in Xinjiang to transport goods to the reverse journey.

The expert points said that all options were open for China at the moment, including the use of the port at Karachi, what is called the Eastern Alignment.

Opposition to CPEC

The Senate committee on the project has raised serious concerns about it, particularly about the planning and implementation of the projects in Balochistan. Senator Taj Haider, a senior leader of the Opposition Pakistan People's Party, who heads the committee, told the Dawn newspaper that "the government's claim regarding completion of the Gwadar port is mere eyewash".

The newspaper reported that Haider's committee has, in its third report on CPEC, termed the Gwadar project as a "non-starter" and "claimed that the corridor's 1,674-km long western portion, covering Burhan Hakla, Dera Ismail Khan, Zhob, Quetta, Sohrab, Bisma, Panjgur, Turbat and Gwadar was the least priority for the government".

It also charged that instead of developing the Gwadar port, the government was utilising its resources to expand the Karachi port.

The CPEC has also fallen foul of activists in Balochistan, who have termed China as the '21st century East India Company'.

At a recent protest outside the Chinese Embassy in London, activists said the project was a conspiracy to loot the resources of the Baloch people.

The Baloch fear that the CPEC would harm their livelihoods, as it would attract an estimated 3-4 million people - Punjabis, Pashtuns, and Chinese workers - to Balochistan.

Raheel Sharif's failure

Meanwhile, an op-ed in a leading Chinese daily sought to link the blast at the Sheikh Noorani shrine to the CPEC, saying it had set off alarm bells.

Security experts said this was unlikely, since the last three attacks, including the one targeting lawyers, a recent attack on police trainees and the attack on the shrine, are more likely to be the handiwork of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or the ISIS working in tandem with this sectarian terror outfit.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has had no problems with the implementation of the CPEC, and has more of a sectarian agenda against Shias and other minority groups.

"It shows that Raheel Sharif is going out with a bad reputation. And that his much touted National Action Plan has failed to stem violence," the security expert said.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 15 November 2016, 9:48 IST