QUETTA, Pakistan -- China is making overtures to the tribal and political leaders of Balochistan, a province in western Pakistan, in a bid to promote progress on infrastructure projects for its Belt and Road Initiative in the region, which has slowed significantly since a new government took power in Islamabad in August 2018.
Early in September, a delegation of more than 10 political and tribal leaders from Balochistan were invited to China by the Beijing government. The delegation included Amanullah Khan Yasinzai, the governor of Balochistan, Dr. Malik Baloch, former chief minister of the province, as well as other tribal leaders who have previously criticized the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
CPEC is the Pakistan component of the BRI, China's ambitious infractructure vision to connect with Europe and Africa via land and maritime networks, and comprises $62 billion-worth of projects to develop ports, infrastructure, industry and energy generation facilities in Pakistan. A key part of this is the development of Gwadar Port, located on the Arabian Sea in Balochistan.
However, with little sign of direct economic benefits for the people of impoverished Balochistan from CPEC, it is mostly local insurgent groups that have been behind a spate of attacks on Chinese interests since the corridor's inception.
Since the signing of the CPEC agreement between Pakistan and China in April 2015, dozens of delegation of politicians, businessmen, tribal leaders and journalists have visited China on "Beijing-funded, all-expenses paid trips". These have been aimed at cultivating a positive image of China among influential Pakistanis.
During their visit, the delegation from Balochistan visited Beijing, Urumqi and Kashghar and met local dignitaries including Song Tao, head of the international department of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee.
After the visit, it was reported in pro-China media outlets in Pakistan that the Balochistan leaders had vowed to protect CPEC in their region. One outspoken Chinese diplomat posted the story on Twitter.
Such articles claimed that "former anti-China Baloch leaders have now pledged to protect CPEC." The delegates were also reported to have decried the negative propaganda of Western media against the project.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington-based political analyst, told the Nikkei Asian Review that China had doubled its efforts in Pakistan to influence public opinion in favor of the controversial project. "[China] has launched an extensive network of pro-CPEC think-tanks, NGOs, dummy news magazines, a cycle of flattering events and seminars and paid trips for senior Pakistani officials, the media and members of the civil society [to China]."
He noted this was a clear indication of China's desperation in its search for allies in Balochistan.
Sana Baloch, a member of the Balochistan Assembly, was a part of the latest delegation and has flatly denied making any pledge to protect CPEC. "I have raised my principle point of view on the unequal distribution of CPEC projects, including gaps and challenges during a formal and informal meeting with Chinese officials," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
A source within Pakistan's National Party, whose president Dr. Malik Baloch was also part of the delegation, told the Nikkei Asian Review that they had found it surprising that pro-China media outlets had made such claims. The source said that their president had raised the issue of Balochistan not benefiting sufficiently from CPEC, rather than making any pledges to protect it.
Experts suggest that Beijing's effort to play up its support from local groups will be ineffective, as there is very little the invited leaders can do.
"The actual resistance to CPEC comes from the Baloch insurgent groups. None of the delegates in this China tour belonged to any of these groups," said Akbar. "So, their support means nothing against the groups that were engaged in the attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi [last November] and the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar [in May this year]."
The incumbent government of Pakistan has substantially slowed progress on CPEC projects in the country, with the delegation from Balochistan not having the necessary influence to bring about a change in Islamabad's stance.