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Belt and Road

Khan tries to ease concerns over China's Belt and Road

Pakistani province demands fair share of $62bn development project

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, right, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing last November. Officials in Pakistan’s Balochistan province say it is failing to reap the full benefits of major infrastructure projects in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.   © Reuters

QUETTA, Pakistan -- A restive province in Pakistan has tempered its criticism toward the central government following a visit by the country's prime minister last week, when he inaugurated construction projects seen as crucial for the local economy.

Analysts said that Imran Khan's trip to southern Balochistan province served to placate the grievances of local leaders over the Beijing-funded $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

While Balochistan is home to major infrastructure projects in China's Belt and Road Initiative, local leaders have said the province is failing to reap the full benefits of development. Last October, the provincial assembly of Balochistan said the province was being ignored, with the region's chief minister claiming it was not getting a significant share of the corridor's projects.

The assembly had adopted a resolution demanding the formation of a national commission to show that there has been an "injudicious distribution of projects and funds under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor," known as CPEC, a series of projects that include highways, railways and energy infrastructure that span the country.

On Friday, Khan visited Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, where he inaugurated the groundbreaking of the 305km-long Zhob-Kuchlak leg of the N-50 National Highway, which was officially termed part of the western alignment of the CPEC.

With a price tag of 79 billion rupees ($561.3 million), N-50 will be the first four-lane highway in the province. Khan described the western route a "game changer," saying that work on the highway should have started sooner.

Later that day, Khan traveled to Gwadar, a coastal town on the Arabian Sea in southwest Balochistan, where he laid the foundation for the Gwadar International Airport, which will be built with the help of a grant of $246 million from China. A memorandum of understanding for the airport, which will be the largest airport in Pakistan, was signed between the two countries in 2015 but work had been delayed.

The Chinese government has invested heavily in Gwadar to develop a strategically important port for the CPEC, but experts on the region noted that the provincial government had developed hostility toward the CPEC.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington-based journalist and analyst, told the Nikkei Asian Review that most political promises never materialize into concrete action. "Therefore, people [of Balochistan] no longer express excitement over such promises and announcements of development," he said.

Khan also said he would work to resolve a pressing issue of Gwadar's fishermen -- fishing is the primary livelihood for the majority of the city's residents -- who were obstructed from working after the development of various infrastructure projects.

Ongoing construction of the Eastbay Expressway -- part of the CPEC, connecting Chinese-operated Gwadar port with the Makran Coastal Highway by linking the port with northern Pakistan -- has blocked the ability of fishermen to enter the sea.

Nasir Sohrabi, president of Gwadar's Rural Community Development Council, claimed that the halt of fishing activity has badly affected the city's local economy. "Proceeds from the sale of caught fish make up 80% of the local economy," he said.

Khuda-i-Dad Wajo, leader of the fishermen's alliance, said that the Eastbay Expressway has stolen the livelihood of more than 25,000 fishermen in Gwadar. "Seven months ago, the Chinese Communication Construction Company started working on the Eastbay Expressway, and we were prevented from entering the sea to fish," he said.

However, Wajo called off a monthslong protest after Khan said his government would build three bridges on the expressway that would allow the fishermen access to the sea. "We will wait for two months for the government to make good its promise of letting us in the sea for fishing -- and after that, we will resume our protest," he vowed.

Meanwhile, separatist insurgents, who have carried out fatal attacks on Chinese targets in the province for more than a decade, have vowed to continue strikes against BRI projects in the region.

Analysts have noted that China is viewed in some regions of Pakistan as a neocolonialist power, and that it would be difficult for Khan to keep the promises he made to Balochistan officials to address their concerns or does not include more infrastructure projects for the province in next year's budget.

"Khan failed to talk about any progress his government has made in its efforts to reconcile with the Baloch nationalists who are the key critics and spoilers of CPEC in the province," Akbar said, adding that he believes opposition to the CPEC from the province will not end until the central government engages Baloch insurgents.

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