Pakistan-China friendship, that was already “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel” – as reiterated by signboards all over Islamabad last week – got even higher, deeper, sweeter and stronger with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was penned via 51 MoUs last week. Echoing similar sentiments, Chinese President Xi Jinping had written in an open editorial prior to his Pakistan trip that he felt as if he was “going to visit the home of (his) own brother.” Hence, it wasn’t exactly the $46 billion worth Eidi that many are touting it as. China of course is looking to reap the benefits of the biggest overseas investment that it has ever tabled.
In addition to bolstering the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and getting direct access to the Middle East via Gwadar, China is vying to accelerate the economic development of Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of the country. Despite being the largest administrative division in China, Xinjiang has lagged behind the rest of the country owing to a plethora of reasons, at the heart of which is the separatist movement orchestrated by the local Uighur Muslims who envisage an independent East Turkestan for themselves.
The independence movements for East Turkestan can be traced all the way back to Pan-Mongolian endeavours from the 19th century. The battles of Kashgar (1933-34) saw Hui Muslims crush Turkic separatists to conquer the First East Turkestan Republic. The Second East Turkestan Republic was vanquished by the People’s Liberation Army, the victor of the Chinese civil war that led to the creation of People’s Republic of China in 1949.
In 1955 around three-fourths of the Xinjiang population were Uighur Muslims. In the ensuing decades, the influx and influence of Han people in the region and the skewed state policies alienated the Uighurs.
Uighur separatists orchestrated around 200 attacks from 1990 till 2001, killing 162 and injuring over 440 people. Following 9/11 China launched its own ‘War on Terror’ against Uighur separatists, upping the ante on policies that have directly, and blatantly, targeted the Uighurs.
Following the upsurge in Uighur terrorism in the last couple of years that have seen attacks in Turpan Prefecture, Kumming, Urumqi and Yarkand, which killed hundreds of local citizens, the Chinese government banned locals with long beards, veils, headscarves or any clothes with ‘Islamic symbols’, from boarding public transport in the lead up to a local sports even in Karamay. As Uighur terrorism has risen, China’s clampdown on Islam has increased in Xinjiang.
The CPEC links Xinjiang to Balochistan, which is the hub of a separatist movement of its own. The Kalat Operation in 1948; the Nowroz Khan led guerrilla warfare in 1958-59 against the One Unit Policy which was replicated under the leadership of Sher Muhammad Bijrani Marri in 1960s and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s military operation in the 1970s, laid the foundation of Baloch estrangement. The alienation was exacerbated with the military operation in the 2000s, which saw Akbar Bugti being killed in 2006. The current conflict in Balochistan is the extension of the Musharraf-led operation.
The major concern expounded by all Baloch leaders from Nowroz Khan to Brahamdagh Bugti is with regards to greater control over Balochistan’s resources and a fair profit sharing mechanism. The CPEC has opened old wounds, after the Pakistani federal government decided to change the route of the 3,000-km long economic corridor. The CPEC will now traverse Punjab and parts of Sindh, before connecting with Gwadar, going virtually parallel to the coastline after entering Balochistan. The reason cited for the rerouting is the volatile security situation in Balochistan, which is why the route within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has also been altered.
While the claim that the CPEC is meant to benefit “Punjab only” is a slight exaggeration, there is no doubt that the government is taking the escape route, instead of addressing the genuine concerns of the Baloch locals. It is no coincidence that military operations in North Waziristan and Balochistan have been escalated in the lead up to the signatures on CPEC, with China alleging that Uighur militants are being trained by the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.
Both Pakistan and China are brimming with paranoia vis-à-vis their respective estranged communities and regions. Both allege foreign hands in destabilising Balochistan and Xinjiang and both refuse to own up to their blunders in dealing with the Baloch and Uighurs over the past half a century.
Islamabad refuses to acknowledge that “Baloch terrorists” are but a fringe group in a province that is simply asking for its just share in financial benefits generated courtesy of its natural resources or geostrategic location. Beijing, meanwhile, doesn’t realise that the Wahhabi Uighur extremists are a minority among Uighur Muslims, most of whom rightly feel isolated by state policies that target Islam and Muslims.
China and Pakistan are looking to address the gravest issues emanating from their biggest administrative divisions, through the long out-dated iron fist, culminating in blatant human rights abuses in both regions. While China is resorting to augmenting economic benefits as a means to quell Uighur separatism and unrest, it is still unclear whether Balochistan will get anything tangible out of the development of Gwadar port.
While China makes Negmat Rahman, a Uighur Muslim, the host of the Spring Festival gala – the most watched event in the country – and Pakistan makes Dr Malik Baloch, ostensibly a Baloch national, the chief minister of Balochistan, both countries are typically leaning towards tokenism to give unsatisfactory answers to uncomfortable questions.
Beijing and Islamabad might have collaborated to sign deals that will bolster both the countries economically and geopolitically, but if the two gateways to the corridor don’t receive their share of benefits – both financial and political – it would further estrange the two alienated communities. Economic growth can never be founded upon military operations, human rights abuses, state sanctioned oppression and tokenism. For CPEC to become a veritable success for both countries, both Islamabad and Beijing would have to stare deep into the mirror, hold their hands up and right the wrongs of the past 50 years.