Mining, Money, and Murder: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

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Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Pakistan last week to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Mamnoon Hussain.  There was HUGE fanfare to welcome the Chinese head of state, including giant portraits, a fighter jet escort, and full military parades to guide him through Islamabad.  All of this was paired with media messages describing the “brotherhood” between the two nations and the “homecoming” of Xi Jinping.

Why all the to-do you ask?  Well, Pakistan desperately needs some help with their economy and any foreign investment is a huge lifeline that they cannot afford to miss out on.  With the United States pulling out of the region and that outlet for Pakistani goods severed, China is swooping in to fill the void.  You see, Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan is mostly for the purpose of signing infrastructure and energy deals for the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  This massive construction project (a road/rail/pipe line connecting China to the Arabian Sea via Pakistan) is expected to boost Pakistan’s underperforming economy with import/export and employment opportunity.  It will also provide an outlet for all of southern Pakistan’s huge mineral reserves.  China has promised $46 billion worth of investment!

However, there are things standing in the way.  You see, this corridor has to pass through our favorite province, Balochistan, and as we know there are plenty of people living there who are not particularly willing to support anything that will help the Pakistani government.  The Baloch resistance is likely to increase their anti-government/anti-development operations in the area and this is unacceptable for the Pakistani government.  There is a long history of disappearing Baloch activists.  Thousands of young Baloch have gone missing over the last several decades, never to be seen again.  The Pakistani government says that they are arrested on suspicion of terrorism but the family members call it abduction.  Just last year, 24 bullet-ridden bodies were found in the outskirts of Quetta.  This valuable new deal with China and the threat the Baloch pose mean we are likely to see an increase in violence from both sides and an increased lack of attention to human rights for the Baloch.

Already the blood has begun to flow.  This past Friday, a Pakistani human rights activist, Sabeen Mahmud was shot and killed on her drive home in Karachi.  Sabeen was the director of the community open dialogue organization “The Second Floor” which had just that night hosted a discussion on police violence in Balochistan called “Unsilencing Balochistan”.  Investigations are underway but it is widely speculated that her murder is in some way tied to the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (essentially Pakistan’s CIA/Secret Service) who does not take kindly to any support for the Baloch.

The Port of Gwadar: China-1, Balochistan-0.

Sierra Exif JPEGAs far back as 1958, Pakistan realized the opportunity for shipping and commerce in the coastal fishing town of Gwadar.  Located just outside the Strait of Ormuz, the small village had a deep water port just begging to be developed.  So, not wanting to miss out on this economic god-send, Pakistan quickly purchased the plot of land from Oman, who had owned this small piece of the Pakistani land mass for the past 200 years.  Surveys and proposals for a port were soon conducted but no true progress in the plan actually began until much later.  In the mid 90’s the government of Pakistan built a small shipping operation but did not see much business.  The real boom began in 2002 when the contract for the construction of a large scale port was awarded to a Chinese firm.  In fact, the full operational control of the port is now also in the hands of the Chinese who plan to involve it in the importing of oil to their gas-hungry nation.  Because of a lull in profits after it’s opening, the Pakistani government decided to hand the operations to the Chinese and include a plethora of tax breaks to encourage more investment.  While handing over control, Pakistan’s federal government did retain rights to some profits: 9% return on revenue from cargo and maritime services and 15% return on commerce in the free-trade zone of the port.

China gets some moolah and handles all the work, and Pakistan provides the port and skims some cash of the top.  Seems like a win-win for all involved, right?  Not necessarily.  The poor residents of the small fishing village located at Gwadar are yet to see any benefit for them and their families.  They are still listed as one of the worst, if not THE worst, performing area in regards to the UN’s Global Development Goals.  They lack clean water, access to healthcare, education, etc.  While Pakistan has routinely harped on the economic boom the port will provide for the community, outside workers continue to be shipped in from Karachi and China to handle the operation of the port.  Beyond this, the port is also being used to ship mineral resources mined from Balochistan’s fertile countryside.  None of this money made from this port seems to be making its way back to the people of the most impoverished of provinces.  And to make it worse, many Baloch are convinced that by keeping the local populace of Gwadar down and importing huge numbers of outside workers, the Pakistani government is trying to turn the local Baloch majority into an ethnic minority.

More info on the Port of Gwadar and what it means for the Baloch people: http://thediplomat.com/2014/12/can-chinas-dream-of-a-pakistan-port-survive-local-ire/

Blog Audit

I’ve learned a lot about blogging over the last nine weeks.  More specifically, I’ve learned a lot about the DIFFICULTIES of blogging over the last nine weeks.  What a hard format to write in!  You’ve essentially got to keep a train of thought going week after week and expand upon previous posts while still publishing a smaller, complete thought in each post.  Aaaand to be honest with myself, I don’t think I’ve done a very good job.  I tried to provide some groundwork by writing about Baloch history, but that is such a huge topic that I’ve ended up writing about very little else.  Maybe I need to just provide links to other sources so readers can get themselves spun up on whatever history they want, letting me move on to more current topics.

I also need to incorporate a larger array of media in my posts.  I threw up a video about the mindset of rural Pakistani Baloch and the way they label themselves which would have been a perfect segue out of the history lesson and into current events.  I could maybe include more original video clips, or music clips.  Links to timely news pieces in the region paired with explanations of the larger political picture would be good, too.  So far I have just spewed a few history lessons without any real focus, so from here on I’ll need to remember to tie these posts back into current context.

In regards to the upcoming research paper, I will hone in on the current nationalist struggle and how it relates to the United States.  Some questions to address will be: How was/is the nationalist conflict affected by the presence of US forces in Afghanistan?  Have drone strikes changed the conflict at all?  What sort of ties does the Baloch Nationalist Movement have with the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban?  Should the United States support the Baloch nationalists?  All of these questions revolve around the current Global War on Terror and are particularly relevant to our country and its future involvement in the region.

What’s the Deal with Baluch Nationalism?

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Though it may not be obvious to the rest of the world, there has been a bloody war going on within Pakistan for almost 70 years.  It’s an on-going military struggle between the central government of Pakistan and a group of the country’s Baluch population.  The Baluch claim that their former country of Baluchistan was unjustly absorbed by Pakistan.  Meanwhile, the Pakistani government points to the accession agreement signed my Baluchistan’s last leader which put the country under the rule of Pakistan.  Regardless of the right or wrong of history, the situation today has the Baluch fighting for political independence and a release from Pakistani rule while Pakistan fights to retain its largest, and potentially most profitable, province.

The week of 11 to 15 August of 1947 is remembered as a hugely important time for the countries of southern Asia.  The 15th saw India gain independence from Great Britain, the 14th had Pakistan gaining the same, and on the 11th was Baluchistan’s day.  All three of these countries were now independent and sovereign, free to rule themselves.  That freedom has prevailed to this day for Pakistan and India, but for Baluchistan it lasted less than a year.  In April of 1948, the Pakistani army arrived in Kalat (the capitol of Baluchistan) and allegedly forced the Khan to sign an agreement adding his country to the territory of Pakistan.  Now, I write “allegedly” because depending on who you ask, the Khan either signed willingly or signed only under the threat of military force.  Today, there is so much to be either lost or gained by the two sides that it really doesn’t matter what actually happened, what matters is that since April of 1948, Baluchistan has been a part of Pakistan, much to the vexation of many Baluch.  What has followed is seventy years of intermittent Baluch revolts and an ever tightening Pakistani grip on Baluchistan.

Next week: A timeline of failed revolutions

3000 years in 300 words

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The history of Baluchistan’s origins is riddled with holes and there is plenty of disagreement on the details, but what is generally accepted as fact is that their roots can be traced to the area near the present day city of Aleppo beside the Caspian Sea. About a thousand years before the Christian Era, they migrated east into northern Persia likely because of a general state of unrest there. Over the next several hundred years they made their way further east and through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Because they migrated into a arid, dusty plain, it is theorized that their migration was motivated by political and military pressures (i.e. those Mongol jerks) as opposed to a search for resources. By year zero the Baluch had established themselves as one of the major role players on the Iranian plateau. Similar to many peoples of that area, the majority of Baloch herded sheep, but they also were very active in plundering the travelers along the desert trade routes. This habit brought about conflict with the other conglomerates in town and this eventually forced further movement eastwards into what we now know as Balochistan. Around the mid 17th century, the Baluch people were politically united under one leader with the title of Khan. This began the 300 year reign of the Khans of Kalat. The signing of a treaty with the Bristish in 1839 essentially wrapped the region into the fold of British India where it remained under indirect Brotish control until the time of partition in 1947. At this point, Afghanistan and Iran took their portions of rural Baluchistan while the principle state, Kalat, remained intact. Pakistan was created and recognized the sovereignty of the Baluchistan state. The two existed independently until April of 1948 when the Pakistani government seized control of the Baluch administration. That date is considered the end of Baluchistan as a country and the beginning of its mistreatment by the Pakistani government. There have been a handful of Baluch Independence movements since which we will look into in later editions.

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At 134,000 or so square miles (about half of Texas) Baluchistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces.  As you can see in the map above, it is bordered by Afghanistan to the north, Iran to the west, the Arabian Sea to the south, and the Pakistani province of Sindh to the east.  Generally, when Baluchistan is mentioned, this is the place that people are talking about, but like many places in that region of the world its official political borders are not an accurate depiction of its historic or cultural borders.  In the same way that Iranian Persians or Afghan Pashtuns have distinct cultural features, the Baloch people have their own unique cultural identity and have been an established conglomeration of tribes on the Iranian plateau since about the 10th century CE.  The term “Greater Baluchistan” is what is now commonly used to describe the historic kingdom (or Khanate as it’s ruled by a Khan instead of a King) that was eventually divided in the mid-20th century.  As the British Empire dissolved in the area and new country border lines were being drawn, the majority of the Baloch Khanate became the Pakistani province I’ve been describing and the rest was split into Pakistan’s western neighbors.  A sizable piece (about 25% of today’s Baloch population) became the Sistan and Baluchistan Province of Iran while the northern reaches of Baloch territory became part of Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces.  Throughout this series of post I will spend time talking about all three of these fragments separately and looking into their similar histories as well as the different paths they’ve taken since their dissolution.

Throughout its long history, Baluchistan has been sort of eclipsed by its more noticeable neighbors.  Britain’s involvement there was practically a footnote in the colonization of the Indian subcontinent and was relatively uneventful.  In more modern times they’ve stubbornly resisted the Pakistani government’s strong handed rule and embarked on a series of campaigns for political independence throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, but these have also been hardly noticed outside of the country.  As the United States’ Global War on Terror has moved into the region, we would have expected the Baloch insurgency to pique a little more interest, but it seems to have been forgotten amidst the noise.  It’s never been a secret that its vast stretches of dusty mountains and sandy plains have hid huge reserves of mineral and oil deposits, only recently has there been a move to exploit these resources.  We’ll look into why things have played out this way and what we can expect in the near future.

I am just beginning my dive into the story of this fascinating place and I invite you to read along as I look at the story of Baluchistan’s beginning, tumultuous growth, colonization, disheartening “de-colonization”, struggle for sovereignty, and possible entry into the international economic scene.

-B