China’s BRI aggravates ethnic tensions in Southern countries – The Diplomat
While Western analysts see the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the centerpiece of Chinese strategy political and economic power overseas projection, China is promoting it as a game-changer for the economic development of the Global South. From these two perspectives, we show that China’s institutional approach of working largely with ruling regimes, which often include the majority ethnic group, unintentionally heightens ethnic tensions in the host country.
This is seen in the case of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship BRI project linking China to Gwadar port on the Indian Ocean. Gwadar happens to be located in Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan and is home to violent insurgencies. There are in total 42 projects in the CPEC in several sectors. Only nine projects have been completed so far, all in the energy sector.
China and Pakistan have boasted of their bilateral relationship as “rock solid and unbreakable.” Indeed, the military establishment controls Pakistan’s foreign policy, so changing civilian governments do not have a major impact on relations with China. However, due to the incompetence of Imran Khan’s regime in Pakistan, disagreement over the roadmap between the two countries and political fragility, the CPEC has had to face significant to slow downs over the past four years.
But CPEC also faces a more immediate, literal threat. On April 26, three Chinese teachers were killed in a suicide bombing near the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a separatist group, the Baloch Liberation Army. It was the first suicide bombing by a Baloch woman.
This tragic incident was one of many attacks targeting Chinese workers by Baloch insurgent groups since the establishment of the CPEC. Balochistan shares a disproportionate burden of CPEC projects, providing 62 percent of the land, including the Gwadar coastline, but it is he who derives the least benefit from the effort. Of the $62 billion projects, Balochistan only gets 4.5% from the budget. In contrast, the relatively developed eastern side of the country, the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, make the most of lucrative highways and projects through CPEC.
The unfair the distribution of burdens and benefits is fueling social unrest among the people of Balochistan. They have long campaigned against operating policies of the federal government, they say benefit other provinces to the detriment of the people of Balochistan.
For example, like Rafiullah Khan wrote for The Express Tribune“Of the $21 billion in ‘priority energy projects’, there is only one project in KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] (worth $1.8 billion) and two in Balochistan (worth $1.3 billion). Political parties of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to affirm that while their resources are being used, the accrued benefits go primarily to the other two provinces of this multi-billion dollar project.
In 2018, the Balochistan Assembly adopted a resolution urging the federal government to set up a national commission to address the “misguided allocation of projects and funds under CPEC.” However, that was not the case change the mood of the federal government.
Pakistan rented port of Gwadar to a Chinese state-owned company for 40 years, promising that the port city of Gwadar would become the Singapore from Pakistan. But the people of Balochistan blame the Chinese for the shortage of food, water and electricity. Over the past few months, thousands of people have participated in protest against water and electricity shortages amid Chinese detention illegal fishing trawlers in nearby waters, perceived as a threat to local livelihoods.
The opaque terms of CPEC investments and the secrecy around its contracts, typical of Chinese financial practices, exclude the provincial Balochistan lawmakers to make decisions and prevent them from holding the federal government indebted. These legislators have repeatedly complained of being excluded of the decision-making process regarding CPEC by the federal government. It deepens the existing mistrust between the federal government and the provincial government of Balochistan.
Instead of an inclusive political solution to these grievances, the state authorities tried to curb the campaigns by a severe repression under the guise of national securityfurther alienating the Baloch ethnic group.
Pakistani state authorities reacted to the CPEC-related social unrest by increased hostility and Abuse of human rights. Amnesty International reported enforced disappearances targeting students, activists, journalists and human rights defenders in Balochistan, calling them widespread and systematic attacks directed against the civilian population of Balochistan and a violation of international human rights law. Last year Frontier Corps soldiers killed a Baloch student, Hayat Balochin front of his parents, who sets off protests across the country. Most of these enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings arrive on the pretext of national security.
Pakistan accepted China investment in the hope that it would bring economic prosperity. Balochistan’s inequitable share in this project and the resulting aggravation insurrection in Balochistan are major obstacles to this goal. Baloch nationalists view the project with suspicion; they fear that a higher volume of foreigners will change the demographics, making them a minority in their own province. Baloch insurgent groups see CPEC as an imperialist enterprise and want to squeeze out Chinese investors. Terrorist groups are attack increases on Chinese CPEC workers to pressure them to leave Balochistan. The CPEC thus aggravated ethnic grievances and led to heightened tensions between the federal and provincial governments.
The Council of Common Interests, a constitutional body in Pakistan that deals with inter-provincial grievances, can facilitate an inclusive political solution around the equitable distribution of benefits and burdens of CPEC, acceptable to all stakeholders. A democratic solution to address the grievances of the people of Balochistan would require a reduction in the military presence in the province and the establishment of a truth commission investigate serious human rights violations committed by State authorities.
The CPEC illustrates how ethnic tensions among the host country population can easily erupt when BRI projects bring in massive amounts of capital. The BRIs Chico River Pump Irrigation Project (CRPIP)which is located in the province of Kalinga in the Philippines, illustrates the same problems. Kalinga Province is located in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), which encompasses the lands of several indigenous groups across the country. The Kalinga group constitutes the majority of the population of the province that bears their name.
As one of the authors written in a previous analysis“The Chico River connects Mountain Province, another provincial district of CAR, to Cagayan Province… The CRPIP is designed to supply water to 7,530 hectares of agricultural land in the municipalities of Tuao and Piat, located in the province of Cagayan, and another 1,170 hectares in the municipality of Pinukpuk in the province of Kalinga.
Water from the Chico pump will “benefit Filipino lowland landowners and Filipino farmers”, according to a political broker in the Philippines. The resources of the Kalingas, one of the most oppressed minorities in the Philippines, will literally be siphoned off to support the interests of those in power both locally and in Manila.
Another case is the Indonesian Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), a fully integrated 5,000 hectare foundry and manufacturing park in Central Sulawesi Regency. Tsingshan Holding Group Co., Ltd., the Chinese investor, and Bintang Delapan Group, the Indonesian host country partner, were the investors in IMIP. The IMIP has exploited ethnic divisions among its Indonesian workforce. For example, the Torajas, an ethnic group from South Sulawesi, were brought in as workers in the foundries. IMIP has hired other ethnic groups who do not get along with the Torajas in the adjacent work unit, increasing the hurdle for Indonesian workers to collectively mobilize against IMIP.
In all of these examples, the BRI has exacerbated existing ethnic divides in host countries, thanks to China’s preference to deal exclusively with those in positions of power. The BRI analysis should go beyond the “debt trap”, geopolitics or economic fallout, but also examine the social fissures that emerge from the massive inflows of Chinese capital into host countries.