Security fears for China-Pakistan corridor as Xi ends visit

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping said Tuesday a US$46 billion economic corridor offered Pakistan a "historic development opportunity", but security fears linger over the project which involves major construction in some highly unstable areas.

Pakistani and Chinese officials on Monday signed a series of more than 50 accords to inaugurate the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will create a network of roads, railways and pipelines linking China's restive west to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan.

The project is part of Beijing's "Belt and Road" plan to expand its trade and transport footprint across Central and South Asia. It will give China easier access to Middle Eastern oil via the deepwater port of Gwadar in southwest Pakistan.

The Chinese aid also aims to boost Pakistan's long-underperforming economy, which the IMF projects will grow 4.3 per cent this year, and tackle its long-running energy crisis.

Beijing and Islamabad have long enjoyed close ties and Mr Xi's speech on Tuesday, the first by a Chinese president to a joint session of parliament, was full of the flowery rhetoric that typifies their official exchanges.

"Today Pakistan has a historic development opportunity. Prime Minister Sharif has crafted the vision of the Asian tiger dream. It outlines a great blueprint for Pakistan," he told lawmakers.

Rebel fears

But away from the handshakes and backslapping, there are real security concerns over much of the plan, which relies on developing Gwadar - control of which was passed to a Chinese company in 2013.

The port lies near the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, east of the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the Middle East's crude production passes.

But linking Gwadar to the rest of Pakistan and on to the western Chinese city of Kashgar, 3,000 kilometres away, would involve major infrastructure work in Baluchistan.

This is one of Pakistan's most unstable provinces and has been dogged for over a decade by a bloody separatist insurgency.

Ethnic Baluch rebels, who oppose Gwadar's development while the province is not independent, have in the past blown up numerous gas pipelines and trains and attacked Chinese engineers.

Earlier this month the Baluchistan Liberation Front claimed an attack in the province that left 20 construction workers from elsewhere in Pakistan dead, the bloodiest separatist incident since 2006.

Siddiq Baloch, editor of the Balochistan Express newspaper, said the rebels want to scare off investors and developers who are working with the Pakistani government - such as the Chinese.

"There is the thinking that by doing this, they want to disrupt the working of the economy, disrupt the administration, challenge the administration in the area," he told AFP.

Suppressing the rebellion by force in Baluchistan's desolate and sparsely-populated landscape, much of which is desert and mountains, has proven difficult.

Abdul Malik Baloch, the Baluchistan chief minister, said strenuous efforts were under way to try to negotiate with the rebels.

"I am trying to convince them, but still there are not convinced," he told AFP in the provincial capital Quetta.

"This is my honest opinion, this is the only way - to start talking and bring the insurgents to the table." Mr Xi wraps up his two-day visit on Tuesday before travelling on to Indonesia for an Asian-African summit.

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