China has been quietly holding talks with Pakistani tribal separatists for more than five years in an effort to protect the $60bn worth of infrastructure projects it is financing as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Three people with knowledge of the talks told the Financial Times that Beijing had been in direct contact with militants in the south-western state of Baluchistan, where many of the scheme’s most important projects are located.
For more than half a century, Beijing has maintained a policy of non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries. But that has been tested by its desire to protect the billions of dollars it is investing around the world under its Belt and Road Initiative to create a “new Silk Road” of trade routes in Europe, Asia and Africa.
In Pakistan, Beijing appears keen to fill the void left by Washington, which has drifted from its former ally after becoming frustrated at Islamabad’s failure to tackle extremism. Beijing’s willingness to get involved in Pakistani politics has fuelled concerns in New Delhi, which is worried about China’s growing political influence in neighbouring countries, including Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
“The Chinese have quietly made a lot of progress,” said one Pakistani official. “Even though separatists occasionally try to carry out the odd attack, they are not making a forceful push.”
As it seeks to boost the Chinese economy, China’s plans for a new Silk Road has pitched Beijing into some of the world’s most complex conflict zones.
Chinese peacekeepers are already in South Sudan, where Beijing has invested in oilfields and is planning to build a rail line. China has also contributed troops to a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali and even talked about launching attacks against Isis in Iraq, where it has been the largest foreign investor in the country’s oil sector.
Pakistan, which is set to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the infrastructure initiative, is one of the riskiest parts of the world in which to do business. Last year 10 local workers were killed by unidentified gunmen while working near Gwadar port, the linchpin of the economic corridor.
Some have warned that China’s investment could lead to Pakistan being treated like a client state by Beijing, despite promises that Chinese troops would not be stationed there.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is portrayed as an economic project to boost infrastructure and connectivity but, increasingly, it has significant local political and strategic dimensions,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Pakistani officials, however, have welcomed the talks between Baluch rebels and Chinese envoys, even if they do not know the details of what has been discussed. “Ultimately, if there’s peace in Baluchistan, that will benefit both of us,” said one official in Islamabad.
Another said the recent decision by the US to suspend security assistance to Pakistan had convinced many in Islamabad that China was a more genuine partner. “[The Chinese] are here to stay and help Pakistan, unlike the Americans, who cannot be trusted,” the person said.
Pakistan is planning to buy Chinese military helicopters and components for surveillance drones as part of its plan to fortify its border with Afghanistan with a 2,600km-long fence.
Chinese officials did not comment on the talks, though the Chinese ambassador to Islamabad said in a recent interview with the BBC that militants in Baluchistan were no longer a threat to the economic corridor.
One provincial tribal leader said many young men had been persuaded to lay down their weapons by the promise of financial benefits. “Today, young men are not getting attracted to join the insurgents as they did some 10 years ago,” he said. “Many people see prosperity” as a result of the China-Pakistan corridor, he said.
This article has been amended to reflect that the 10 workers killed near Gwadar port last year were Pakistanis
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