China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as Contentious State Space

Maham Hameed, Research Fellow, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore, Pakistan

Former MA Student at Comparative Studies in History and Society Program, Koç University



One of the most prominent features of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the highly visible presence of the state. Both Chinese and Pakistani states have precious stakes in the project and are playing a crucial role in kick-starting the investment regime constituting both public and private sectors. Pakistani state, specifically the Sharif government (June 2013 – July 2017), was at pains to claim ownership of the project despite the fact that allegedly most of the projects will be private ventures. The highly visible development under CPEC would have given the Sharif government legitimacy. The signing of MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding), financial agreements, inauguration ceremonies, and press releases are heavily advertised through media. On project sites, along with a billboard of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s picture, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s picture is carefully placed. Quick results of CPEC would have benefitted the Sharif government in the next elections, but the relationship between the state and infrastructure is much deeper than the interests of one regime. State and infrastructure are closely entwined together in the exercise of nation-making.

The phenomenon of state space as a nation-making exercise has been extensively studied.[ii] Development and expansion of infrastructure has been understood as a tool that lends legitimacy to the state. This relationship becomes intensified in the context of post-colonial societies. In the 1950s emerged a distinct discourse in the global economic development circles focusing on development as infrastructure.[iii] This shift was crucial for the then Third World not only in concrete economic terms – in formulating financing arrangements and defining the trajectory of international aid – but also in how it affected state’s role as a central planning authority. Infrastructure was placed at the center for the economic reconstruction of postcolonial societies like Pakistan. Pakistan was to develop using foreign financing and expertise from the World Bank and Ford Foundation. Foreign advisors and economists developed ideas that aided the development of the new discourse locally. To overcome its backwardness, it not only had to have a disciplined, enterprising and productive population, but it also needed national electricity grid, industries, automobiles, roads, and airports. Furthermore, infrastructure was also imagined as a binding force between the geographically odd East and West Pakistan.[iv]

However, as is the case with any lived reality, this process of state engendering social relations with space is not straightforward and complete. As Lefebvre first recognized, state space is simultaneously homogenous and fractured.[v] Within the context of Pakistan, the cause of this differentiation is uneven economic development manifested in space.[vi] Efforts of the central state to integrate the national space through development of infrastructure have been met with resistance from provinces, especially Sindh and Balouchistan. Intensifying over the years, these resistances have developed into regionalist ambitions.

Although most of the tension between the provinces emerged from the Punjabi disproportionate presence in the bureaucratic and military structure of the state, friction between Punjab and Sindh is also rooted in the technological appropriation of Indus river waters. As more water began to be held by Punjab through various infrastructure technologies, Sindh’s water rights got stifled. The Punjabi military-bureaucratic elite helped Punjab appropriate a greater share of Indus waters than was its due.[vii] The beginning of friction between Balouchistan and the central state can be traced as far back as the creation of Pakistan. At the time of independence, the tribal leaders and municipal authorities in ‘British Balouchistan’, were given the authority to choose between declaring Balouchistan an independent state or to join Pakistan. Although, these elites opted to join Pakistan, there were committed groups of activists that opposed the manner in which this decision was imposed. Actions against the project ranged from peaceful political organizing to sabotage. The nascent state, dominated by the Punjabi military-bureaucratic elite, responded with arrests and its own sabotage campaigns.[viii] The friction between the central state and Balouch activists continued throughout the history of Pakistan, gaining momentous during periods of insurgencies and military action in 1948, 1958, 1962, 1973, and 2004 (which marks the latest wave of insurgency). The recent wave of Balouch nationalist movement has been fueled by the massive development projects that the central government is undertaking in the province.[ix] Government of Pakistan, from the very beginning, has exploited the province by extracting the provincial resources without giving the Balouch their due share. Not only have the royalties for these resources been low, but the province has also benefited the least from them. Hence, the Balouch nationalists and militants, extremely skeptical of these interventions of central state, have mainly targeted Pakistani and foreign involvement in ‘development’ projects in Balouchistan.

In this context of center-province tensions, the promise of CPEC becomes highly attractive. CPEC signifies a massive infrastructure development project that promises to integrate the nation through networks of roads and railways and production and provision of electricity. However, it is my contention that despite the promises of connectivity, integration, and development of entire nation, CPEC has mobilized a new wave of regional politics. Planning of CPEC has been highly centralist and provincial governments have not responded well to these tendencies. The regionalist forces have opposed the project in two broad ways: through demanding greater share in the project or through completely rejecting the interventions.

The center-province friction has manifested itself through the CPEC route controversy. Provincial governments have objected to the change in route of the roads and railways projects. The government of Pakistan announced that the original route, or Western alignment, will start after the completion of eastern alignment. According to the original plan, the corridor – constituting highways and railways – was to connect Gwadar to Kashgar, passing through various southern and eastern districts of Balouchistan, some parts of South Punjab, Islamabad (beyond which there is no difference between the Eastern and Western route).[x] However, fears (backed by statistical data) among the regional elites have started emerging that central political elite is giving priority to the eastern route – the route that prioritizes development in central Punjab, leaving out the marginalized regions of the country.[xi] The Eastern Route completely cuts through Balouchistan, connects Gwadar to Karachi through bypassing major districts in Balouchistan, and mostly passes through the relatively well-developed provinces of Punjab and Sindh.[xii] Although the maps have not been disclosed and statements have been kept vague and confusing, what does emerge from the press releases is that the route has been changed to pass mostly through Central Punjab instead.[xiii]

The trend in Balouchistan, due to history of exploitation in the province, has been the opposite. They have opposed CPEC on the grounds that it will further strengthen the circle of exploitation emerging from the center – this time in collaboration with a foreign state.[xiv] The Balouch separatists and militants have shown their opposition to CPEC by carrying out various acts of sabotage such as target killing and abduction of CPEC workers and blasts targeting CPEC project sites or infrastructure.[xv]

So far, little has been done by the central state to assuage these regionalist ambitions. The state has either responded with threats or vague reassurances. China’s response has been passive so far. Perhaps the most salient feature of Chinese capital that has been readily advertised as the revolutionary principle that marks the new global order is that of non-interference and peaceful coexistence. China’s interest in security, political stability, and reluctance to engage in contentious politics abroad are partly attributable to China’s long history of internal and external insecurity and paranoia.[xvi] The persistent internal threats of secessionist movements have pushed China to enter into forming coalitions with anti-secessionist movements, the consequences of which transcend the national boundaries.[xvii] These anti-secessionist sentiments and external security threats combined with the economic interests of China, “seem to push China to preserve the global status quo in a very consistent manner.”[xviii]

Hence, it is safe to expect here that China will also not react well to the regional elites making diverging claims to the central planning of CPEC. China will not tolerate giving concessions or autonomy to the regionalist elements lest it gives confidence to the regionalists in its own boundaries. So, unless there is an organized resistance or multilateral pressure, what we are looking at is another foreign investment regime leading to deeper fractures in the national space.

[i] This op-ed was derived from my thesis submitted to the Graduate School of Social Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Comparative Studies in History and Society at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey completed in June 2017.

[ii] See Lefebvre, H. (2009) “Space and the state”, in N. Brenner and S. Elden (Eds.) State, Space, World: Selected Essays (pp 223–253). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Anwar, N. H. (2015) Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan: London; Dalakoglou, D. (2010) “The Road: An Ethnography of the Albanian-Greek Cross-border Motorway,” American Ethnologist, Volume 37, Number 1; Knox, H. and Harvey, P. (2015) Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise, Cornell University Press; Knox, H. and Harvey, P. (2012) “The Enchantments of Infrastructure,” Mobilities, 7 (4): 521-536; Larkin, B. (2013) “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, (42): 327-343, available at; Akhter, M. (2015) “Infrastructure Nation: State Space, Hegemony, and Hydraulic Regionalism in Pakistan,” Antipode, 47(4): 849-870.

[iii] Anwar, N. H. (2015) Infrastructure Redux: Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan: London.

[iv] Ibid. On the eve of independence, the regions that constituted Pakistan were physically separated into two exclaves – West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). The eastern and western wings were separated from each other by the Republic of India.

[v] Lefebvre, H. (2009) “Space and the state,” in N Brenner and S Elden (Eds). State, Space, World: Selected Essays (pp. 223–253), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[vi] Akhter, M. (2015) “Infrastructure Nation: State Space, Hegemony, and Hydraulic Regionalism in Pakistan,” Antipode, 47(4): 849-870.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Titus, P. and Swidler, N. (2000) “Knights, Not Pawns: Ethno-Nationalism and Regional Dynamics in Post-Colonial Balochistan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, (32): 47-69.

[ix] Grare, F. (2006) “Pakistan: The Resurgence of Baloch Nationalism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pp. 1-15.

[x] Abid, M. and Ashfaq, A. (2015) “CPEC: Challenges and Opportunities for Pakistan,” Pakistan Vision, 16(2):

[xi] Mengal, S. (2016) “CPEC Route Controversy: Problems and Opportunities,” Bi-Annual Research Journal BALOCHISTAN REVIEW, ISSN 1810-2174, Balochistan Study Centre, University of Balochistan, Quetta (Pakistan) VOL. XXXV, NO. 2, 2016.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Bengali, K. (2015) China Pakistan Economic Corridor? The Route Controversy. Chief Minister’s Policy Reform Unit. Government of Balochistan.

[xiv] Ahmad, R. and Hong, M. (2017) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Its Social Implication on Pakistan: How Will CPEC Boost Pakistan’s Infrastructures and Overcome the Challenges? Arts and Social Sciences Journal, (8): 265, Available online at (; Mengal, S. (2016) CPEC Route Controversy: Problems and Opportunities. Bi-Annual Research Journal BALOCHISTAN REVIEW, ISSN 1810-2174, Balochistan Study Centre, University of Balochistan, Quetta (Pakistan) VOL. XXXV, NO. 2.

[xv] Although there is no available data on the number of CPEC-related terrorist activities that have occurred in the past, following are some news reports on the various incidents that demand our attention:

[xvi] Shambaugh, D. L. (2013) China goes global: the partial power. Oxford University Press: New York.

[xvii] Karatasli, S. and Kumral, S. (2017) “Territorial Contradictions of the Rise of China: Geopolitics, Nationalism and Hegemony in Comparative-Historical Perspective,” Journal of World-Systems Research, 23(1), pp.5-35, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 11 Jun. 2017].

[xviii] Ibid