The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a $46 billion mega-project which aims to connect Gwadar Port in South-western Pakistan to China’s North-western autonomous region of Xinjiang, via a network of highways, railways, oil & gas pipelines, and an optical fiber link.
The CPEC’s main locus lies in Kashagar, Xinjiang, and the western Autonomous Region that is home to China’s Muslim Uighur minority.
India is disturbed by the CPEC and trying to convince China that it will not benefit with this corridor; rather it will act as a ground for increasing problems in China as Uighur militant groups, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) have pursued sanctuary in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, where they have established contacts with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. China identifies the ETIM as a persistent threat, committed to targeting China and attacking Chinese interests inside Pakistan.
In April 2013 Islami Awazi, the ETIM propaganda wing, released a training video showing 13 Uighur children being trained in the use of weapons. Local militants say that dozens of Central Asian militants live in North Waziristan and it was difficult to differentiate between the Uzbeks and Uighur militants because of their similar appearances.
The problem China will face with the opening of this corridor is that there is a possibility that Uighur and Taliban (TTP) militants may join forces to threaten CPEC as it will facilitate the moving of terrorists.
In 2014, Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi, in a video message entitled “Let’s disturb China”, directed all Taliban groups to target Chinese interests in the region. In the same year, Uighur leader Abdullah Mansour in an interview to a leading news agency, vowed to carry out more attacks on Chinese interests.
Violent attacks in southern Xinjiang, located next to the Pakistani border, have been blamed by local officials on terror outfits with links to Pakistan-based groups. In on-going military operations, Pakistan Army has placed a special emphasis on the ETIM due to Chinese pressure and is concerned that attacks could delay or derail the CPEC.
The ETIM has been made further resourceful and deadly by training from ISIS where instances of Uighur militants being inducted in training camps have been seen. According to a leading security analyst, Siegfried O. Wolf, until the last decade or so, Pakistan establishment pursued a lenient approach to the Uighur presence in its north-western tribal areas and remained largely indifferent to their separatist cause in China. This policy framework was changed in order to appease China, which felt uncomfortable about the fact that Pakistan’s lawless tribal region bordering Afghanistan had developed into a sanctuary for Uighur extremists.
Many Uighurs are resentful of such large, economically powerful and politically autonomous entities in Xinjiang that employ few of their own ethnic group. Moreover, Xinjiang province has a fragile environment and lacks water, and most of the oil & gas companies’ factories in the region need a lot of water.
India claims that the opening of the CPEC will also facilitate an easy movement of terrorists along the China-Pakistan border. In such a scenario, it is very likely that Pakistan will ask for more Chinese aid to curb the terror networks, and as such the Chinese could be faced with a new set of liabilities pertaining to maintain the security.