Pakistani politicians decry 'unfair' China corridor route

A man hangs decorations on a pole next to a banner showing Pakistan's President Mamnoon Hussain (L), China's President Xi Jinping (C) and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ahead of Xi's visit to Islamabad April 19, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

By Gul Yousafzai QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Politicians in Pakistan complained on Wednesday that a plan for projects worth $46 billion to be built with Chinese funding has been unfairly changed to the disadvantage of two provinces. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the plan in Pakistan on Monday. It involves energy and infrastructure projects linking the neighbors' economies and creating an "economic corridor" between Pakistan's Gwadar port and China's western Xinjiang region. Gwadar is on the Arabian Sea in Baluchistan, Pakistan's poorest and least populous province, where rebels have waged a separatist insurgency for decades, complaining that richer provinces unfairly exploit their mineral and gas resources. The insurgency has raised doubts about the corridor, a network of roads, railways and pipelines. To minimize the risk, government planners have shifted its route east, to bypass as much of Baluchistan as possible, Baluchistan politicians said. "We will not accept this decision and will resist this move very strongly," provincial Minister for Planning and Development Hamid Khan Achakzai told Reuters. "It will be a big injustice." Jaffar Khan Mandokhel, a former provincial minister, said there would be a "strong reaction" to the change which would only benefit Pakistan's richest province. "The change is meant to give maximum benefit to Punjab, which is already considered the privileged province," he said. The route change would also mean the proposed corridor would largely bypass the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said opposition politician Imran Khan, whose party rules the province. He condemned any route change as an injustice. But federal Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal denied that there had been any change and said the project should not fall victim to provincial rivalry. "This impression that the route has been changed is wrong," Iqbal told a news conference. "Turning this into an issue of conflict between provinces is tantamount to sabotaging billions of dollars of investment." The complaints highlight the political risks for a plan China sees as a key part of its aim to forge "Silk Road" land and sea ties to markets in the Middle East and Europe. The Pakistani army said it was tackling the security risks by setting up a special division for the corridor, including nine army battalions and paramilitary forces. On Tuesday, six separatist militants and two soldiers were killed in clashes in Baluchistan, officials said. Islamist militants have also attacked Chinese workers in Pakistan. And China worries about Muslim separatists from Xinjiang, whom it blames for a series of attacks across China over the past year, getting training from Pakistani militants. (Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson)