By: Adnan Aamir
February 15, 2019 04:02 PM Age: 16 hours
Smoke rises over the PRC Consulate in Karachi after an attack by militants of the Baloch Liberation Army, November 23, 2018. (Source: Twitter)
On November 23, 2018, insurgents of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the PRC Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. The assault resulted in the deaths of seven people, including two police officers and three of the attackers (Dawn, November 23 2018). One month after this incident, the BLA commander responsible for the attack—Aslam Baloch, alias “Achoo”—was himself killed in a suicide attack in the Afghan city of Kandahar (Tolo News, December 26 2018). Despite the death of their leader, the BLA has vowed to continue attacks on Chinese interests in Balochistan (Balochistan Post, December 26 2018).
The BLA is one of the oldest, and arguably the largest, of at least six nationalist-separatist militant groups fighting against the Pakistani government for an independent Balochistan—a large province occupying the southwestern region of Pakistan, with its provincial capital in the city of Quetta (Terrorism Monitor, January 25). The November 2018 incident in Karachi raised the question as to why the BLA would seemingly turn aside from its struggle with Pakistan’s government in order to make a symbolic attack against a foreign country. The answer is found in the PRC’s extensive investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and how Baloch nationalists view the Chinese presence in their region.
Why Would Baloch Insurgents Target Chinese Interests in Pakistan?
Inaugurated in April 2015, CPEC is a bilateral agreement between Pakistan and China to develop an extensive economic and infrastructure corridor through Pakistan—one which will ultimately connect the port of Gwadar in southern Pakistan to the city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang Province (China Brief, July 15 2015; China Brief, January 12 2018). Under the CPEC program, China is to provide $62 billion USD to Pakistan to develop port facilities in Gwadar, energy generation projects, transportation infrastructure, and industrial zones (Business Recorder, April 13 2017; Express Tribune, April 17 2017). The stated aim of CPEC is to uplift the economy of Pakistan, and to allow the country to serve as an effective corridor for China’s broader “Belt and Road Initiative” (Planning Commission of Pakistan, December 19 2017).
Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan is currently experiencing an armed insurgency that started in 2005, when veteran Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti became embroiled in a dispute with then-President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf. The differences initially centered around royalties from natural gas mined in the resource-rich town of Dera Bugti, in northeast Balochistan. Later on, the building of military cantonments in Balochistan, and the development of Gwadar port by China, also became reasons for conflict (The Quint, August 26 2017). On August 26, 2006, Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a mountainous region of Balochistan; although the Pakistani government denied killing Bugti, Baloch groups blamed the state of Pakistan for his assassination, and thus the armed insurgency was further intensified (Dawn, August 27 2006).
Since that time, Baloch insurgents have alleged that the PRC is a “partner in crime” with Pakistan’s national government in looting the natural resources of Balochistan (The Balochistan Post, November 25 2018). China has been involved in projects affecting southwest Pakistan even before the advent of CPEC: for example, in addition to the development of Gwadar, the PRC state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) received a contract in the 1990s to extract gold and copper from the Saindak mine in Balochistan. Baloch nationalists allege that such projects represent exploitation of the mineral resources of Balochistan by Chinese interests (Dawn, January 7 2018).
Additionally, Baloch rebels believe that China is militarily supporting Pakistan’s government in its efforts to crush the Baloch insurgency. In a 2018 interview, the slain BLA commander Aslam Baloch stated that “China is looting resources in Balochistan in the name of mega projects by calling it CPEC,” and that elements of the Chinese Army were present in Balochistan to support the government (ANI News, November 27 2018). However, the claim of Aslam Baloch that the Chinese military is present in Balochistan has not been substantiated by other sources.
As a result of such stated grievances against the Chinese government, the BLA and other Baloch insurgent groups have conducted a series of attacks against Chinese interests. In August 2018, the BLA carried out its first ever suicide attack, targeting a bus carrying Chinese engineers; the bomber failed in the attempt, and only six people were wounded without any loss of life (Xinhua, August 11 2018). The attack on the PRC consulate was also explicitly part of a strategy to pressure Chinese companies to leave Balochistan: a BLA video recorded before the attack warned Chinese investors to stop exploiting the resources of Balochistan, or else the attacks would continue (Aditya Raj Kaul Tweet, November 23 2018).
Pakistan’s security agencies have claimed to foil at least one additional major attack directed against Chinese residents in Pakistan. In December 2018, Pakistan officials foiled a plan to attack Chinese workers on the East Bay Expressway in Gwadar, seizing weapons and ammunition that Baloch insurgents had stockpiled for that purpose (Samaa Digital, December 6 2018). This attempt by Baloch insurgents was thwarted, but it is unlikely to be the last of its kind.
Have Attacks by Baloch Insurgents Affected the Progress of CPEC in Pakistan?
The attacks mounted by the BLA and other Baloch insurgent organizations have significantly impacted PRC economic projects—most particularly, by inhibiting the free movement of Chinese persons in the region. In June 2017, a Chinese couple was abducted from Quetta; their dead bodies were subsequently discovered in the Balochistan town of Mastung (Dawn, June 9 2017). Under these circumstances, the PRC issued a security advisory in December 2017, which warned its citizens to limit their travel in Balochistan and to exercise utmost precaution (China Daily, December 9 2017). Chinese remain present in Gwadar, where they work under strict security protection. In Quetta, Chinese persons are unable to move freely, and must travel with security squads whenever they meet officials of the Balochistan government .
Moreover, the attacks by Baloch insurgents have increased the security costs of CPEC. In order to protect Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects, Pakistan has raised a special security division comprised of more than 15,000 personnel. This division is entrusted with the task of protecting Chinese personnel so that they can work on CPEC projects without being harmed. In addition to this security division, Chinese firms working in Pakistan have also hired private security guards. In the wake of the BLA attack on the PRC consulate, the security costs of CPEC are likely to increase even further (South China Morning Post, November 27 2018).
What Is the Impact on Pakistan-China Relations?
Statements issued by the governments of both Pakistan and China in the aftermath of the Karachi consulate attack indicate that relations between the two countries are still strong. The PRC Embassy in Islamabad expressed its trust in the ability of Pakistan to protect its citizens and institutions, and stated that attempts to undermine China-Pakistan relationships are “doomed to fail” (PRC Embassy in Pakistan, November 23 2018). Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, described the consulate attack as a conspiracy to sabotage the economic and strategic cooperation between Pakistan and China; Pakistani officials have further alleged that the consulate attack was orchestrated from India (South China Morning Post, November 25 2018).
However, other developments indicate that the relationship between the two countries may not be as good as the aforementioned statements suggest. In the autumn of last year, Pakistan was facing a severe balance of payment crisis: Pakistan only had foreign exchange reserves sufficient to finance two months’ worth of imports (Asia Times, October 12 2018). In these circumstances, Prime Minister Khan traveled to China to ask for a bailout package. However, China refused an urgent bailout package for Pakistan, and stated that further negotiations would be required before reaching an agreement to financially bailout Pakistan (South China Morning Post, November 3 2018). Subsequently, Pakistan was left with no choice but to ask Saudi Arabia for a bailout package, which the oil-rich kingdom agreed to provide (Dawn, October 24 2018).
The Afghanistan Angle
The impact of the Balochistan insurgency on Pakistan-China relations is further complicated by factors connected to Afghanistan. On Christmas Day 2018, BLA commander Aslam Baloch reportedly called a meeting of his lieutenants in the Aino Mina neighborhood of Kandahar, in order to decide upon their future courses of action. A suicide bomber disguised as a beggar exploded himself near Aslam Baloch, killing both the BLA leader and his deputies (Times of Islamabad, December 26 2018). The news of this suicide attack went viral on social media in Pakistan on December 25, and was confirmed by Afghan media the next day (Tolo News, December 26 2018).
The assassination of Aslam Baloch in Kandahar appears to support Pakistan’s longtime claim that Afghan territory is being used by Baloch insurgents to launch attacks inside Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign office demanded that the Afghan government investigate the matter, and explain the presence of a wanted terrorist on Afghan soil (Dawn, January 4).
Furthermore, the issue of Baloch insurgents has been raised in the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S Government. Taliban representatives have reportedly demanded that the United States must ensure that Baloch insurgents are not allowed to use Afghan soil to launch attacks in Pakistan (Global Village Space, January 28). Experts in Pakistan believe that with the help of China, Pakistan’s government can achieve a diplomatic victory by using its influence with the Taliban to ensure that the Afghan and U.S. governments agree on evicting Baloch insurgents from Afghanistan—and that this will ensure security and smoother implementation of the CPEC program in Pakistan (Dawn, January 20).
The resolve of the BLA to attack Chinese interests has not fully diminished, and the organization will likely continue to target Chinese interests. Given the extent of China’s economic presence in the region, and the vast and sparsely populated land areas of Balochistan—both of which present a challenge to government security forces—the BLA will likely find future opportunities to strike out at CPEC. The capability of the BLA to effectively plan and organize deadly attacks has likely been reduced—at least temporarily—by the death of its leader Aslam Baloch, but it has not been defeated as an organization.
Additionally, the future course of the Baloch insurgent threat to CPEC projects will be dependent in part on the outcome of peace talks in Afghanistan. If Taliban demands are implemented, then the capability of the BLA to shelter in Afghanistan will be further diminished. However, if the Afghan negotiations break apart without a settlement, then the BLA will likely continue to use Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to attack Chinese interests. Ultimately, the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the United States may be the single most important factor affecting the security of CPEC projects and Chinese residents in Pakistan.
Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher based in Pakistan. He has written extensively on the Belt and Road Initiative for Nikkei Asian Review, Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Lowy Institute, CSIS and Asia times among others. He was a Chevening South Asian Journalism Fellow 2018 at the University of Westminster, London. Follow him on twitter; @iAdnanAamir