Major separatist factions and leading ethno-nationalist politicians active in Pakistan’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan have denied engaging in secret talks with Chinese officials keen on preserving their country’s $60 billion investments.
Sources within the insurgent factions, however, claim that some Baloch political figures did meet with Chinese officials, but it is not clear what exactly was achieved.
The confusion over the meetings emerged this week after the Financial Times newspaper reported that Chinese officials have been holding talks with Baluch militants for more than five years to secure nearly $60 billion investments in energy and infrastructure collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Quoting anonymous sources, a February 19 report in the newspaper said Chinese officials “have quietly made a lot of progress” in efforts to secure CPEC, which aims to link Balochistan’s Gwadar seaport to Xingjian region in western China.
CPEC is the flagship project of a larger Chinese strategy dubbed One Belt One Road, which aims to link China with Africa, Europe, and Asia in a 21st-century reincarnation of the ancient Silk Road.
Two people familiar with the talks said Baluch tribal leaders Gazain Marri and Sardar Akhtar Mengal held two rounds of secret talks with a Chinese delegation in the United Arab Emirates in May and September last year.
Both exiled members of Baluch separatist factions who now live in Europe requested anonymity because of fears that such claims would further divide an already fragmented separatist leadership.
“Gazain Marri ended 18 years of self-exile and returned to Pakistan, which was most probably because of Chinese government efforts,” said one of the figures, who was close to his father, the late Baluch separatist leader Khair Baksh Marri.
Marri couldn’t be reached for immediate comment but has rejected claims that his return in September was the result of a secret deal. In November, he urged caution and dialogue and indicated a willingness to help negotiations between armed separatist rebels and the Pakistani government.
“I want to engage in consultation to work out a middle path toward compromise,” he told Radio Mashaal at the time.
Mengal, the leader of the ethno-nationalist Balochistan National Party (BNP), denied meeting with Chinese officials. “Why would I meet a Chinese delegation secretly in Dubai? I can meet them openly in Pakistan,” he said.
Mengal, who served as chief minister or the most senior elected official of Balochistan in the 1990s, said the only time Chinese diplomats approached him was in 2016 when he hosted Pakistani political parties in the capital, Islamabad, for a debate over CPEC’s potential negative impact on Balochistan.
“I couldn’t meet the Chinese delegation then because I was busy, but we conveyed our party’s reservations,” he said. “Later, when I wanted to meet the Chinese diplomats, they declined to meet us, claiming our party’s stand on CPEC was too rigid.”
BNP and other Baluch nationalist parties oppose CPEC because of fears it will attract an influx of economic migrants to Gwadar and other Balochistan regions, which will render the Baluch into a minority in their historic homeland.
Sentiments over the CPEC run high in the region reeling from more than 15 years of simmering violence. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, activists, and guerrillas have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced in Balochistan, where the military and militants frequently accuse each other of atrocities and grave rights violations.
In recent years, Baluch separatist militants, organized in various guerrilla factions, have acted on their threats to attack CPEC projects. All prominent exiled leaders such as Brahumdagh Bugti, Mehran Baluch, and Hyrbyair Marri have either denied participating in talks with the Chinese or say they have no knowledge of such negotiations.
“All independent political parties and armed groups are working against Chinese investments and other exploitive projects, which are doomed to fail,” said Gwarham Baloch, a spokesman for the Baloch Liberation Front.
Pakistani and international media reports suggest that scores of Pakistani workers and a handful of Chinese engineers and technicians have so far been killed in attacks in Balochistan.
The sentiments against the growing Chinese footprint in the region is widely shared among separatist factions.
“How can talks be held with China when they are helping the Pakistani military kill and abduct Baluch activists?” asked Sher Muhammad Bugti, a spokesman for the Baloch Republican Party.
“We are open to talks even with China, but first China has to become neutral and leave the province,” he added.
Aslam Baloch, a senior commander of the Balochistan Liberation Army, also dismissed reports of secret talks with China.
“CPEC is a serious threat to Baluch national existence. Pakistan and China are continuously inflicting brutalities upon the Baluch nation for its success,” he wrote on Twitter. “Therefore, talks with tribal elders, or anybody else for that matter, do not carry any importance.”
Former lawmaker Kachkol Ali, however, says the talks between Beijing and Baluch separatist figures are a serious possibility. He points to the return of Gazain Marri and the recent reconciliation of another exiled figure, Juma Marri, with Pakistan as evidence of efforts to wean figures away from the separatist movement.
"It is premature to say if China is acting as the mediator between Pakistan and separatists,” he noted. “But if something is happening, it can't be kept secret for long.”
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan