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Rebuilding Pak-China Ties through CPEC

A Baloch separatist-claimed suicide attack targeting Chinese nationals in Karachi has triggered fresh crises for the multibillion-dollar project

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

On April 26, a female suicide-bomber killed three Chinese teachers, as well as their local driver, after she targeted a minibus carrying them on the premises of the Karachi University. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) separatist group, based in southwestern Balochistan province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, has claimed responsibility for the blast, adding in an email to the Reuters news agency that the attack was carried out by a woman suicide-bomber.

Shari Baloch, 32, has been identified as the suicide bomber. A highly educated mother-of-two from Niazar Abad in Turbat, Balochistan, she had completed her M.Sc. in zoology and was married to a doctor. At the time of the attack, she was pursuing an M.Phil and was a science teacher at a government school. According to the BLA, she joined the “self-sacrifice” squad of the group’s Majeed Brigade two years ago and has six siblings, including a sister with a Ph.D. degree.

Since the launch of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, a part of the Belt and Road Initiative, in 2015, there has been resistance in Balochistan to its intended route through the restive province. While Islamabad celebrated Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan to formally launch the project, Baloch nationalists and their underground organizations opposed CPEC on the grounds that “it would turn the Baloch people into a minority in their own province.” The concerns have only mounted as the desolate port of Gwadar, a key focus of the project, has begun to boom in activity.

Killing Chinese guests

In the past seven years, Baloch insurgents have repeatedly targeted Chinese nationals in Pakistan, killing foreign engineers and workers based in the province. But the unrest is significantly older. In May 2004, militants killed three Chinese engineers through a car bombing. In a bid to allay Chinese concerns over the safety of its citizens, Pakistan deployed 17,177 security personnel from the Army and other security forces in Gwadar following the announcement of CPEC. This has proven insufficient.

In 2019, two reported incidents put the province on edge: the first attack occurred on April 18, when 15 to 20 Baloch insurgents dressed in military uniforms forced 14 passengers off a public bus and shot them dead. Most of the victims were from the Pakistan Navy and Coast Guards, whom Baloch insurgents view as an occupying force. Then, on May 11, the Pearl Continental Hotel in the heart of Gwadar came under fire. Situated on a promontory overlooking the port and the Arabian Sea, the massive hotel is a favorite of foreign dignitaries. Its proximity to the Gwadar port ensures there are plenty of military personnel in the area but three armed attackers from the BLA’s Majeed Brigade nevertheless managed to breach its defenses and open fire on people inside. According to officials, five individuals—four hotel employees, including three security guards, and a navy officer—lost their lives in the assault.

BLA and Majeed Brigade

The BLA was formed in 2000 and has since primarily waged attacks on national security forces, state infrastructure, and Punjabi settlers. In more recent years, under Aslam Baloch who died in Kandahar in December 2018, the Majeed Brigade has focused on Chinese nationals and Chinese-funded projects. Such attacks appear intended to provoke greater media attention. Baloch, prior to his death, had tapped his oldest son, Rehan Baloch, to stage a suicide attack on Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, a city in Balochistan. The attack resulted in minor injuries for the engineers. He also oversaw an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi a few months later. Two police officials and two visa applicants were killed.

Established in 2011, the Majeed Brigade, a suicide attack squad within the BLA, is reportedly named after Abdul Majeed Baloch, who attempted to assassinate then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1974. A year earlier, Bhutto had ordered a military operation against Baloch insurgents after they had vowed war against the state of Pakistan over Islamabad’s dismissal of the democratically-elected National Awami Party government in the province. The operation triggered a major insurgency in Balochistan that lasted until 1977. Majeed was killed by security forces before he could carry out his plan against Bhutto.

Insurgency in Balochistan

Writing in daily Dawn on Feb. 20, Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies noted: “The recent terrorist attacks on the local headquarters of the Frontier Corps in Nushki and Panjgur have once again pushed Balochistan into the mainstream discussion. But the crux of the debate still revolves around the rhetoric of economic grievances and political marginalization. This debate usually ends without leading to any solution. There is also some discussion on why the youth in Balochistan are joining insurgent groups, and how little is being done to reduce the appeal of insurgent causes.”

On March 3, 2016, Indian citizen Kulbhushan Jadhav was arrested inside Balochistan in the border city of Chaman during a counterintelligence raid conducted by security forces. India denied the claim and said he was abducted from Iran. A major Indian magazine, Frontline, in an article, acknowledged that Jadhav may be a serving Indian Navy officer and that “India is waging a covert war against Pakistan.”

Policy weaknesses

Pervez Hoodbhoy, writing in daily Dawn on Feb. 22, informed his readers: “A young Baloch Islamabad-based student named Hafeez Baloch was forcibly disappeared in Balochistan by armed men who alighted from a black pickup. The incident happened in front of terrified students and teachers while he was teaching at a small private school in Khuzdar, his hometown. Hafeez had used the winter vacations to take a short trip home and earn some desperately needed cash before submitting his final thesis in Islamabad.” After weeks of protests, and court intervention, he reappeared. However, charges of terrorism were registered against him in Balochistan and he has been imprisoned since then.

The Indian nexus with BLA is well known. The OpIndia website has proclaimed: “The most prudent advantage of a free Balochistan for India is a countered and diminished Pakistan. Espousing the Baloch issue will give India an upper hand over Pakistan. Decluttering the Baloch issue to make it compatible for India will automatically make it more labyrinthine for Pakistan. Pakistan’s Kashmir card—which it loves to use at every international gathering and diplomatic engagements—will have a legitimate counterpart from the Indian side. India utilizing the Baloch issue conscientiously coupled with [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] and Gilgit-Baltistan case can provide an incredible advantage, completely dismantling Pakistan’s paradigm and steering a tectonic shift in geopolitics towards India. Balochistan’s rise aided by India will also spawn mentality for replication in the vicinal province of Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa also. India can utilize Baloch land to further disintegrate Pakistan and can morph into the beginning of the end for Pakistan.”

Economic fallout of CPEC

The Belt and Road Initiative’s Pakistan arm has been in more trouble than usual during the Imran Khan interregnum. Beijing is Islamabad’s largest creditor, even as Pakistan is in deep economic trouble made worse by its inability to police its territory effectively and provide security to Chinese entrepreneurs investing in the country. According to documents released by Pakistan’s finance ministry, the country’s total public and publicly guaranteed external debt stood at $44.35 billion in June 2013, just 9.3 percent of which was owed to China. By April 2021, however, this external debt had ballooned to $90.12 billion, with Pakistan owing 27.4 percent—$24.7 billion—of its total external debt to China, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The CPEC is the most comprehensive infrastructure project in all of Pakistan’s history. It would not only bring economic development to western China but also give Pakistan the infrastructure it needs and enable it to rid itself of the energy crisis that has plagued it for so long.

Special Economic Zones

Initially started with a $46 billion investment, the CPEC has become one of the most critical projects in Pakistan. Pakistan’s primary focus has been on building its communication infrastructure and building Gwadar into a port that can support massive economic growth. This will boost local and foreign investments, bringing jobs and prosperity to the whole country. Pakistan desperately needs energy because it is facing a deficit of around 6000MW, provoking large-scale power outages. This problem is affecting its industries and production to a large extent.

Projects to be undertaken in the Special Economic Zones are intended to boost the country’s overall exports from $9 billion to over $30 billion by 2030. Once completed, these zones would make Pakistan an Asian manufacturing and exporting hub. The Trade Development Authority of Pakistan has taken measures to increase its exports by implementing Special Economic Zones on an industrial scale. They are one of the most important reasons for increasing trade between Pakistan and China in the past few years. These zones provide a cheap source of inputs as well as low-cost production, which is very important. There is a significant difference between imports and exports; currently it stands at Rs. 470,038 million imports against Rs. 180,899 million exports.

CPEC and bad economics

CPEC could also prove the biggest game-changer for Pakistan in increasing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), with some estimates claiming the project could attract $150 billion in FDI. The government has allocated $11.83 billion for communication infrastructure and regional connectivity improvement to enhance FDI in Pakistan, which was aided by a significant decrease in terrorism incidents in 2017. This decline, however, has faced recent reversals.

But there are counter-factuals too. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics: “The power structure in Balochistan is very complex, which has hindered socio-economic development in the province. One of the reasons for lower socio-economic development in Balochistan is a strong tribal hierarchy. In Balochistan, a vibrant middle class is missing. Instead, Balochistan is divided between a tiny but extremely powerful class of tribal chieftains and the remaining lower class, and a small group of public sector employees.”

Finally, a lack of readiness

The absence of a middle class, which can have assertive politics to further its social and economic interest, is one of the main reasons for polarization. In other words, one may argue that it is the power nexus of the state of Pakistan and the local elites and elected representatives that maneuver governance in the province in such an exploitative way that upholds and nurtures their political and economic interest at the cost of the common man. Therefore, it can be argued that the current institutional structure is the construction of the political and economic supremacy of a tiny elite. And an elitist political economy has created a rent-seeking oligarchy that has consolidated economic and political power and drifted the provincial economy towards “exclusivity.”

Pakistan remains vulnerable to internal dangers that will continue to challenge projects like CPEC. These dangers spring mostly from territories not normally administered by the state of Pakistan, which may comprise more than half of the state land that remains tribal in its sociology. The failure of Pakistan to deal with the root causes of militancy in the tribal areas, lack of normal administrative structures, endemic poverty, and lack of education and health facilities and resultant migration, have caused “nationalist” grievances among populations feeling marginalized and deprived. The result is that, from January till March 2022, different Baloch groups have carried out at least 17 attacks, including 10 against security forces. The attacks took 51 lives and injured 97 people.

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