CPEC affected by Baloch militancy

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By Mark Anderson

Despite $11 billion worth of new investments announced during June-July, China is bogged down by militancy in Balochistan and Sindh provinces. It could fail to push these and ongoing projects under its flagship, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The announcements are for-the-record as many projects under the ambitious $ 62 billion umbrella have slowed down. Gwadar that China designed, built and runs is not fully operational. The rising militancy by Baloch groups on the Iranian side adds to the Chinese woes.

Unlike in the past, when Pakistan and Iran fought the militancy together, they are now at each other’s throat leading to more violence that delays and frustrates the current Chinese pace and future plans.

 “The jury is still out on whether Pakistan will be able to reap the windfalls of Chinese investment. In the 5 years since the CPEC was established, there’s little evidence of its ambitious and grand vision being realised,” the TRT World said in its July 2020 issue in an analysis that is otherwise highly supportive of the CPEC.

The militancy is not about to go away the way it has festered over decades when Pakistani generals with little clue on how to handle it resort to violence and suppression, another report in South China Morning Post (SCMP) of July 18, 2020 indicates after quoting Pakistani and Western security analysts.“A surge of lethal attacks” by Baloch separatists has taken “a deadly turn” on CPEC raising Chinse stakes in Pakistan and sending the risks and costs of China’s Belt and Road projects in Pakistan soaring. “At the same time, a web of espionage and proxy warfare involving Iran has tangled up Beijing’s interests in Gwadar,” SCMP says in its report by Tom Hussain, Islamabad-based Pakistani writer.

He places the Pakistan-Iran differences in regional context: “Iran is highly suspicious of Pakistan and its relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially since Riyadh was invited in late 2018 to establish a US$10 billion oil refinery and storage facility at Gwadar.” Actually, Chinese geopolitical interests at Gwadar have become caught up in a web of espionage and proxy warfare involving Pakistan and neighbouring Iran, which has been dealing with an ethnic Baloch insurgency of its own since the early 2000s.

The Chinese have engaged with the Balochi militants and have sought to impress upon them the potential benefits that the CPEC has. The outcome of such talks taking place at different places and times is not clear. On the other hand, Chinese pact earlier this month with Iran for a part of the railway line that connects with Iran’s Chabahar port to Afghanistan, has generated speculation in Pakistan about China’s commitment towards promoting Gwadar, both about 100 km apart.

Balochistan has been on the boil. It witnessed three serious militants’ attacks since May, the latest being on July 14 on a patrolling paramilitary convoy in Panjgur district, killing three soldiers and wounding eight others, including an army colonel. On June 29, four militants were killed by police commandos when they tried to shoot their way into the Karachi Stock Exchange, which is 40 per cent owned by a consortium of three Chinese bourses.

The SCMP report underlines that militant ethnic Baloch factions have also recently expanded their range of operations to adjoining Sindh province and its port city of Karachi. “Beijing’s stakes in Sindh are as high as they are in Balochistan. Its state-owned enterprises run container terminals at Karachi port, Pakistan’s busiest, and are invested in nuclear and coal power projects established both under the CPEC umbrella and in partnership with local corporations.

 “Baloch groups have not only intensified their attacks but also expanded the outreach of their terrorist violence beyond Balochistan, but it is hard to predict whether this trend will persist,” it quoted Mohammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Baloch insurgent have historically conducted low-intensity attacks, while their high-intensity attacks had tended to come in waves lasting “only for a few weeks”. But the “financial cost of the security [to Pakistan] is high,” Rana said.

The attack on Karachi’s stock market was claimed by the Majeed Fidayeen Brigade (MFB) of the Baloch Liberation Army, which emerged as a serious security threat to Beijing’s interests in southern Pakistan two years ago. In August 2018, MFB militants killed three Chinese engineers and wounded five others travelling in a bus in the town of Dalbadin, 930km north of Gwadar – to date, the most lethal attack on Chinese personnel since CPEC was launched in 2015.

The MFB subsequently carried out a foiled attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018.

SCMP notes that “Beijing’s political risks are also escalating because of a renewed wave of public anger in many parts of Balochistan against human rights abuses by Pakistani troops deployed to crush the low-intensity insurgency in the province.”

This year in June, Akhtar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal, parted ways with the ruling coalition led by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, citing the government’s failure to bring a halt to state-enforced disappearances. In a subsequent interview with the BBC’s Urdu-language service, Mengal said more than 1,500 Baloch had “disappeared” since Khan took office in 2018.

The TRT doubts if Pakistan can service the huge debts it incurs in the CPEC, also whether Pakistan is well positioned to reap any of the potential benefits of the CPEC as its second phase gets underway, remains an open question.“Its poor ranking in human development indexes, combined with a lack of soft infrastructure and poor rural connectivity in place, makes attracting necessary investments in the industrial sector an uphill climb.

The report points to the issue of corruption and the outsized influence of the military. The Khan Government has ruthlessly sought to suppress any criticism mainly to placate the army. But suppression has only fanned discontent over the CPEC.

(The author is geo-political analyst and the contents of the article are his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)