Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port, 700kms west of Karachi, where a trade program between Pakistan and China operates. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – The killing of 14 soldiers of the Pakistan army and private security agencies last week in mineral-rich Balochistan province heralded an alarming spiral in Baloch insurgency targeting Chinese installations and the Pakistan army, which they dub as “partners in crime.”

Chinese concerns for its multi-billion-dollar investments in the volatile region are growing, along with the sustained fatality rate of Pakistan’s security personnel. Reports suggest the Chinese government is also worried about the mounting security costs of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan’s army has provided an around-the-clock security apparatus through a special security division comprised of more than 15,000 troops to protect Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects. Chinese officials have also hired their own private security guards in addition to military protection.   

During the last 18 months, various separatist groups hostile to Chinese investors and the Pakistan army have amalgamated to share each other’s resources and expertise. The alliances between these organizations has resulted in a renewed wave of militancy in the region. 

A website of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) has uploaded a six-month activity report covering the period from January to June. The BLF claimed to have made 67 attacks on Pakistani forces and killed more than 131 soldiers and injured over 100. 

During these operations, one armored car, 10 military vehicles and three mobile networks have been destroyed.

However, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) – a US-based independent organization – claimed 30 organized violent events in Balochistan were reported from January to July 2020 which claimed 95 lives.

Pakistani Frontier Constables gather in front of the coffins of paramilitary troops and workers from the state Oil and Gas Development Company in Hub, in the Lasbela district of Balochistan on October 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Frontier Constabulary

The violence involving Baloch separatist groups has increased during the first seven months of 2020, the ACLED reported. 

The report reveals that in May 2020, 17 security personnel were killed in a series of targeted attacks in Balochistan in retaliation for the Pakistani military’s operation in Kech district and the alleged repression of Baloch civilians during the security operation.

The army launched its “Ground Zero Clearance Operation” in the border areas with Iran after the attacks, which triggered a further spike in militancy. From June until the end of July, the ACLED recorded 18 organized political violence events involving Baloch militant groups, with 52 fatalities.

The situation in Balochistan went from bad to worse when armed nationalists hostile to the Chinese and the military’s presence in Balochistan formed a much bigger separatist force – the Baluch Raji Ajohi Sangar (Baloch National Freedom Movement or BRAS) – in November 2018.

Baluch nationalist-separatist groups – the Baluchistan Republican Army (BRA), Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF) – have allied to coordinate their efforts against their common enemies.

Just as the BRAS formation was completed, the separatists increased their attacks on the Pakistan army. In the initial six months from November 2018 to April 2019, the BRAS killed more than 40 troops in four operations.

On November 23, 2018, insurgents attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi. The assault resulted in the deaths of seven people, including two police officers and three of the attackers.

In December 2018, an ambush on a paramilitary Frontier Corps convoy in Kech resulted in the death of 10 personnel. Again in February 2019, an attack on an army convoy in Panjgur district killed six personnel, while 14 members of the army and navy perished in April 2019 in Balochistan’s Ormara area.

Ormara is the same locality where 14 soldiers and security personnel were gunned down last week.  

In July, the BRAS took another step to broaden its reach and diversify its operations to intensively target Chinese interests. The consortium of three Baloch organizations has declared an alliance with the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a separatist group operating in southeastern Sindh province.

This new alliance has staunch anti-China separatists like the BLA, which was behind the attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) in June this year. China has more than a 40% stake in the KSE and the attack was aimed to hit Chinese interests.

Some reports suggest the SRA played a major role in orchestrating the attack on the KSE. The BLA is vehemently opposed to the Chinese CPEC investments and targetted many Chinese installations including a Chinese-made hotel in Gwadar and the Chinese consulate in Karachi.   

When the groups joined forces with the SRA, the BRAS issued a press statement saying “Sindh and Balochistan are equally affected by the ‘expansionist’ and ‘oppressive’ designs of China,” and claimed China wanted to subjugate the people of Sindh and Balochistan and occupy their coasts and resources from Badin to Gwadar through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China has recently shown an interest in developing the Sindh coastal areas in the southeastern part of the country between the Indus border along Sir Creek on the east, and the Hub River along the Balochistan coast on the west.

This coastal region is about 350 kilometers long and can be divided into the Indus Delta/Creek and Karachi coast. Pakistan has a coastal belt of more than 1,050km. There are 300 small and big islands in the Sindh coastal belt. 

To take control of these islands and facilitate Chinese investments in the islands, Imran Khan’s government has tacitly issued a presidential ordinance.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) walks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 8, 2019. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

A “Pakistan Islands Development Authority” for “management of islands in internal and territorial waters of Pakistan” was created through an ordinance promulgated on September 1 to develop new cities on the islands. The Sindh government has opposed the ordinance and called for its immediate withdrawal.

Sensing the looming threat to its US$60 billion investment in Pakistan, China now wants Pakistan to take action against the BRAS and its allies including the BLA to declare them terrorists.

China knows very well that unless these groups are banned, their billions of dollars in investments in Pakistan would remain unsafe. So Beijing wants Islamabad to move the UN Security Council to declare them global terrorist organizations.

The BRAS is striving for an independent Balochistan and opposed to outside powers, including China and Pakistan, extracting resources from the explosive region. Influenced by Marxist-leftist ideology, the BRAS is mainly concentrated in the southwestern portion of Balochistan along the Arabian Sea and the Iranian border. 

Some militants have sanctuaries in the Kacha, DG Khan and Koh Suleman areas, while some BRAS operatives function mainly from Iran in the far south Mekran division of the province.

Nazar Baluch, the chief organizer and head of the BRAS, operates from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the Afghan city of Kandahar. The BRAS’ focus is on Chinese workers and CPEC projects in Baluchistan.