Balochistan Liberation Army fighters at an undisclosed location in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

PESHAWAR – The late December killing of seven paramilitary troops in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan was only the latest assault in a region where militants have taken lethal aim at Chinese projects and nationals involved in the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

While no group took immediate responsibility for the attack on the Frontier Corps’ check-post at the Harnai district of Balochistan, officials have not ruled out the involvement of Baloch sub-nationalist groups (BSNGs) fighting the Pakistan army and now by association Chinese interests in the mineral-rich Pakistani province.

The shadowy killings underscore the rising risks to China’s multi-billion dollar investments in Balochistan’s Gwadar port and associated free trade zone, both part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of landmass and the ethnic Baloch people are estimated to represent around 9% of the national population. Baloch insurgency has raged on and off for decades, driven variously by tribal divisions, ethnic Baloch-Pashtun rivalry and perceived economic oppression by the dominant Punjabis.

While militancy in Balochistan was on a downswing in recent years, repressive new measures imposed by Pakistani authorities largely to protect China’s commercial interests appear to be fueling a new surge in violence that signs show is shaking Chinese confidence in the CPEC.

Tariq Pervez, a former police officer and coordinator of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA), noted in a recent op-ed that there had earlier been a steady decline in BSNG attacks on state targets and authorities, falling from 194 in 2015 to 51 in 2019, marking a 74% decline over the five-year period.

He said that heavy-handed security force tactics, including “enforced disappearances” and “kill-and-dump” policies against suspected militants, brought down the number of insurgent incidents but at a heavy cost that has sown deep resentment among the local Baloch population.

Pakistani security officials inspect weapons after they were handed over by Baloch militants when they surrendered to Pakistani security forces in Quetta on April 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Banaras Khan

Now, militant Baloch groups have regrouped and adapted, seen in changes in the modus operandi of recent attacks, including those that have targeted Chinese nationals and interests. Previously, BSNGs relied largely on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack infrastructure including railway tracks and hit-and-run tactics that aimed to sow fear and loathing among security officials.

Previously, Baloch militants never used suicide operations, tactics more commonly associated with religiously-inspired militancy. But that has changed as Baloch militants not only increasingly use suicide bombings but are also launching more sophisticated terror attacks involving hostage-taking.

This shift has been seen in the attacks on China’s consulate in Karachi in 2018, the 2019 Pearl Continental Hotel Gwadar which China built and where Chinese nationals often stay, and the Chinese-run Karachi Stock Exchange last year.

The Baloch militant operations indicate a new approach that more overtly targets China’s financial, commercial and official interests. They are also apparently using bases in neighboring Afghanistan to plan and launch attacks in Pakistan on Chinese interests.

The Pakistan army has recently intensified its operations against Baloch separatists with hideouts in the Afghan province of Kandahar, reportedly killing at least a score of militants on Afghan soil. Baloch leaders have issued press statements condemning the Pakistan army’s latest killing spree, urging the international community to take note of what they have termed “Baloch genocide.”  

Pakistani authorities recently took up the matter of Baloch militant bases in Afghanistan during peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad was reportedly assured that the militants would not launch any further attacks from Afghanistan soil.

Anti-China sentiment started to infuse Baloch militant ideology in 2018, when Baloch separatist groups merged into the Baloch National Freedom Movement, or BRAS.

Baloch nationalists protest against Pakistan security forces in a file photo. Image: AFP

The alliance has since mustered the support of Sindh province-based militant organizations, adding more insurgent firepower to anti-China and anti-state attacks.  

Ideologically, BRAS supports a separate and independent “greater Balochistan” comprised of Pakistan’s Balochistan province and ethnic Baloch regions of Iran and Afghanistan. BRAS is increasingly opposed to the role of external powers including China in what the militant group views as interference in Balochistan’s internal affairs.

They believe that the Islamabad-led and military-managed CPEC ultimately aims to extract Balochistan’s resources, including various ores, without providing benefits to the local Baloch population, which is among Pakistan’s poorest peoples.

Baloch nationalist forces who favor an autonomous Balochistan within Pakistan are also opposed to Chinese involvement and investment in the province. Their sentiment stems from fears that CPEC-related investments will ultimately change Balochistan’s demographics, reducing the native Baloch into a minority in their own province. 

Reports suggest that many Baloch living near Gwadar have already sold their land assets at throwaway prices to outsiders, both Chinese and other Pakistani ethnic groups, who are plowing into the China-backed port’s free trade areas to seize emerging investment opportunities.

A research paper by Harrison Akins at the Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee showed that around 71,000 Chinese citizens arrived in Pakistan in 2016 and predicted based on CPEC agreements that as many as one million will settle in Balochistan in the next few years.

Citing a study carried out by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the same research report predicted that Chinese nationals could outnumber Baloch natives by 2048 at the current influx rate.

“In spite of the billions of dollars invested, 71% of Balochistan’s total population still lives in multidimensional poverty, compared to 31% in Punjab and 43% in Sindh,” the report said, citing wealthier Pakistani provinces.

Map: Twitter

If so, they will migrate at a rising risk to their security. Despite raising a 15,000-strong contingent of the Pakistan Army’s Special Security Forces to provide around-the-clock protection to its installations and workers, China is clearly increasingly concerned about the exposure of its investments and nationals in Balochistan.

Previously, the local Pakistani media reported that China had established contacts with certain Baloch militants in a bid to entice them into protecting, not attacking, their multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects in the region.

Although Beijing, Islamabad and Baloch militants all denied the news, Balochistan’s former Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch, a proponent of peace talks with the separatists, held secret meetings with Baloch militant leaders along with former federal minister Lieutenant General (Retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch in 2015.

As the security situation deteriorates, speculation is rising that Beijing may be getting cold feet on the CPEC. While China earlier committed as much as $60 billion to the infrastructure scheme, significantly less than half has been allocated while Beijing is apparently backing away from commitments to a railway upgrade project known as ML-1.

On the other hand, if the situation deteriorates further, China could seek to base People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Pakistan to safeguard its interests and installations, though obviously any such move would be highly controversial. Local law does not allow for foreign troops to be deployed on Pakistani soil, but the state can request outside countries to send “peacekeepers” for security purposes. 

Some in Pakistan have noted that Chinese “peacekeepers” are already based in South Sudan, where Beijing is involved in oilfields and the transportation sector. Beijing has also recently hinted at deploying troops against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq, where Beijing has invested billions in that war-torn country’s oil sector.