Balochistan: CPEC's Achilles heel
On April 26, 2022, at least five persons including three Chinese nationals, their Pakistani driver and a security guard, were killed when a women suicide bomber blew herself up near a van transporting Chinese nationals from Karachi University (KU) hostel to the Confucius Institute in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. The three deceased Chinese nationals were identified as Confucius Institute Director Huang Guiping, and staffers Ding Mupeng and Chen Sa.
The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, releasing the image and name of the attacker, Fidayeen (suicide cadre) Shaari Baloch aka Bramsh, of the Majeed Brigade, the BLA’s ‘suicide bomber squad.’ Shaari Baloch (30), the first Baloch woman suicide bomber, was the mother of two children. She had done her M.Sc. in Zoology and had an M. Phil degree. Her husband is a doctor and she was a teacher by profession. She joined the Majeed Brigade two years earlier.
Jeeyand Baloch, the BLA 'spokesperson' issued the statement declaring:
Targeting director and officials of Confucius Institute, the symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism, was to give a clear message to China that its direct or indirect presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated. BLA has warned China several times to refrain from looting Baloch resources and aiding Pakistan militarily and financially in carrying out Baloch genocide. However, China continues to be involved in its expansionist designs in Balochistan. Baloch Liberation Army once again warns China to immediately halt its exploitation projects and refrain from aiding the occupying Pakistani state. Otherwise our future attacks will be even harsher.
Chinese engineers and nationals have been targeted in the past by Baloch insurgent groups in various parts of Balochistan, as well as in adjacent Karachi. Most of these attacks were carried out by BLA. The most recent previous incident against a Chinese target was on August 20, 2021, when a BLA suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Chinese engineers in the Nagori ward area of the Gwadar Expressway in Gwadar District, Balochistan, in which at least three persons, including two children, were killed and three persons, including a Chinese national, sustained injuries. BLA claimed responsibility for the attack. "BLA carried out a 'self-sacrificing' attack against a convoy of Chinese engineers," the group’s statement asserted.
According to partial data compiled by SATP, since July 19, 2007, at least 13 attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals have been recorded thus far, resulting in 77 deaths (data till May 1, 2022). The dead included 10 Chinese nationals, 13 Pakistani Security Force (SF) personnel, 41 Pakistani civilians and 10 attackers. Another, 53 persons, including six Chinese nationals, have been injured in these attacks.
Some of the other prominent incidents targeting Chinese nationals include:
April 21, 2021: At least five persons, including four Pakistani civilians and a police official, were killed and another 12 sustained injuries, when a bomb exploded in the parking lot of the Serena Hotel located on the Shahrah-e-Zarghun Road in Quetta, Balochistan. No Chinese national was injured. It was a suicide car bombing, but the terrorists could not enter the main hotel building where a Chinese delegation was staying. The explosion occurred before Chinese ambassador, Nong Rong, who was in Quetta on that day, was to arrive at the hotel. The apparent target of the attack was Nong Rong.
May 11, 2019: Four terrorists stormed the luxury Zaver Pearl-Continental Hotel, in Gwadar, Balochistan. The Hotel had around 70 guests at the time, including 40 Chinese nationals. Nine persons, including four hotel employees, one Pakistan Navy sailor and all four attackers, were killed during the eight-hour long siege. BLA’s ‘Majeed Brigade’ claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was aimed at the Chinese and other foreign investors.
November 23, 2018: Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) Fidayeen (suicide squad) ‘Majeed Brigade’ militants attacked the Chinese Consulate in Block 4 of the Clifton area in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, leaving at least six people dead. However, no Chinese national was hurt in the attack. Three militants were killed in the operation by SFs. BLA claimed that the attackers had been assigned the task of targeting the Consulate.
February 5, 2018: A Chinese national, Chen Zhu (46), who was a top official at a shipping firm, was shot dead by unknown armed assailants in a targeted attack at Zamzama Park in Clifton, Karachi.
The worst attack targeting Chinese nationals was recorded on July 19, 2007, when a suicide bomber tried to ram his explosive laden vehicle into a van taking Chinese engineers to Karachi from Hub town, at the Gadani Bus Stop in the industrial town of Hub in Balochistan, but missed the target when a Police van blocked its way. At least 30 people, including seven Policemen, were killed and 28 were injured. All seven Chinese engineers, including a woman, remained unhurt. This was also the first attack directly targeting Chinese nationals.
In another attack intended to hurt Chinese economic interests in Pakistan, at least 11 persons were killed when four terrorists attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) on Chundrigar Road, Karachi, on June 29, 2020. Those killed included four private security guards, one Policeman, two bystanders and all the four attackers. All the persons killed were Pakistani nationals. Significantly, after this attack BLA 'spokesperson' Jeeyand Baloch declared,
China holds about 40% equity in the Pakistan Stock Exchange through the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Future Exchange. That is why the attack was not only aimed at Pakistan's but also an attack on Chinese economic interests and if China continues to take part in Balochistan's exploitation they will face more attacks.
Baloch groups have carried out attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals engaged in economic activities, as they believe that China, in connivance with Islamabad, is exploiting the province. Their resentment towards the Chinese has grown stronger since the start of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in 2013, as both the civilian population and insurgents believe that CPEC is part of a 'strategic design' by China to loot resources and eliminate Pakistani, particularly Baloch, culture and identity. The USD 62 billion CPEC is a massive series of projects that includes a network of highways, railways and energy infrastructure, spanning the entire country. CPEC is a flagship project in China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China's increasing involvement in mining projects in the Province angers Baloch separatists. On July 1, 2020, Pakistan again extended the lease to the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) Resources Development Company (MRDL) to explore and develop the eastern mines under the Saindak Copper-Gold Project for 15 years. MRDL has been operating in Balochistan’s remote Saindak town since 2002, extracting significant amounts of mineral resources from the region. The Saindak copper and gold project, which was launched in 2001, was handed over to China in 2002 for a ten-year lease. It was renewed again in 2012 and then in 2017.
Under the Gwadar Project, China is building a 'Chinese-only colony' in the Gwadar port city at a cost of USD 150 million, which is intended to house half-a-million Chinese nationals. According to an August 21, 2018, media report, only Chinese citizens will live in this gated zone, thereby paving way for a Chinese colony within Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Investment Corporation has reportedly bought 3.6 million square feet for the international port city, and is going to start building the gated zone for the anticipated 500,000 strong Chinese workforce, which was scheduled to be located there by 2022, though these targets have been slipping.
There is also great anxiety that CPEC will convert the Baloch people into minorities in their own homeland. Noordin Mengal, a human rights campaigner from the Province stated, on March 17, 2017, that, with an influx of outsiders as a result of the project, the identity of the Baloch was being threatened. Pakistan currently hosts a sizable Chinese population and the numbers are only slated to grow as the project progresses. Moreover, the resettlement of Pakistanis from other Provinces, to Gwadar and other project areas of Balochistan are raising acute concerns about the demographic transformation of the province. These were reiterated in a December 28, 2016, report by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), which noted that, at the current and projected rate of influx of Chinese nationals alone into Balochistan, the native population of the area would be outnumbered by 2048.
The recent attack on Chinese nationals will increase the woes of the Pakistani establishment, as attacks on Chinese nationals and projects are not only limited to Balochistan. On July 14, 2021, a vehicle driven by a suicide attacker and laden with explosives rammed a convoy of Chinese workers headed to the Dasu Hydropower Plant project site at Dasu in the Upper Kohistan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), killing at least 13 persons, including nine Chinese. Two buses carrying workers from the China Gezhouba Group Co., a construction company based in Wuhan, China, were badly damaged in the explosion. The Dasu Hydropower Plant project is part of CPEC.
After this incident, China sent a strong message cancelling the 10th Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting under CPEC for an indefinite period. The meeting was scheduled to take place on July 23. Reports indicate that CPEC projects have significantly slowed down since.
Moreover, on January 19, 2021, the Pakistan Government succumbed to Chinese pressure to provide a compensation of USD 38 million for the 36 Chinese nationals, killed and injured, at the Dasu Dam Project. The Government worked out four different compensation amounts, ranging from USD 4.6 million (PKR 810 million) to USD 20.3 million (PKR 3.6 billion). Pakistan has decided to make the payment despite the absence of a legal or contractual obligation on the Government. The Chinese contractor had also stopped work on the project and demanded a compensation of USD 37 million. The Chinese government had been pressurising the Pakistan Government for the compensation since the incident.
As with previous attacks, the Chinese Government asked Pakistan to take definitive measures to stop attacks on its projects and citizens. On April 27, 2022, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared, “The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain, and those behind this incident will surely pay the price.”
Pakistan has, in fact, long been under immense pressure to heed to Chinese demands for a direct military presence to safeguard its interest in the country and its surrounding areas. The Chinese have intensified pressure on the Pakistani SFs to neutralize the Baloch insurgents hindering their projects. Though there is no official presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan, reports have emerged from time to time about Chinese forces stationed inside Pakistan. Way back in August 2010, a New York Times report claimed that 7,000 Chinese troops were stationed in Gilgit (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). Chinese authorities rejected these reports on September 1, 2010. On March 21, 2019, media reports quoting Indian intelligence agencies claimed that China had deployed People Liberation Army (PLA) troops for the security of coal mines in Thar area of the Tharparkar District in Sindh. Similarly, on July 1, 2020, there were reports regarding the use of the Skardu Airbase in Gilgit by China. On July 2, 2020, the Pakistan Army "vehemently" denied the presence of Chinese forces in the country after unsubstantiated reports circulated in Indian media claiming the presence of Beijing's combat aircraft at a forward Pakistani air base. Pakistan Army media wing Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General (DG) Major General Babar Iftikhar tweeted, “We vehemently deny presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan.”
On January 26, 2021, Sangar News, quoting Frontier Corps (FC) Inspector General (IG), South Balochistan, Major General Ayman Bilal, reported that China had deployed him to crush the Baloch movement and had given him six-months for the task. At a special Jirga (meeting) at FC headquarters in Turbat, Major General Ayman Bilal reportedly stated, “China has paid me a salary and a large sum of money and officially posted me here for their regional interests and to thwart Iran’s conspiracies against CPEC, as it is a kind of investment in regional interests.”
The Government of Pakistan had earlier deputed an estimated 37,000 security personnel to guard Chinese workers engaged in some 22 projects directly associated with CPEC and another 214 related small and mega projects in Pakistan. These include 15,780 military personnel trained under the Special Security Division (SSD) and the Maritime Security Force (MSF).
Despite these massive security arrangements for projects and persons associated with CPEC, the Baloch insurgents continues to succeed in their attacks. After the April 26 attack, all movements of foreign nationals in Balochistan have been restricted. Chinese nationals working on CPEC and various other projects have been barred from visiting public places until further notice. However, the deep-rooted Baloch anger against the Pakistani establishment as well as against the Chinese can only continue to provoke further attacks in the foreseeable future.