The suicide attack by three heavily armed men on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi has opened up the wounds festering for a long time. It left four people dead, before the attackers were killed by Pakistani security forces. Soon after, the Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack saying it would not tolerate “any Chinese military expansionist endeavours on Baloch soil”. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a twitter message that “the attack was intended to scare Chinese investors and undermine China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)”. In Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry urged Pakistan to step up security for thousands of Chinese nationals working on various CPEC projects.
Ever since the CPEC was launched in 2015 as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has been opposed by Balochistan, Khyber- Pakhtoonkhwa and the illegally occupied Gilgit- Baltistan, formerly known as Northern Areas, through which it passes. Balochistan has been protesting against the CPEC on the plea that Balochistan, the largest and the most impoverished province of Pakistan is being deprived of its huge natural resources. It says it has a mere 0.5 % share in the $60 billion project which is aimed at connecting China’s Xinjiang province with Gwadar port in the province so that China gets access to the Arabian Sea and consequently to Middle East and Africa. The Gwadar port is designed to handle 19 million tons of oil a year which will be sent to China after it is refined at the Gwadar port itself. 91 % of the port’s revenue will go to China and the remaining 9% to the port Trust. Out of 21 power generating plants planned under CPEC only one is in Balochistan.
The contract for construction of the port has also been given to a Chinese company. Exploitation of Balochistan’s rich natural resources for Punjab and other provinces of Pakistan has been a long standing complaint. The province is also very low on social indicators. 1.8 million Baloch children are out of schools. Maternal death rate per 100,000 is 715 against national average of 278. Over 1600 Baloch have been killed in suicide attacks and sectarian violence in last 15 years. Forced disappearances are rampant. The Baloch people believe that Pakistan is trying to change the demography of the area by settling hundreds of thousands Punjabis and Chinese there. For them, CPEC is not the so called ‘game-changer’.
The Baloch people nurture a grudge that the province was forcibly annexed by Pakistan in 1948. It is still striving for autonomy which now has grown into a full blown separatist movement. The entry of China in this backdrop has given further reason to the Baloch people to fight for their rights Chinese in Pakistan have been targeted earlier also. Two Chinese nationals were kidnapped and killed in Quetta, Balochistan last year. A senior Chinese shipping executive was shot dead in Karachi earlier this year.
India in a statement has strongly condemned the attack on the Chinese consulate. New Delhi made it clear that there can be no justification, whatsoever, for any act of terrorism. India’s External Affairs Ministry said the perpetrators of this attack must be brought to justice expeditiously.
New Delhi has been opposing the CPEC project as it challenges India’s sovereignty over the occupied Gilgit- Baltistan area which is a part of Jammu and Kashmir State which acceded to India in 1947. Earlier also, Pakistan outrageously handed over a part of the state under its illegal occupation to China for the Karakoram Highway giving rise to protests by India.
Interestingly, the entire route of the CPEC passes through strife torn areas of Xinjiang in China, Gilgit-Baltistan of the Indian Jammu and Kashmir state and Balochistan, all of whom are engaged in separatist movements from China and Pakistan respectively. To that extent, security concerns of China for CPEC are understandable. Both China and Pakistan need to look at this angle before it is too late.
Script: Ashok Handoo, Political Commentator