China’s stalling of a UN declaration at India’s instance, listing Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist is deeply intertwined with Beijing’s strategic stakes in Pakistan. Azhar Masood may be a mere pawn in the game that China is playing but this avowedly anti-India terror kingpin is in cahoots with the Pakistan establishment in his nefarious activities against New Delhi and Pakistan can ill afford exposing him to Indian interrogators lest he spills the beans.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan may pretend to be innocent about Masood’s terror activities against India but he is well aware of how useful Masood is to Pakistani intelligence and to the Pakistan army. Even if he tries to rein in Masood, he knows he cannot do it with the hawk eye of the army watching him and thwarting all such attempts.
The Chinese are fully conscious that they are holding up action against Masood despite an international tide against him and that they are therefore being seen as serious roadblock to peace in the world. While China is not ruling out punitive action in the near future, it is holding it in abeyance because it needs Pakistan because of the bountiful benefits that would flow to it through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will give it access to the Arabian Sea through the
Gwadar port in Balochistan province of Pakistan, slashing its costs of exports. The debts to China that Pakistan would pile up as a result of the implementation of the CPEC would predictably plunge Islamabad into a debt trap, clipping its manoeuvrability vis-a-vis China. That is not good news for the US and for India which are bound to see this as a precursor for Chinese hegemony in the region.
The access to the international waters through Gwadar could well embolden China to extend its hegemony to other nations by ruling over the sea lanes. This, the US and India and the world at large, can hardly be expected to take lying down. It would, however, be foolhardy to think that Beijing can have a smooth sailing to the status of a virtual superpower. The Chinese are already quite wary of the attacks on their personnel in the Gwadar region by Balochi rebels.
The Balochis are born fighters and any assault on their freedom and encroachment into their areas of influence would be resisted hard. In November last, the Chinese consulate in Karachi came under attack with three gunmen trying to enter it and killing four people in the process. The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army took responsibility for the attack as it asserted that “we have been seeing the Chinese as an oppressor, along with Pakistani forces”.
This attack was part of a series of assaults on Chinese projects and personnel in the restive province of Balochistan over the years as China’s footprint has grown in the region. In August last year, a suicide bombing resulted in injuries to a number of Chinese engineers.
Though Chinese interests have been repeatedly targeted over the years, Beijing so far has continued to repose its faith in the Pakistani government’s ability to manage the security situation so as to guarantee Chinese investment. Balochistan is at the very heart of the ambitious CPEC which is estimated to be worth more than $62 billion.
Despite being rich in minerals, gas and coal, Balochistan is Pakistan’s economically most compromised region, which has kept it in perpetual political turmoil. Baloch nationalists have gained traction by accusing Islamabad of pursuing exploitative policies and never giving the region its rightful share.
The ongoing tussle between forces and Baloch nationalists has made the region’s security precarious, diminishing the region’s economic prospects. The day the Balochistan province rises in mass revolt in the event of Pakistan giving in too much to Beijing, there would be hell to pay for the Chinese.
When the CPEC work first began in 2016, Pakistan had decided to create a dedicated CPEC force of 10,000 security personnel primarily to assuage Chinese concerns about the security of the projects. But how adequate this force would be in tackling growing challenges to Chinese projects remains to be seen in the foreseeable future.
The economic picture in Pakistan is far from rosy with the debt-servicing of the CPEC worsening the situation. The trade deficit is spiralling and with the US and the World Bank frowning upon any Pakistani bid to siphon off the loans obtained from them to repay the Chinese loans Pakistan has a tough task on its hands.
Religious extremism is another challenge that the Chinese have to cope with in Pakistan. The crackdown on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007 had been attributed to Chinese pressure on the then Pakistan government. In recent times, heavy-handed repression in China’s Muslim majority region of Xinjiang is also stirring up anti-China sentiments in Pakistan.
These factors, among others, have driven religious extremists to act against Chinese citizens in Pakistan. The CPEC has been dubbed a game changer by Pakistani officials. But the Balochs do not concur. Even though the CPEC originates from Gwadar, the Balochs have hardly been discussed in official talk about the project.
As a result, many Balochs are apprehensive. It is a common fear among Balochs the CPEC-related projects will bring about a demographic change in the future. Already, many people in Gwadar have sold their lands at reduced prices to investors from outside of Balochistan.
The CPEC projects are likely to escalate the conflict between the Balochs and the state. Where such a conflict would leave Pakistan is a moot question indeed.
If Pakistan fails to convince young Balochs that they have something to look forward to from the Chinese investment coming into the CPEC projects, they may well join the Baloch separatists in fighting against the state. The future of the Chinese designs in Pakistan is indeed steeped in imponderables.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four book.