In the last six months, the Chinese workers and assets deployed in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have been attacked at least four times. Last month a convoy of 22 vehicles ferrying Chinese engineers was attacked by the Baloch Liberation Army, whereas last week, a luxury hotel at the epicentre of the CPEC imperatives i.e. Gwadar port, was the scene of a long-drawn gunfight, explosions and rocket fires in yet another coordinated attack. The authorities have tried to play down the incident with very scant details emanating in terms of the destruction and loss of lives. The scale, planning and logistics involved in the attack on the five-star hotel at Gwadar, Pearl Continental, testified to the singularity of the target by the battle-hardened Baloch Liberation Army. The specificity of targeting Chinese interests can be further confirmed by the earlier attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi last year, as claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army. Besides the historical and homegrown Baloch separatist movement that has sought independence from the clutches of Punjabi-Pathan domination in the Pakistani “Miliestablishment” — the Chinese are further seen as the new exploiters of the abundant natural resources in Balochistan region. However, this restive region is teeming with armed militias that are inimical to the Pakistani State, beyond just the Baloch insurgents, as the capital Quetta is home to the various splinter groups of the Taliban, Islamic State affiliates and other sectarian outfits that are beyond the complete control of the Pakistani State. Even beyond the Pakistani-Afghan dimension, the Chinese are equally wary of their own Uighur jihadist forces like the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), who could partake terror attacks on Chinese investments and interests in Pakistan.
At stake in the region is the gargantuan $62-billion CPEC punt, expected to reap transformatory economic dividends for the cash-strapped Pakistanis and facilitate the showcasing of the global “One Belt, One Road” hyper-logistical initiative by the Chinese. From the Chinese perspective, this specific 3000-km-long corridor reduces supply chain time and costs for its wares via the Gwadar port, and even more importantly, acts as a strategic alternative in the doomsday scenario of an enforced blockade of its sea routes. Clearly, the stakes are survival-linked for both the countries, and underpinning the faith in its fructification is the fabled Pak-Sino “all weather friendship” that has only solidified in recent times, post the declaration of the CPEC project. Pursuant to CPEC, the Pakistanis have even risked getting the ire of its traditional ally in Washington DC, and reposed its faith and future within the “Chinese Bloc” in the ensuing US-China war of global hegemony. Clearances on the CPEC have been fast-tracked and prioritised, and the Pakistani State has raised a dedicated Army division (including nine infantry battalions and six civil armed units) to ensure a four-layer cover for the 15,000-odd “foreigners” (mostly Chinese). Headed by a Major General, this division is called the Special Security Division to safeguard 330-odd small to large projects of the CPEC infrastructure under development. Even the Pakistani Navy has deployed “Task Force-88”, a dedicated naval detachment that works in conjunction with the land-based Special Security Division — equipped and financed by China itself for the “protection of associated sea lanes against both conventional and non-traditional threats”. Armed with ships, fast attack crafts, aircrafts, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and surveillance assets — to avoid the sort of militant attacks that occurred in the Karachi Naval Base in 2011, the Karachi dockyard in 2014 and also on the Naval Air-Arm at PNS Mehran.
Pakistani commitment and security infrastructure notwithstanding, the Chinese interests in the CPEC project remains extremely vulnerable after having been frequently attacked, kidnapped and bombed. The overall security situation in Pakistan remains explosive, particularly in the Balochistan region. From a societal and political angle also, CPEC is coming under increased questioning and concerns. Some parliamentarians have already called CPEC “another East India Company” that could make Pakistan a vassal nation, whereas the local fishermen communities around the Gwadar port are outraged over the curbs and discrimination enforced by the Chinese, who now officially own the port facilities. Recent news filtering in from the Chinese province of Xinjiang province, of the “crackdown” of their own minority Uighur Muslims, including the internment camps, torture and forced renunciation of the faith will not endear the Chinese in Pakistan as it is caught in the vortex of a dangerous religious revivalism. Neither would the recent lifting of the crucial veto-vote in the UN that embarrassed Pakistan greatly, as the Pakistani cleric Masood Azhar got designated as an “international terrorist”. The game of “running with the hare and hunting with the hound”, in terms of ignoring the various contradictions that beset the unnatural Pak-Sino relationship, seems to have caught up.
The China-fueled dream of CPEC is popularly posited as the “next Dubai”, and befittingly the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to slam the recent attack, as “such attempts, especially in Balochistan, are an effort to sabotage our economic projects and prosperity”. However, it will need more than leadership commitments to ward off the security threats to the Chinese — the deliberately cultivated societal-radicalisation and the accompanying phenomenon of “leakages” in its terror infrastructure by so-called “non-state actors” is an inevitability that the Chinese will have to face up to. Gwadar is geographically in Balochistan, which will remain mired in its own irreconcilability with Islamabad, and the Chinese have inadvertently walked into the mess. Given the contractual framework of CPEC is designed to favour Chinese interests (as it happens with Chinese investments globally), this will further alienate the popular mood against the Chinese, as new details emerge of the closely guarded terms of agreement. With no civilisational, cultural or even religious commonality amongst the polity (news of Uighur oppression will only make it worse) — the Chinese will get a dose of the duplicitous Pakistani arrangement of its homegrown terror industry.