Xi’s CPEC plan may turn into China’s ‘corridor of death’ in Balochistan

June 4, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016
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China once controlled the warm waters of the Straits of Hormuz, from where 17 million barrels of Arabian Gulf oil supplies to the West pass today. After nearly six centuries, President Xi Jinping has set his eyes to returning to those warm Hormuz waters as part of his Maritime Silk Road to connect China with the East and the West as the center of world power and further augment China’s “string of pearls” of naval bases on the rim of the Indian Ocean. However, Pakistan media glossed over the fact that during his last visit to Pakistan with a suitcase full of 50 memorandums of understandings (MoUs), worth $46 billion, the security managers shot down the idea of Xi visiting Gwadar. Any probability of Xi’s unannounced visit to Gwadar on April 21, was shot down when one of the groups of Baloch Sarmachars or freedom fighters called the Baloch Republican Army dismantled radar communication system in Pasni airport in a daredevil attack. In Gwadar itself, guerrillas of the Baloch Liberation Front engaged the security forces in armed clashes on the same day.

A peep into history makes an interesting read. China’s Ming Dynasty most famous maritime explorer was castrated Admiral Zheng He, who commandeered his 63 ships and over 28,000 men to Hormuz. “His giant ‘treasure ships’, packed with the finest goods and most sophisticated weaponry of the time, went to 37 countries over 28 years, exacting tribute for the Dragon Throne and extending China’s influence across much of the globe,” according to the BBC. 

As Beijing plans return to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea for energy security and naval domination, and President Xi inked 50 MoUs worth $45.6 billion for the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Balochistan is poised to become the “corridor of death” for the Chinese amid Baloch resolve to fight to the end. The People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, who have a common rival in India, plan to link Gwadar and Kashgar by road and rail. The 1500-mile Gwadar-Khunjerab highway is likely to cost $12 billion while the rail link will cost $3 billion. Islamabad describes Pakistan-China relations as “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey.” But for the Baloch who are engaged in a David-and-Goliath struggle against Islamabad’s injustices this can be re-paraphrased as “not mightier than Goliath even though deeper than hell, and redder than blood.”

The army operation that has been going on since the March 17, 2005 military attack on the home of Balochistan governor and chief minister Nawab Akbar Bugti in Dera Bugti, has definitely gotten bloodier in the last two months when Pakistan was preparing for Xi’s visit. Bugti was assassinated August 26, 2006 by the commandos of Pakistan’ Special Services Group under former dictator and coup leader general Pervez Musharraf. His successor Nawab Brahumdagh Bugti, who is a darling in the eyes of Baloch youths who are demanding independence, is carrying on his mission. Pakistan alleges Bugti heads BRA, the group that carried out the Pasni attack when Xi was in Pakistan. Bugti vehemently denies the charge and insists that he is only responsible for his political party named Baloch Republican Party. He also refutes Pakistani allegations of Indian support as he says he inherited $100 million from his late grandfather.

According to Reuters  China has pledged $622 million for projects related to Gwadar port but Premier Nawaz Sharif told meetings in Quetta Monday militant attacks have cost $110 million in damages. The port could be used by the Chinese Navy. As Pakistan’s civil and military leaders were cozying up with China, offering them the port of Gwadar in return for solid strategic ties against arch rival India, the Baloch who actually own the port were raising their voices of dissent. “If the tiny Diaoyu Islands are a matter of pride and principle for China and Japan, Gwadar is also a matter of life and death for the Baloch. Any unilateral decision by Islamabad concerning the fate of Gwadar will be opposed by the Baloch at all levels,” former senator Sanaullah Baloch, wrote in The Express Tribune. He said, “There is grave concern that a large-scale Chinese presence will further militarise the Balochistan coast and the Makran region, where a non-Baloch security apparatus, that is, the FC (Frontier Corps) and the Coast Guards, has massive presence, causing immense unrest.”

Baloch have not limited their opposition to China to news articles alone in the past nor to a Twitter campaign April 9 and 10 with the hashtag #ChinaHandsOffBalochistan as China’s president Xi Jinping prepared to visit Pakistan. Nawab Mehran Marri, who has represented Balochistan at the UN Human Rights Council for more than 14 years now, has opposed the Chinese project. “The Chinese and Pakistanis are partners in the crimes against the Baloch nation. And, the Gwadar port project is not a commercial project aimed at bringing prosperity in the region, and especially for the Baloch people – absolutely not. It is a naval base created for the Chinese to have listening post in the region,” Mehran Marri told the ANI. Almost a decade back, Nayan Chanda, editor of Yale Global Online Magazine at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, made a similar observation in an article in the New York Times, “Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Chinese Navy, much strengthened by recent purchases of ships and technology, arrives in Gwadar. Pakistani officials boast that Gwadar’s Chinese connection will help to frustrate India’s domination of regional waterways. A Chinese maritime presence in the area would enable the mainland to monitor naval patrols by the United States and protect Chinese sea lines of communication. China Economic Net, an online news outlet sponsored by China’s leading business paper, calls Gwadar ‘China’s biggest harvest.'”

In anticipation of the Chinese president’s visit, on April 11 guerrillas of the Baloch Liberation Front, the only organization which has a visible face– gold medalist gynecologist Dr Allah Nazar–, gunned down 20 laborers working on a key project related to the CPEC outside Turbat, hometown of Balochistan chief minister Abdul Malik. The BLF claims credit for being the first to attack Chinese interests in Balochistan starting from 2004 when the organization gunned down three Chinese engineers working in Gwadar.

Earlier on March 23, which was being observed as Pakistan Day, the United Baloch Army (UBA) in a message to Beijing to stay away from Balochistan blew up five oil tankers that were transporting oil to the Chinese-run Saindak gold-cum-project in Chagai. The shadowy UBA that conducted the daredevil attack is reportedly headed by Mehran Marri, who was accused by Islamabad as the chief suspect in last Friday’s bus massacre of 22 Pashtuns in Khadkoocha, Mastung. Though the UBA had publicly owned the Mastung massacre, Mehran Marri condemned the killings saying his mother was Pashtun from Pishin, the hometown of almost all the victims. The Mastung killings were an inside job of the ISI became clear when UBA commander Wali Qalati, who was allegedly involved in the massacre, surrendered to Mehran Marri’s elder Jangyz Marri, who was disowned by his late father but still claims he is the new Marri tribal chief. Mehran Marri’s London-based elder brother Hybyair Marri, while condemning the Mastung massacre, had already said ISI agents have penetrated the ranks of the guerrilla organizations.  Just two days before issuing the statement, Hyrbyair Marri calls China under Xi Jinping an international “robber and thief.”

The Baloch say Gwadar port is a matter of live and death for Balochistan’s existence as “the land of the Baloch” on the world map. They fear just like Sindh lost Karachi to Urdu-speaking mohajirs after the 1947 Partition holocaust, if China in collusion with the dominant Punjabis and mohajirs gains a foothold in Gwadar port, Baloch would become a minority in Balochistan overnight. Even pro-Islamabad Balochistan chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch, who was once in the freedom camp but is now allied with Premier Sharif, privately says steps are needed to protect Balochistan from the expected ethnic flooding through constitutional means. In a recent statement, he drew a blank on Pakistan’s CPEC plan while he called the Chinese run Saindak copper-cum-gold project “as a worst form of exploitation.” Much to the chagrin of Islamabad, Malik also recently met the US consul general in Karachi.  Islamabad is highly suspicious of any Baloch meetings with US officials. The party that he belongs to called National Party has demanded of Islamabad to hand over Gwadar Port to Balochistan – ports are a federal subject under Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution. However, the Baloch resistance organizations accuse both Malik and National Party of being the Pakistani military establishment “B team” in Balochistan and say an armed insurrection to defend Baloch coasts and resources is the only way to keep China out of Gwadar.

In addition to the BLF, UBA, BRA the Baloch Liberation Army and Lashkar-i-Balochistan have time and again warned China and other powers not to enter Balochistan by making deals with Islamabad over Baloch heads. These organizations, who are jointly called “the Sarmachars”, or those who are willing to sacrifice everything for the Baloch homeland, have one point or another attacked Chinese interests in Balochistan.

“So far as CPEC is concerned, the Baloch are resolved to sabotage China’s work and have succeeded in their efforts to some extent,” says Kachkol Ali, a former fisheries minister and opposition leader in Balochistan provincial assembly. A popular politician from Mekran, Ali now lives in exile in Oslo, Norway – his young son Nabeel Ahmad, 21, is among Baloch victims of enforced disappearances, who number 20,000 according to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons. Ali believes a maritime great game is being played out in Gwadar. “The Baloch are doing what they can, according to their resistance capacity. But actually there arebig powers involved with Gwadar particularly India, Dubai, Singapore, Iran and the USA.”

Sino-Pakistan experts acknowledge the situation in Balochistan, which has been in the throes of a bloody insurgency for more than a decade, is precarious. Dr Ejaz Hussain an independent China expert, Ms Zhang Yuan, PhD candidate at Peking University and Dr Ghulam Ali, a post-doctoral Fellow at Peking University, in an article on Friday in The Daily Times wrote, “Undeniably, the construction of the CPEC also faces some challenges, which should be addressed wisely especially on the Pakistani side.” The three experts say, “The CPEC is indeed a comprehensive concept that encompasses economic and strategic integration between the two countries in the long run”.

In addition to India, Pakistani security analysts and diplomats have privately also accused the Gulf powers including the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman of opposing the development of Gwadar port. Both UAE and Oman have historic ties with Balochistan and Baloch have risen not only to high positions in the military and police in the two countries, but also in business. In fact, Gwadar was part of Oman for two centuries until Pakistan bought it back from Oman in 1958. Some Baloch are asking UAE and Oman to step in to secure Gwadar for their Baloch brethren. The Gulf sheikhs are angry with Pakistan for not supporting them in Yemen and for the first time they have attacked the duplicity of the Pakistani leaders.

India, however, may matter more than any other nation as it is central to the US policy of Asia pivot, aimed at countering China not only in the Indian Ocean but also globally. At this point, the Baloch and India appear to be on exactly the same page when it comes to Gwadar as Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his meeting with President Xi Jinping last month expressed his stiff opposition to the CPEC. Since Modi never hides the fact that he is a devout Hindu, some Baloch on the social media are asking India to openly help them as they say they are children of Hinglaj Mata, one of the most revered Hindu sites that stands in Balochistan. Robert D Kaplan in an article in the influential The Atlantic, wrote, “Indeed, as the (Pakistan) government builds roads and military bases, Baloch and minority Hindus are being forcibly displaced. Both groups are thought to harbor sympathy for India, and they do: in Baloch and Hindu eyes, India acts as a counterweight to an oppressive Pakistani state.”

Pakistan military may not give up Gwadar easily. In recent years, Balochistan replaced Argentina and Chile of the 1970s as the world capital of enforced disappearances. Pakistan’s Army soldiers, paramilitary Frontier Corps, Military Intelligence and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been accused by human rights organizations of pursuing a kill-and-dump policy in Balochistan in violation of the Rome Statute and Geneva Conventions.

The moot question is do the Baloch possess the ability to successfully counter the Chinese designs? Middle class politicians like Kachkol Ali respond in the affirmative. “It is a long journey. Israel got its liberty after a struggle of thousand years. Baloch can do the same if we remain resolute,” he said. A Baloch monument in the museum at Goa stands as proof that Kachkol Ali may be right: a statue of the ruler of Makkuran in Balochistan built by the Portuguese. The 15th century warrior is Mir Hammal Kalmati of the Hoath tribe, who resisted the Portuguese attacks on Gwadar just after China’s best known maritime explorer Admiral Zheng left the Hormuz waters.