China’s strategic ambition to extend its maritime power across the Indian Ocean is hitting severe obstacles in the giant, volatile Pakistani province of Balochistan.
Beijing’s priority is to develop the sleepy Baloch fishing port of Gwadar, 300 miles west of Karachi, to project its commercial and naval influence further west. But kidnappings, drive-by shootings and bomb attacks in the past few weeks and months offer a chilling warning that China will have to pay a high price for a deep-water harbor near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
For the Chinese, there are clear reasons to run the risks of investment in Balochistan, one of the world’s wildest frontier regions. Gwadar will be a critical addition to Beijing’s so-called string of pearls: a ring of ports around the Indian Ocean, including in Sri Lanka, Djibouti and the Seychelles, which are intended to outflank China’s nuclear-armed rival for supremacy in Asia: India.
Balochistan is not for the faint-hearted. A mountainous, desert province bordering Iran and Afghanistan, it is not only wracked by terrorism and separatist rebellion, but is also a focal point for smuggling guns, fuel and drugs.
Violence over the past few months has left Beijing in no doubt of the risks. In June, Islamic State militants killed two Chinese language teachers, who were snatched from the streets of Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, by men disguised as police officers. That came only weeks after two gunmen on motorcycles shot dead 10 laborers building a road linked to the Chinese investments around Gwadar. More than 20 people have died in bomb attacks against military units in the past few days.
It is little wonder, then, that Pakistan’s new prime minister is scrambling to convince the Chinese that their investments are safe. The murder of the teachers was the most direct attack on Chinese citizens since three engineers were murdered in Gwadar in the early days of Beijing’s interest in the region in 2006.
On only his third day in office, on August 3, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met the Chinese ambassador to reassure him that Beijing has no reason to worry about its $62 billion spending plans, earmarked for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. China has committed thousands of engineers to this pharaonic infrastructure plan and is halfway through the first $28 billion investment cycle, which includes the development of Gwadar and the roads linking it to the rest of country.
Abbasi told Beijing’s envoy he would “personally supervise the speedy completion of all the projects under CPEC.”
Pakistan has sought to cast the murder of the teachers as a one-off, saying they were targeted because they were missionaries, not because they were Chinese. Beijing has also doubled down on its commitment to Pakistan after their deaths. The foreign ministry has vowed to support Islamabad’s battle against terrorism and Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong insisted the relationship with Pakistan has “attained new heights, which will be further strengthened in days to come.”
For Pakistan, the nationwide CPEC investments are a vital component of national regeneration. Islamabad hopes that the boondocks of Gwadar will be transformed into an unlikely new Dubai, served by a slick new $250 million airport.
The scale of the Chinese investment, however, means Pakistan has to negotiate a domestic political minefield. Many in Balochistan feel aggrieved that they will never see any of the cash from Beijing, which would either be seized by the other provinces or would turn into profit back in China. It is these discontented Baloch who pose the most stubborn threat to China’s plans.
Islamabad, we have a problem
Only slightly smaller than Germany, Balochistan forms 45 percent of Pakistan’s landmass, but has only 6 percent of the population: some 13 million people. That population is Pakistan’s least educated, least connected, and most deprived. Three-quarters of women are illiterate. Half the province does not have electricity.
It is also plagued by political violence. Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bomb attack against an army vehicle in Quetta on Saturday that killed 15 people, including eight soldiers, and injured dozens. On Monday, eight more soldiers died in an attack in Harnai, 100 miles east of Quetta.
Last year, a Taliban attack at a Quetta hospital killed 76 people, almost wiping out the entire province’s senior lawyers, who had come to mourn the death of the city’s bar association president, who had been shot dead earlier.
Chronic neglect and discrimination have also fueled a violent separatist insurgency that has targeted military bases, railway lines, school teachers, and migrants, whom many believe threaten the livelihood of the native Baloch.
“They’re bringing people over from Punjab [province] to build the [Gwadar] port,” said Bhawal Mengal, 27, a Baloch activist in exile who frequently visits European capitals trying to bring the plight of Baloch people to the attention of NGOs and government officials. He dismissed the idea that the multibillion dollar project would enrich Baloch lives. “The jobs are taken.”
It is these laborers from outside Balochistan who have often been the target of attacks. In April, four workers from neighboring Sindh were shot dead, while 20 Punjabis were murdered working on a dam in 2015.
And it’s not just about the jobs that locals aren’t getting. Some are losing the only job they, or their forefathers, ever had: fishing. As much of the Chinese investment is centered around Gwadar, the fishermen have been barred from accessing the port, and told to do something else. A Chinese development firm leased the port from Pakistan until 2059, and in coordination with Pakistani authorities, is building a security fence around the port requiring locals to carry a pass to enter.
“Are there some left out [of the project]? Probably yes,” Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, the Baloch government’s spokesperson, conceded. But he argued that the fate of the fishermen was the government’s “top priority.”
“Will government be callous towards the left out? No.”
For China, a strengthened Pakistan helps muscle out India, which has long been Beijing’s main foe across the Himalayas.
Andrew Small, an expert on China-Pakistan relations at the German Marshall Fund, said the scale of the Chinese investment was so vast that it was bound to bring benefits. Thousands of Chinese engineers, laborers and even chefs are working across the province. A road link between Gwadar and Quetta is imminent and more power plants, which receive the biggest share of the $62 billion pie, are coming online to address Pakistan’s electricity needs, conveniently in time for next year’s election.
“I think there will be jobs generated, and they will make efforts on education,” Small said. “I’d be surprised if the project does not demonstrate tangible benefit to Balochistan.”
Asia’s dark horse
Baloch spokesman Kakar spoke to POLITICO in May while on an official visit to Brussels with senior Cabinet members from the provincial government. After a sweeping military operation began in 2014 to clear out militants, the delegation believed the time was ripe for investors to sell Balochistan in Europe, styling it the “rising dark horse” of South Asia.
During an event at the Pakistani Embassy, an official talked up investment opportunities in Baloch infrastructure and energy, while offering camel meat as one of the potential exports to Europe. The official talked up its nutritional value.
Despite the delegation’s visions of a modern trade and tourist hub, the residents complain about a lack of drinking water. Many went on strike in June to protest against dismal progress on a promised desalination plant, shuttering their businesses.
One regional politician, Saeed Ahmad Baloch, was quoted by the Express Tribune newspaper as saying: “We hear that Gwadar is going to become next Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong but we do not even have access to water and electricity.”
As regional unrest ferments, Mengal, the activist, complained about the military’s heavy-handed response: “The military operation has been taken to another level. Thousands have been killed just for CPEC.”
The military maintains that its focus is on terrorists and “miscreants.” Last month, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Balochistan to insist that the province was still the military’s “prime focus.” A spokesman for the military said that terrorists now were “in desperation.”
Baloch separatists accuse the country’s military — and particularly a paramilitary force called the Frontier Corps — of conducting extrajudicial killings and “disappearing” opponents. It is difficult to independently verify estimates of casualties in the “dirty war” between the insurgents and the security forces, which has been going on for years. Official statistics indicate that more than 4,500 bodies of forcibly disappeared people were recovered between 2010 and 2015.
For China, a strengthened Pakistan helps muscle out India, which has long been Beijing’s main foe across the Himalayas. The two countries fought a war in 1962 and soldiers again clashed along the Himalayan border this week.
According to Small from the German Marshall Fund, a strong Pakistan would “distract India on its western border and keep it tied down in South Asia.”
While there is no formal military dimension to the agreement over Gwadar, Small explained that the relationship is so close “they don’t need it.” He predicted that Chinese naval ships would use the port informally, docking there whenever they need to.
This lack of formality is in line with Pakistan’s fluid assessment of its relationship with China, which reads more like a love letter than a strategic partnership: “Our friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey,” former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on a state visit to China in 2013.
There is also a soft-diplomacy dimension to China’s investments.
A television advertisement that went viral in Pakistan — and spawned parodies — shows a Chinese woman bonding with her Pakistani neighbors over a spicy platter of biryani. More Pakistanis are also learning Mandarin than ever before. Chinese performers sing patriotic Pakistani songs on Chinese TV, and China Radio International launched a new station on Pakistani airwaves called “Friendship Channel.” The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad did not respond to a question on how many Chinese residents there are now in Pakistan, but the number is easily in the high thousands.
Still, amid the bonhomie, it’s impossible to discount the core strategic worries.
Even Kakar was not exactly glowing in his appraisal of security in the province, taking stock of the big crackdowns since 2014.
“It is relatively OK,” he said. “More or less.”
Kakar said the war in Afghanistan next door was partially responsible for instability in the wider region. “[Even] with the presence of U.S. troops … just round the corner, hundreds are being killed even there [in Afghanistan], so … five soldiers being killed on Balochistan’s soil is not acceptable but … not unusual.”
The state is trying to meet the security challenge. In addition to its regular and paramilitary forces of some 650,000, Pakistan assembled a 15,000-strong force called the Special Security Division specifically instructed to protect the Chinese-backed projects and the people working on them. Small predicted that number could rise to 30,000 — the size of Belgium’s entire armed forces — as work on the projects intensifies.
Kakar argued that kind of show of force should put fears to rest about investment in Balochistan by the middle of 2018.
“Probably the next six months to a year would be the timeline where we could be more confident and within a comfort zone to tell the rest of the world that the situation is almost 100 percent in our control.”
This article is part of an occasional series: China looks West.