Sabah Aslam l
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is much more than just a development deal between two states; it is to a large extent a mega-project which encompasses many foyers of economy, trade and politics as well as strategy between two highly important states within Asia. It incorporates developing a network of roads, pipelines, and railways which connects Balochistan province in Pakistan with Xinjiang in China. It has heralded a cross country exchange of nationals who are working day and night to make this mega-project a successful one. At present, there is an estimate of around 20,000 Chinese nationals working across Pakistan, and this means that around 70,000 short-term visit visas are being issued each year.
But with all this being said, it needs to be understood that the current state of terrorism is threatening to the entire Endeavour and this needs to be catered to. There are countless foreign forces which are at work to derail this mega-project and Pakistan is understandably doing its part, but it also opens susceptibility for China. There is also a propaganda being floated around by some hostile forces which are against CPEC and this revolves around the perspicacity of China being a so called “future colonizing power” as well as the issue of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. This can add to some inside forces operational in making CPEC more vulnerable and sensitive. Furthermore, there is a threat of terrorism which is being emanated within the Baloch Insurgents as well as the added foreign pressure of other Islamist terrorist groups particularly the Islamic State’s (ISIS) local affiliates in the country. The terror attacks which rocked Balochistan in December 2018 and January 2019 are testimonies of this.
To begin with it must be cleared that currently the Baloch insurgent groups have exhibited signs of antagonism toward the Chinese presence in Pakistan. This province has a dire sense of dearth paralleled with other provinces and because of this under-development and political instability there is a lack of trust within Baloch people towards the Federal governments. Adding the Chinese presence in this atmosphere has only proven to further this lack of trust and probable resentment. The idea of exploitation of local resources by the Chinese is a coming propaganda which has already surfaced and will be pushed by some entities which do not wish for CPEC to succeed. A total of six Baloch separatist groups have publicised displeasure toward the Chinese presence, which is impaired by the government’s inability to address Baloch grievances. In the year 2018, Allah Nazar Baloch who is the commander of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) addressed a letter to the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, stating that Chinese nationals, including fishermen, laborers, and tourists, are legitimate targets for attacks. Furthermore, in 2018 the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army) targeted a bus transporting Chinese engineers in the Dalbandin district in a suicide bombing.
Moreover the Islamic State’s (IS) local branch for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has also targeted Chinese presence in Pakistan. The IS has labelled China an “oppressor of Muslims similar to Israel, India, and the U.S.” in the past. The increasing Chinese presence in Pakistani provinces gives these networks an opening to gain conspicuousness and coverage by targeting foreign nationals and business professionals which adds to their importance as well. With the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, a possible shift toward Afghanistan and Pakistan as a safe-haven for operations, and portrayal of itself as a group that is as strong now as it was back in 2014.
China has strategic geostrategic interests in Pakistan which will be indomitable to avert CPEC from failing or its interests being targeted by terrorist and separatist groups. China has no doubt become more inclined to strengthen its counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan since 2015, the most recent example of which is the joint training exercise conducted in Punjab province in December 2018. Previously China has patented the TTP as a serious and well-engineered menace to peace and stability within Pakistan which adversely impacts the Chinese position in the state after the group threatened to cut off access to the Karakoram Highway.
The combativeness in Balochistan province is largely advocated to be a product of the proxy war between India and Pakistan. Pakistan has by and again claimed that Indian intelligence is tangled in Balochistan and has been capitalising on the militancy in the province. These proclamations were broadened in 2016, when an Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested and indicted by Pakistan of being a spy.
These loopholes present in security can add up to the overall stagnation and possible blacking out of the $62 billion dollar deal between two prominent states. If this deal goes through, Balochistan will be resuscitated and has the potential to turn into a developing province for the future. Of course Pakistan and its policy makers are not completely phased out as there is an active unit of forces which are taking care of the impeding issue at hand. The collaboration between Pakistan and China has enhanced and this vulnerability does not need to be worried about much in the context of the larger strategic cooperation. CPEC is prone to terrorism but it is also prone to safeguarding the project, the intensity of which far exceeds the threats. Furthermore, the Pakistan-China cooperative partnership to counter-terrorism is need of time, especially when the BRI is transforming the world from geo-political to geo-economic phase. Mutual trust, joint efforts, and regional cooperation is the key to completely eliminate the scourge of terrorism from the face of earth.
The writer is the Founder & Executive Director of Islamabad Institute of Conflict Resolution (IICR), and member visiting faculty Dept. of Peace & Conflict Studies, NUML, and School of Politics & IR, Quaid-I- Azam University, Islamabad. The article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with author’s permission.