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China's Balochistan problem

Balochi rebels are clubbing China with Islamabad's exploitation of their province, writes B Raman.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2006 20:15 IST
B Raman

Ever since 1963, when China initiated its policy of strategic engagement with Pakistan in order to counter India, it has been viewed by Pakistan as its "allweather friend".

It became the most popular non-Muslim foreign country in Pakistan.

No longer. China’s popularity has declined in the tribal areas of Waziristan and Baluchistan.

The growing Sinophobia in Baluchistan has been generated by local perceptions of Chinese complicity in the suppression of a Baluch youth movement for autonomy, if not independence.

Unaddressed Baloch grievances over lack of development, discrimination in government recruitment and exploitation of their gas and mineral resources for the benefit of other areas of Pakistan have from time to time given rise to independence insurgencies.

In the past, Pakistan has had no difficulty in suppressing them.

However, it has been facing serious difficulties in suppressing a new movement for independence launched in 2004 under the leadership of a group of militants, who call themselves the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

Past movements of Baluch nationalists were directed against what the Balochs perceive as the Punjabi domination of Pakistan.

They were not directed against any foreign country. The present movement is showing an anti-Chinese motivation, in addition to the usual anti-Punjabi one.

The anti-Chinese anger in Balochistan has come in the wake of increased interest evinced by Beijing in acquiring a presence in Baluchistan to serve its strategic and economic interests.

Chinese working in the tribal areas have been the targets of three attacks in the last two years.

Two took place in Baluchistan in May 2004 and February 2006. The third was in South Waziristan in October 2004. Seven Chinese engineers were killed and nine injured in these incidents.

Chinese concern over the failure of the Pakistani authorities to put an end to these attacks led, said a February Xinhua report, to President Hu Jintao ordering "the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassy and consulates to urge Pakistan to catch the murderers and ensure the safety of Chinese people."

China's strategy

Baluchistan and the Arakan area of Myanmar are important to Chinese drives to reduce dependence on the Malacca Strait for energy security.

Proposals for a pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjiang and another from a port yet to be developed on the Arakan coast to Yunnan are the subjects of feasibility studies.

Other projects:

• Large refinery complex at Gwadar to meet part of the re quirements of Pakistan and the Xinjiang region

• Road connecting Gwadar to the Karakoram Highway

• Railway line connecting Gwadar with Xinjiang

• Special economic zone at Gwadar for Chinese companies exporting to West Asia and Africa.

Islamabad has also sought Chinese assistance to build a strategic oil and gas reserve in Balochistan, which could meet Pakistan’s requirements for three weeks in the event of a war.

It has reportedly suggested this could also act as a reserve for Xinjiang and Tibet.

The Baloch nationalists are opposed to these projects. They feel that the manner the Gwadar project has been implemented it clearly has no benefit for Balochis – contracts go to Karachi and Lahore firms, even labour is brought from outside the province.

Baloch nationalists view Chinese collaboration with the Pakistani government as complicity in helping the military establishment and the Punjabi majority strengthen their hold on the province.

The Chinese are determined to go ahead with their projects, despite concerns about safety.

The Daily Times reported in June 15 that the Chinese "Karachi consulate issued fresh security guidelines following the receipt of information that the BLA could be planning to attack Chinese projects, experts or personnel in Baluchistan and Sindh".

The massacre of Nawab Bugti will only add to Baloch anger against China.

(The author is director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and ex-head of RAW’s Pakistan desk).