Featured image: Chinese and Pakistan border guards at Khunjerab Pass by Anthony Maw
In the cold, arid air of Balochistan, things are starting to heat up. In the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, the insurgency has been ongoing for many years, but only recently have the insurgents turned their anger towards China. In response to China’s Belt and Road initiative, Pakistan’s government has begun to erect barbed wire fencing around Gwadar, a key port in the new trade route that will inextricably link China and Pakistan.
Despite its size, Balochistan is also the poorest province and the least populous. It has witnessed varying groups of insurgents since the formation of Pakistan, with key separatist insurgencies taking place in 1948, 1958–59, 1962–63 and 1973–77. Since 2003, the conflict has been increasing again.
The Baloch separatists complain of the wealthier provinces unfairly exploiting their area’s rich resources while they have not seen any wealth or development in return. The Pakistani Government responded to the subsequent insurgency by launching a military campaign in 2005, during which the army were accused of committing various human rights abuses. On the other side, the BLA (the foremost separatist group) has been accused of attacking citizens during terrorist undertakings.
So what has this got to do with China?
Chinese influence in Balochistan is largely derived from the CPEC project. On the Pakistan government website, CPEC is described as: “a framework of regional connectivity”, claiming that “the enhancement of geographical linkages [has] improved road, rail and air transportation systems with frequent and free exchanges of growth and people to people contact.” In other words, large-scale infrastructure related to the Belt-and-Road initiative, which is currently valued at $87 billion as of 2020.
However, for the BLA, the project is seen as the introduction of Chinese forces who also desire to exploit the region and its resources. This is especially true in Gwadar, a port city that will link China to the Arabian Sea. Recent years have seen Baloch separatists attack the Chinese consulate in Karachi City (2018), the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar (2019), which was known to house Chinese businessmen working on the project, and the Pakistan Stock Exchange building (2020), where they claim that China holds about 40% equity.
It is attacks like these that have led to the latest controversy in the situation: Pakistan building a barbed wire fence around Gwadar. The provincial government plans to fence off 24 sq. km of the city with only two entry points, and more than 500 high-definition cameras. The fencing will include China’s deep seaport but will not cover the China-funded New Gwadar International Airport and 80 of the newly built housing projects.
Interestingly, the government claims that the fencing is in place to protect locals. Zubaida Jalal, the federal minister for defence production, is reported to have said: “There are security reasons behind it; it will provide security to locals”. Meanwhile, an anonymous Gwadar official remarked: “It will be like a gated community.”
The separatists are not so convinced, and neither are many of the locals. A Gwadar official told DW (a major German international broadcaster), on condition of anonymity, that the fencing had already started in the Pishokan area of the city. “It will be completed within months. It will be like a gated community.” With the fencing, there are fears that the locals will be displaced. Meanwhile, some local government members warn of further alienating the citizens from the CPEC project with this new fencing element.
Rahim Zafar, a leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, dubbed the Gwadar fencing a human rights violation. He told the DW that “it will hamper people’s freedom of movement. It is also illegal and unconstitutional. The fencing will increase resentment among the local population against Islamabad”.
With tensions continuing to rise, it is likely that more conflict will take place. This could have wider implications for the region, as well as the world. Previously, Chinese foreign policy has shown a strong unwillingness to deploy troops abroad and has instead pushed Pakistan’s government to enforce security. To this end, a specific division has been created to protect CPEC-related commodities, among others.
However, analysts have speculated that China may be forced to take a more proactive role in securing the region should things continue to escalate. Outside of security, there are strategic benefits to China for taking a more active role. With China and India at odds with one another, greater activity in Pakistan could be used to put pressure on India. The port at Gwadar might be a useful military position, granting China easier access to the Middle East, and, moreover, an alternative to routes passing through the South China Sea. With the Pakistani Government accusing India of providing support for the Baloch separatists, such musings are not necessarily far-fetched.