The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project reached an important milestone on November 13 when cargo from China that was trucked down via the corridor was loaded on to ships at Gwadar port. The ships have since headed off to markets in West Asia and Africa.
This is the first time that trade activity has taken place through CPEC.
Significantly, the inaugural run was through the CPEC’s western route. By opting for this route, China and Pakistan were seeking to showcase to the international community their capacity to ensure the CPEC project’s success despite the enormous security challenges it faces. The choice of the western route was also aimed at calming Balochi fears over their exclusion from the project’s benefits.
The US$ 46 billion CPEC project envisages linking the Chinese trading hub of Kashgar in Xinjiang province to the Pakistan’s Gwadar port via a network of roads, railway lines, oil pipelines, etc. While the project will provide China with a shorter route to the Straits of Hormuz and markets in Africa and West Asia and also reduce China’s dependence on trade routes via the Straits of Malacca, it is expected to provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the Pakistani economy by attracting billions of dollars in investment, developing its infrastructure and power generating capacity.
Shadow of Violence
Even as the initiation of trade activity through CPEC was being celebrated at Gwadar, violence cast a long shadow over the event.
On Saturday, even as three convoys of trucks converged at the Baloch capital of Quetta en route to Gwadar port, a powerful bomb blast ripped through a Sufi shrine in Balochistan’s Khuzdar district, killing at least 52 people and injuring 102 others. The explosion at the Shah Noorani shrine is believed to be the handiwork of the Islamic State (IS) group, which has claimed responsibility for the attack.
While this attack was not targeted at the CPEC project itself – it was a sectarian attack on Sufis – it will deepen anxieties over Balochistan’s extreme vulnerability to violence and the implications this will have for the CPEC project.
It is in Balochistan that Gwadar is located and it is through this province that much of the western route of the corridor runs. Given Balochistan’s central role in the CPEC project, there is understandable concern that instability and violence in this province could prove disastrous for the project.
An array of militant groups with varied interests is unleashing violence in Balochistan. Baloch nationalists and armed separatists are targeting the CPEC project, not so much the need for such a project but the way it is being implemented. They fear that they are being left out from the project’s benefits and are objecting to Balochi resources being exploited for the benefit of ‘outsiders’ (i.e. Punjabis, Chinese, etc).
As a spokesperson for the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) said recently, the Baloch resistance is opposed to “the China-Pakistan nexus to loot Baloch resources.” Since 2014, Baloch militants have killed around 44 Pakistanis working on the CPEC project in Balochistan and have targeted Chinese as well. In September, BLA militants attacked Chinese engineers working on the Dudher Zinc project in Balochistan.
However, as the recent attack on the Sufi shrine underscores, Baloch nationalists are not the only ones unleashing violence in Balochistan. There are innumerable armed groups operating in this province; several of them are more powerful, better-financed and far more violent than the Baloch militants. Their motivations are sectarian, anti-state, etc
In August, terrorists attacked a hospital in Quetta, killing scores of people, including many lawyers. Both the IS and the Jamaat ul-Ahraar, a splinter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack. Less than a month ago, a faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi attacked a police academy near Quetta killing 59 cadets and injuring some 117 others. It is believed to have collaborated with the IS group to carry out the attack.
There are dozens of other militant and extremist groups operating in Balochistan.
Surge in Balochistan
Although violence levels across the country have fallen since 2014, this is not the case in Balochistan, which has witnessed a 70% increase in violence, Pakistan government figures reveal. There has been a “steady rise” in violent attacks in Quetta too. Over 325 civilians are said to have been killed over the past ten months.
Why has violence surged in Balochistan of late?
While the opposition to CPEC from Balochi groups is an important reason, it explains only part of the picture. A more important reason is that in the wake of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre in which 148 people, mostly children were killed the Pakistan army carried out military operations against the TTP and other outfits operating in the north-west of the country. The operations did not eliminate the militants; it only compelled them to retreat. Many of them regrouped in Balochistan and are now unleashing violence here.
Additionally, likely competition for business between Gwadar and Chabahar ports, regional rivalries, and China’s presence at the gateway to the Straits of Hormuz have drawn the attention of regional and global powers. A geopolitical great game is unfolding in and around Balochistan and Pakistan has pointed an accusing finger at India for the rising violence in the province.
The Pakistan government is concerned about the violence in Balochistan especially since it has grave implications for CPEC. It has set up a dedicated security force of some 15,000 soldiers to protect CPEC infrastructure and personnel. But this is unlikely to solve the problem as the violence it is unleashing on militants and civilians alike is fuelling more retaliatory violence. Blaming other countries for its own shortcoming is not going to help either,
With Pakistani extremist outfits joining hands with the IS, the latter is rapidly gaining ground in Balochistan, adding to the government’s multiple woes in the province.