Beijing’s CPEC Dilemma
Western media, quoting Pakistan military, had reported on May 12, 2019, that five people including a naval soldier were killed and six others were injured (including two army captains, two navy soldiers and two hotel employees) after gunmen stormed Pearl Continental, a five-star luxury hotel in Gwadar City in Balochistan Province of Pakistan.
According to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) of Pakistan, the gunmen forced their way into the hotel’s main hall, killing a security guard and firing indiscriminately, attempting to reach the upper floors of the building. Military forces were able to reach the hotel, secure guests and restrict attackers to the fourth floor, before killing all of them.
The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack, terming it Operation ‘Zer Pahazang’ with “all aims achieved”. The BLA statement said the operation was launched on information of presence of large number of Chinese and local investors at the hotel, aim being to target investors, engineers and representatives of “exploitative” projects in Balochistan.
BLA claims in the 24-hour battle, more than 40 Pakistani soldiers including two captains and several other commissioned officers were killed. BLA spokesperson also said, “DG ISPR thanked Pakistani media online, which is a clear statement of how they worked together to cover up their losses”.
It is not possible to substantiate the BLA claim completely but cover up by the ISPR is more than evident. By ISPR’s own admission, the gunmen killed the security guard, were firing indiscriminately and the military could contain them eventually on the fourth floor only. There obviously was time gap before the military arrived, during which the gunmen had free run all the way up to the fourth floor.
The military apparently was taken by surprise because of which their operation went bottom upwards, suffering casualties in a bid to reach the fourth floor to tackle the gunmen. Had the military also undertaken simultaneous top down operation by inserting troops on roof of the hotel by helicopter (s), ISPR would have gone for media blitz. But this was not the case, though BLA mentions downing a drone.
The inside news from unconfirmed source is that at least six Chinese and 16 Pakistani soldiers were killed. The Chinese killed included: Wu Shaan, Gung Duhai and Li Luang – all officers of a Coal Company; Shin Shua – executive of Gwadar Port Construction Company; Wung Kekiang – executive of an infrastructure Company, and; Jack Shi – trade executive. The names of the 16 Pakistani troops killed are not known but it is possible that killed included two army captains, as claimed by BLA, though ISPR says they were only wounded.
Obviously, ISPR is loath to admit what actually happened. It may be recalled that on November 23, 2018, BLA cadres had attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi. The hour long shootout with police and security guards had left seven people dead. This was the 12th attack on Chinese interests in Pakistan during 2018 by the BLA.
China’s concern for the safety of CPEC is genuine, given its strategic significance to China; highway to the Arabian Sea with Gwadar proximate to the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. In addition, a joint China-Pakistani military base is planned at Jiwani.
What must have transpired between Beijing and Islamabad after the BLA attack on May 12 is not difficult to discern in backdrop of Pakistan’s assurance and commitment it will guard the CPEC when the $46 billion CPEC (now valued at $62 billion) CPEC deal was signed (51 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding) on April 20, 2015, during visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan. That is why Pakistan has announced plans to raise another division-sized special force to guard the CPEC. This is over and above a division already deployed to secure the CPEC, which was raised after the CPEC deal was signed. DG ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor told media in Rawalpndi that Pakistani Army was fully determined to ensure security of the CPEC.
Over 870 km of the 2700 km of CPEC from Gwadar to Kashgar runs through Balochistan. The unrest in Balocistan combines exploitation of the region’s natural resources and the Pakistani genocide unleashed on the Balochis, backed by China which has also gifted four attack helicopters to Pakistan to hunt down BLA cadres.
Aside from daily abductions, torture, rapes and killings of Balochis, Pakistan is running multiple concentration camps in Balochistan; two in Nushki district in Western Balochistan, one in Dera Bugti in Eastern Balochistan and one in Awaran in Southern Balochistan, latter also serving as training camp for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
In the above backdrop, Pakistan, backed by China, may kill as many of the 1.23 crore population of Balochistan as possible but in no way can they kill their spirit, especially with the horrendously cruel treatment meted to them over the years. The security of the CPEC will, therefore, remain a concern with soft targets dime a dozen, in addition to military targets, no matter PLA marines stationed at Gwadar and brigade-sized PLA presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
China’s dilemma will be if and when to induct more PLA troops into the CPEC region and how will they fare with conditions quite different to Xinjiang. And, what would be the consequences of PLA getting involved in insurgencies in Pakistan, including its repercussions on present and future Chinese presence in Afghanistan, especially when US-NATO pullout because the void would unlikely be plugged by SCO or CSTO.
Finally, China must acknowledge that behind the main reasons behind the turmoil in the Middle East, Gulf and possible conflict in Iran are oil, geopolitical power play and promotion of defence-industrial interests, among other. How does then China expect the CPEC to remain free from such considerations especially when Beijing has been showing all around aggression and disrespect to global norms? Despite provocations, India has all along been wanting a stable Pakistan, but others may not.