Does the cast iron-friendship of brothers China and Pakistan also extend to poverty-stricken Balochistan’s copper and gold mines? Is this why China’s growing footprint in Pakistan fired Baloch insurgents who now feel doubly exploited—by both Pakistan and now China.
Brahamdagh Bugti, one of the most influential Baloch exiles and the grandson of popular leader Nawab Akbar Bugti—killed in airstrikes by Islamabad—says that China is colonizing his region. Bugti, who heads the Baloch Republican Party (BRP), from Switzerland, says that Islamabad has never taken the Baloch people or their leaders into confidence regarding inviting Chinese projects to Balochistan.
This is an assessment with which Dr. Jabin T. Jacob, associate professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, agrees. He says: “Chinese involvement is mostly economic in the Gwadar area and in the security domain—ensuring both safety of its citizens there and perhaps, some level of scouting around for a naval/military facility in the area.”
In July this year, Pakistan awarded a Chinese mining company, Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd, to extract gold and copper from Chagai in Balochistan till 2035. The company is registered as Saindak Metals Ltd and has been mining since 2002. Predictably, the decision has further alienated the Balochis as they feel that the benefits of such economic cooperation are shared between the all-powerful generals in Islamabad and the exploitative Chinese.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province with almost 40 per cent of its geographical area and shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan—making it geo-politically a strategic region. Also, it is the poorest of all Pakistan provinces with nearly 75 per cent Balochis living in rural areas. With good governance alien to the region, Balochistan has low employment opportunities, negligible or poor roads, no clean water and health facilities. No wonder the Baloch are up in arms – literally.
The Baloch nationalists, seeking independence from Pakistan, have already attacked umpteen Chinese interests including its nationals. Experts feel that China’s involvement has exacerbated the conflict in the region. Jacob says: “Partially, yes, the Chinese presence has encouraged the Pakistani state to crack down further on the Balochis as part of the project of building up the nation-state.”
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This has pushed up the security cost of the ambitious CPEC for both China and Pakistan. However, it also gives a vital clue to the Chinese mind. Undeterred, China is pumping more money in Pakistan and consequently Balochistan. Jacob, a China expert, stoutly feels that despite knowing the problems and challenges, “China is going in with eyes wide open in Balochistan and is willing to take losses.”
Under prodding by Beijing, Islamabad had to create a Special Security Division (SSD) managed by a senior Pakistani army general to protect Chinese people and investments in Balochistan. However, the Pakistani Army has gone a step further to protect Chinese interests in the region—it has also established death squads to kidnap and kill Baloch youth—a testimony to the fact that Chinese involvement in Balochistan has exacerbated the demand for independence.
Pakistan’s response for independence has been brutal.
Brutal, because it launched a crackdown on the Baloch people—kidnapping youth and murdering them. The dead bodies of young people regularly keep surfacing from different parts of the region.
In fact, even Baloch political parties that support Pakistan and participate in the political process feel disillusioned. Akhtar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party, has severely criticized Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying that after Khan’s coming to power in 2018, more than 1,500 Baloch had “disappeared”—a polite word for state-sponsored kidnappings.
Highlighting the recent killing of a boy, Hayat Baloch, Norway-based journalist, Kiyya Baloch wrote on Twitter: “State violence such as that of Hayat has mainly gone unnoticed among Pakistani civil society, NGOs, and media because victims are Baloch. For all the Pakistani liberal democrats and activists, who talk about equality, feminism, and freedom on Twitter in reality, deny a political power or complete autonomy to ethnic group. This cycle of violence continues if this double-standard exists. Now an inquiry into cold blood murder of Hayat has been ordered, but this will rarely yield any results. #JusticeForHayathBaloch”
The Chinese footprint and the Pakistani boot in Balochistan is almost akin to the ‘cutting of the Chinese melon’ by the imperial powers as Balochistan faces the wrath of Communist China and Islamic Pakistan for its mineral riches with no benefits going to an impoverished community.