Once the iron brothers or perhaps, friends with benefits, China and Pakistan are divided over the Baloch Liberation Army. The biggest challenge before Pakistan is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – an organisation engaged in a struggle for freeing Balochistan from Pakistani occupation. Active in the Balochistan province, including the port city of Gwadar, BLA has not only been fighting Pakistani occupiers but also hurting Chinese investments in the region.
According to an HT report, China has issued an ultimatum to Islamabad to move the UNSC 1267 Al Qaida, Taliban and affiliates committee for labelling the BLA as a terror organisation. Beijing has also assured Pakistan that it would use its diplomatic heft and influence in the UN Security Council to get the BLA declared as a terrorist organisation. Pakistan is however scared out of its wits. It does not want to take the risk of internationalising the issue.
China is irked with the Balochistan Liberation Army, as Beijing has invested 62 billion dollars in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which continues China-occupied Xinjiang to the port city of Gwadar in Pakistan-occupied Balochistan. This is a strategic investment as the CPEC allows Chinese vessels to bypass the Strait of Malacca where the Indian Navy has the option of blockading Beijing’s oil shipments and trade routes.
In a way, China is building the entire CPEC to overcome its limitations as a green-water Navy country and access the Middle East or African countries more easily. This is crucial for China as the Communist country wants to safeguard the supply of hydrocarbons.
But over the past few years, BLA has spoiled China’s interests in the region considering Chinese engineers, luxury hotels, investments in Balochistan, and the Karachi stock exchange in which a Chinese consortium of three stock exchanges holds 40 per cent stake and the Chinese Consulate, Karachi in the neighbouring state of Sindh.
Earlier, the BLA was focussed only on Pakistani security personnel and Pakistan Punjabi settlers or encroachers. But, now it has also started targeting Chinese nationals. The Majeed Brigade of the BLA, formed in 2011, has in particular attacked Chinese nationals and Chinese-funded projects.
The BLA is opposed to the CPEC project and the use of Gwadar port by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Navy or Chinese commercial ships. This is why the Chinese interests have come on its radar. China is fed up with the Baloch rebels holding the CPEC to ransom and this is putting the partnership between ‘all-weather allies’- China and Pakistan to a serious test.
As such, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s threat to Imran Khan is clear- either declare BLA a terror organisation or China will cut down on investments. Islamabad has landed in a dilemma. If it brings the BLA at the United Nations, it would end up internationalising the issue and the Baloch rebels might end up hogging a lot more attention than Pakistan would fancy.
However, if Islamabad tries to let the moment pass, it would risk drawing the flak of its bigger partner- China. As such China might cut down investments in Pakistan or even worse, use the debt-trap diplomacy in Pakistan. The CPEC costs too are rising and ultimately China reserves the right to burden Islamabad with so much of debt that the latter would have no option but to cede control of its territory. Ultimately, if the BLA keeps attacking Chinese interests, Xi Jinping will try to take matters in his own hands and grab more land in Pakistan’s Sindh and Balochistan provinces to handle the BLA.
China has already shown that it can set up exclusive colonies in Balochistan to safeguard its interests. Now, with attempts to strong-arm Islamabad on the BLA issue, China is blatantly interfering in Pakistan’s internal policies. The fact remains that China has found another stick to beat Pakistan with, through 400 billion US dollars of investments in Iran.
What China can also do is give Pakistan a subtle message that Gwadar is not Beijing’s only route to bypass the Strait of Malacca and if the need arises, China could depend on Iranian ports also. Pakistan is still a sovereign country but the BLA’s increasing strength and China’s pressure tactics are ultimately going to dilute Islamabad’s control over its territory. Consequentially, either Balochistan will become an international issue or China will colonialise large parts of the Islamic Republic.