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China's Painful Toehold In The Arabian Sea

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Chinese nationals working in the tribal areas of Pakistan have been the targets of three attacks in the last two years. Two of these took place in Balochistan in May,2004, and February,2006, and the third in South Waziristan in October,2004. Seven Chinese engineers were killed and nine injured in these incidents.

The serious Chinese concern over the failure of the Pakistani authorities to put an end to the repeated attacks on Chinese nationals was evident in a dispatch of the Xinhua news agency of February 16,2006.

It said: “China has announced that it will not evacuate engineers and technicians from Pakistan after three Chinese engineers were shot dead in Pakistan on Wednesday.

“I don’t think all Chinese people in Pakistan should leave the country because of the incident,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a routine press conference Thursday.

“According to Qin, Chinese President Hu Jintao showed grave concern when informed about the murder on Wednesday evening, and ordered the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassy and consulates to urge Pakistan to catch the murderers and ensure the safety of Chinese people.”

Ever since 1963, when China initiated its policy of strategic engagement with Pakistan in order to counter India , it has been viewed by Pakistan as its “all-weather friend”. It became the most popular non-Muslim foreign country in Pakistan .

It is no longer so. While it continues to be popular in the rest of the country, its popularity has declined in the tribal areas of Waziristan and Balochistan. Its violent suppression of the Uighur nationalist and religious fundamentalist elements in the Xinjiang Region has contributed to the decline in its popularity in the Waziristan area, which has become the main safehaven for the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The growing anti-China feelings in Balochistan have been generated by the local perceptions of Chinese complicity in the violent suppression of a movement started by sections of Baloch youth for greater autonomy, if not independence, for Balochistan, which is Pakistan’s largest, the most sparsely populated and the least developed province.

Unaddressed Baloch grievances over issues such as lack of development, discrimination in the recruitment to the Armed Forces and other Government services and the exploitation of the rich gas and other mineral resources of the province for the benefit of Punjab and other areas of Pakistan to the neglect of Balochistan have from time to time given rise to violent movements for autonomy or independence. In the past, the Pakistan Army faced no difficulty in suppressing them.

However, it has been facing serious difficulties in suppressing a new movement for independence launched in 2004 under the leadership of a group of militants, who call themselves the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

Past movements of Baloch nationalists were directed against what the Balochs perceive as the Punjabi domination of Pakistan. They were not directed against any foreign country. The present movement, which started in 2004, is showing an anti-Chinese motivation, in addition to the usual anti-Punjabi one.

The anti-Chinese anger in Balochistan has come in the wake of the increased interest evinced by Beijing in acquiring a presence in the Balochistan area to serve its strategic and economic interests.

After the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, which exposed the vulnerability of the Karachi port to attacks by the Indian Navy, the Pakistani military establishment drew up plans for a new modern port at Gwadar, a fishing port on the Arabian Sea in Balochistan, to reduce what it perceived as the unhealthy dependence on the Karachi port and to provide its Navy with a strategic depth against the Indian Navy.

Till 2001, there were no foreign takers for this proposal. The Pakistani Government was not in a position to construct it from its own funds. During a meeting with Mr.Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese Prime Minister, in May,2001, Gen.Pervez Musharraf reportedly told him about this proposal and explained to him how it could be of strategic and economic benefit to Pakistan and China.

It would give the Pakistan Navy greater confidence in facing up to its Indian counterpart. It would make Pakistan an important outlet for the sea-borne trade of the Central Asian Republics and the Xinjiang and adjoining areas of China. It would give the Chinese Navy facilities for its ships for refueling and other purposes and a window on the strategic Strait of Hormuz .

The Chinese agreed to help in its construction in two phases. The first phase (US $ 298 million, largely from China) is nearing completion. This would enable the use of the port for external trade. When the second phase (US $ 865 million, Chinese contribution US $ 500 million) is completed by 2010, both the Pakistani and Chinese navies would be able to use it.

Concerns over its future energy security have been an important driving force of China ’s foreign and defence policies since 9/11. Diversification of the sources of supply and reduction of the dependence on the Malacca Strait for the movement of their energy supplies and trade with West Asia and Africa are the two cornerstones of their new policy. The Malacca Strait is viewed as vulnerable to disruption by pirates and maritime terrorists.

The Balochistan area of Pakistan and the Arakan area of Burma have acquired an importance in the eyes of China for reducing its dependence on the Malacca Strait . Proposals for a pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjiang and another from a port yet to be developed on the Arakan coast to Yunnan are already the subject of feasibility studies.

Other ideas under consideration are a large refinery complex at Gwadar to meet part of the requirements of Pakistan and the Xinjiang region ; a road connecting Gwadar to the Karakoran Highway, which is being upgraded to make it useable throughout the year; a railway line connecting Gwadar with Xinjiang; and a special economic zone at Gwadar meant exclusivey for Chinese companies exporting to West Asia and Africa.

The only strategic projects, which are already under implementation, are the construction of a modern port at Gwadar and a modern coastal highway from Balochistan to the existing port of Karachi . The feasibility of the remaining ideas is yet to be established, but the Chinese seem to be very serious about them. One should not underestimate their ability to make them a reality whatever the difficulties posed by the mountainous terrain in the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir (Gilgit and Baltistan), which are presently under Pakistani occupation. Any pipeline or railway line will have to pass through this area.

Recently, the Government of Pakistan has also sought the Chinese assistance for building a strategic oil and gas reserve in Balochistan, which could meet Pakistan ’s requirements for three weeks in the event of a disruption of supplies due to a war with India or other reasons. It has reportedly suggested that this could also act as a reserve for Xinjiang and Tibet .

The Baloch nationalists are opposed to these projects because they feel that from the way the Gwadar project is being implemented since 2002, it has hardly benefited the Balochs. There are two other projects of a non-strategic nature involving Chinese participation in Balochistan for the development of its copper and gold mines and for the construction of a cement plant.

Decision-making on all projects involving Chinese collaboration has been kept in the hands of the central Government at Islamabad . The provincial Government has little say. Most major construction contracts have allegedly been awarded to outside companies based in Karachi and Lahore , which have been recruiting labour from outside.

The Baloch nationalists view the Chinese collaboration with the Pakistani Government as complicity in helping the military establishment and the Punjabi majority in strengthening their hold on the province. They have opposed a proposal to create more military cantonments in Balochistan to provide better internal security.

The Chinese seem determined to go ahead with their projects. At the same time, they are increasingly concerned over the safety of their nationals. This concern was reflected in a report of June 15,2006 , carried by the usually reliable “Daily Times” of Lahore .

It said: “According to well-placed sources, the Karachi consulate issued fresh security guidelines following the receipt of information that the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) could be planning to attack Chinese projects, experts or personnel in Balochistan and Sindh.”

In a recent article on Balochistan, Brig. Asif Haroon, a retired officer of the Pakistan Army who had reportedly served as Defence Attache in Egypt, said: “A toehold in the Arabian Sea would enable its ( China ’s) Navy to guard its economic interests and also counter the unchallenged Indo-US naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”

The toehold is becoming increasingly painful. The massacre of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, one of the founding fathers of the Baloch independence struggle, and some of his close associates by the Pakistan Air Force and Army, with the help of arms and ammunition and other equipment of Chinese origin between August 24 and 26,2006, could add to the Baloch anger against China and make this toehold even more painful.

The Balochs seem determined to oppose what they perceive as the Punjabi-Chinese joint colonization of their homeland.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, and , presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

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