Author: Fareed Baloch
The scenic port city of Gwadar, long considered the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was jolted to its core as an audacious attack was launched on a convoy carrying Chinese engineers. Early in the morning of 13 August 2023, explosions and gunshots erupted near the Faqeer Colony bridge, turning curious onlookers into anxious witnesses.
The Attack Unfolds:
Just as the clock ticked 9:18 am, a seven-vehicle convoy — its occupants predominantly Chinese engineers — found itself ambushed. The extent of gunfire and subsequent explosions hinted at a calculated, coordinated attack.
The Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade an elite unit within the BLA, that specialized in “self-sacrificing” attacks, swiftly claimed responsibility for the day’s attack, on the Chinese engineers in Gwadar. They indicated that the attack was ongoing and promised to release more details in due time.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) was also quick to respond, stating that an operation was underway following reports of militant activity. The ISPR later confirmed the attack on the convoy carrying Chinese engineers, specifying that militants employed small arms and hand grenades. “Due to an efficient and swift response, two terrorists were sent to hell with no harm to any military or civil persons,” the ISPR statement read.
However, as Gwadar’s medical facilities scrambled to accommodate the influx of casualties, images that surfaced on social platforms painted a grim reality — revealing the true ferocity of the attack.
The Claim of Responsibility, A Detailed Statement:
Later in the day, The BLA released a comprehensive media statement, outlining the execution of Operation Zir Pahazag’s third phase, its objectives, and results. This two-hour-long operation, carried out by the members of BLA’s Majeed Brigade, targeted the convoy near the Chairman Ishaq Chowk’s Judicial Complex, a key route connecting Gwadar airport to the port.
According to the BLA, their calculated attack resulted in the deaths of four Chinese nationals and eleven Pakistani military personnel, with several more injured in the operation. The BLA emphasized their strategic approach, describing how they stopped the convoy consisting of a mix of vehicles – from those carrying the Chinese personnel to various military and police vehicles using grenades and sustained their attack for roughly thirty minutes.
Central to the operation were two “fidayeen” from the BLA’s Majeed Brigade: Naveed Baloch and Maqbool Baloch. According to the BLA statement, these two individuals resisted the Pakistan army for a considerable duration post-operation, eventually sacrificing their lives.
Perhaps most significantly, the BLA’s statement had a direct message for China. It drew attention to the ongoing tensions over Balochistan’s status and China’s involvement in projects like the CPEC and Saindak. The BLA issued China a 90-day ultimatum to withdraw from Balochistan or prepare for intensified attacks on its key interests in the region.
Casualties and Aftermath:
The Gwadar attack’s aftermath was mired in contrasting reports and heightened security measures. According to the BLA, the attack resulted in 17 casualties, including four Chinese nationals, 11 Pakistani military personnel, and the two BLA “Fidayeen”. In contrast, the ISPR’s statements initially reported one death and three injuries. They later reported the deaths of two militants but did not confirm harm to any civilians or military personnel.
In the aftermath, Chinese consulates in Pakistan advised their citizens, especially those in Balochistan and Sindh, to remain indoors due to the direct targeting of Chinese engineers in Gwadar.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, expressed strong condemnation, urging Pakistan to take swift action against the perpetrators. This sentiment was echoed by the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, which activated an emergency response and encouraged Chinese nationals and businesses to enhance their security measures.
Meanwhile, the local Gwadar populace faced extensive disruptions due to the Pakistan army’s increased activities after the attack. The city was under a military lockdown for nearly 24 hours following the attack. Operations in areas such as Faqir Colony, NayaAbad, and DG Colony saw several residents reportedly detained and relocated to undisclosed locations.
Eyewitness accounts from locals described a large-scale search operation initiated by Pakistani forces, leading to multiple instances of civilian harassment, alleged torture, and house raids. The city’s heightened state of alert was evident, with rigorous security checks and road blockades.
A Historical Parallel: Past Attacks on Chinese Interests
Since the inception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013, Chinese investments in Balochistan have been a focal point for regional tensions. While the CPEC is hailed in Islamabad and Beijing as a symbol of strong bilateral ties promising prosperity, Baloch nationalists view it as another chapter in their region’s exploitation. Notably, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has often been vocal about its stance, linking these economic undertakings to a broader historical narrative of neglect and exploitation.
During these years, Baloch nationalists and “pro-independence” groups vehemently opposed the initiative, labeling it as an “imperialist” project to exploit the natural resources of Balochistan, and issued numerous warnings to China to roll back from the region, China proceeded, perhaps underestimating the potential ramifications. This miscalculation was evident when Baloch insurgents, specifically the Majeed Brigade of the BLA, began systematically targeting Chinese assets and personnel around 2018. Notable attacks included:
- August 11, 2018: A BLA suicide bombing targeted a bus of Chinese engineers in Dalbandin. The attack’s orchestrator was Rehan Aslam Baloch, the eldest son of Aslam Baloch, the brigade’s founder and BLA’s then-chief.
- November 23, 2018: The Majeed Brigade orchestrated an audacious assault on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, thrusting the Baloch liberation struggle into global attention.
- May 11, 2019: A 24-hour BLA siege took place at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar, reportedly frequented by Chinese professionals associated with CPEC, and resulted in numerous casualties.
- August 19, 2021: History seemed to repeat itself as another convoy of Chinese engineers was targeted in a “fidayee” attack in Gwadar, underscoring the city’s emblematic significance to the resistance movement.
- April 26, 2022: At Karachi University, a suicide attack aimed at Chinese affiliates of the Confucius Institute spotlighted evolving dynamics within the BLA, notably the increasing involvement of women.
China’s Security Measures:
With the Majeed Brigade, the BLA’s most formidable unit, increasingly targeting Chinese nationals and CPEC-related projects, China confronts growing security challenges in its strategic endeavors in Gwadar. Despite these threats, China has adopted various countermeasures, notable measures include:
- External Security Proposals: Beijing has pondered multiple security avenues. One such proposal, which advocated for private Chinese security firms to oversee the safety of its nationals in Pakistan, was reportedly declined by Islamabad. Concurrently, China has extended offers to provide specialized training to Pakistani forces charged with safeguarding CPEC projects.
- Fortification Initiatives: To buffer its assets and staff from potential threats, there are reports of China constructing secure compounds, especially surrounding Gwadar Port.
- Collaborative Security Arrangements: Recognizing shared stakes in Balochistan, both Beijing and Islamabad have bolstered their security collaborations. Frequent joint meetings in recent times have emphasized enhanced security measures for CPEC.
However, despite these measures, high-profile attacks on Chinese interests continue unabated. Such incidents strain the China-Pakistan relationship, with Beijing expressing dissatisfaction over Islamabad’s perceived inability to safeguard Chinese citizens. The frequent assaults and their high-profile nature have not only sowed doubts about the security measures in place but have also intensified the scrutiny of the partnership’s long-term viability.
Looking ahead, the growing number of high-profile attacks casts a shadow on CPEC’s future. This not only impacts the China-Pakistan partnership but also raises questions about the future of any other potential foreign investments in Balochistan.
Future of Foreign Investments in Balochistan:
Balochistan, with its vast reservoirs of natural resources, stands as a beacon of opportunity on the global stage. Sites like Gwadar seaport and the Reko Diq mine underline its potential and the intense global interest it garners.
However, the recent surge in high-profile attacks, especially against Chinese interests, adds layers of complexities to this potential. The CPEC, since its commencement in 2013, has become a lightning rod for tensions. It’s not just viewed through the lens of economic opportunity, but also as a symbol of external influence and alleged exploitation by the local Baloch. They opine that major stakeholders, like China and Pakistan, are reaping the benefits at the expense of the Baloch populace.
The 2022 Reko Diq deal involving the Barrick Gold Corporation is a testament to Balochistan’s allure to international investors. But it also serves as a cautionary tale. As China grapples with the challenges of safeguarding its interests, other corporations eyeing Balochistan must factor in these security challenges and the political landscape.
Baloch leaders and activists have consistently presented their stance: investments are welcome, but with a condition – only after Balochistan achieves its sought-after independence. They contend that genuine dialogue with the true stakeholders of Balochistan can only occur post-independence. This would shift the perception of investments from being seen as exploitative maneuvers to being genuine partnerships promoting mutual growth.
For future investments to thrive, there’s a pressing need for a more inclusive approach — one that not only seeks economic gains but also addresses the aspirations and concerns of the indigenous Baloch population. It’s imperative for potential investors to understand the region’s intricate dynamics, engage in dialogue with those truly representing Baloch aspirations, and foster undertakings that hint at mutual progress and lasting peace.