Armed separatists of the Balochistan [Pakistan] Liberation Army (BLA) stormed the Chinese Consulate in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi on Friday, triggering an intense hour-long shootout during which two Pakistani civilians, two police officers and three insurgents died.
Although there have been numerous isolated attacks on Chinese personnel working in Pakistan conducted by the BLA and other insurgent groups like the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), this is the first assault on a major Chinese government facility in Pakistan.
Despite its relative smaller scale, some in the region compare its psychological effect to that of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which convinced many in the American media that the Vietnam war was unwinnable.
Balochistan — a traditionally secular and tolerant province — has also been the home of a festering ethnic insurgency since the partition of India in 1947, when the region was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan.
Despite its mineral wealth, the Baloch have been intentionally kept underdeveloped by the Pakistan government, which has been a cause for sporadic uprisings, along with oppression and alleged extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military. Since the late 1970s, the Pakistani government has subjected Balochistan to an intensive “Islamization” program to reduce ethnic identification.
The BLA views Chinese investment in western Pakistan, represented by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as a form of colonization. It is.
CPEC is the flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s blueprint for global domination. It is a development plan, a program of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes.
The CPEC transportation route, meant to connect China to the Arabian Sea through the ports of Karachi and Gwadar, runs through Balochistan. The success of CPEC also depends upon China’s exploitation of Balochistan’s estimated $1 trillion in gold, copper, oil, precious stones, coal, chromite and natural gas.
CPEC calls for the influx of up to 500,000 Chinese professionals into Gwadar for port and naval facility development, as well as expansion of the international airport to handle heavy cargo flights.
The Chinese have visited and bought land in Sonmiani, which houses Pakistan’s spaceport and space research center as well as the site for a planned liquid natural gas terminal. In addition, Balochistan’s Arabian Sea coast will become dotted with Chinese military bases, from which Beijing will dominate the vital sea lanes leading to the Persian Gulf and provide a link to the Chinese base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal — both strategic choke points.
It is easy to see that an escalation in the Baloch insurgency would be of deep concern to Beijing and Islamabad. If CPEC fails, BRI collapses as does China’s plans for global hegemony. Pakistan, now heavily indebted to China through near reckless amounts of accrued cumulative loans, would face financial ruin.
An independent Balochistan would change the strategic dynamics of South Asia. It could significantly reduce Pakistan’s unhealthy influence on Afghanistan, eliminate the Taliban main headquarters in Quetta and its extensive infrastructure sustaining the war in Afghanistan.
An independent Balochistan could provide a direct and stable sea link to that landlocked and beleaguered country. Baloch self-determination may encourage the large Baloch population in the southeast Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan to challenge the authoritarian theocracy in Tehran.
If Balochistan would be restored to its secular and tolerant roots, it would drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam.
The current Trump administration policy in Afghanistan centers on measures designed to encourage the Taliban to seek a negotiated settlement. In that effort, the United States has few cards to play.
Although attacking the Taliban inside Afghanistan seems to be its main element, a more effective approach may be to press Pakistan’s pain point, ethnic separatism, specifically the Baloch independence and Pashtun Protection (Tahafuz) movements. It also provides a foundation for a longer-term strategy to thwart Chinese hegemony in South Asia.
The BLA may have just exposed a card to play.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa.