Attack on Chinese Consulate in Karachi: Wake-up call for Pakistan and China to address grievances of the Baloch
In a brazen attack on the Chinese Consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on 23 November, three heavily armed assailants of the insurgent group, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), killed two policemen and two visa applicants before being gunned down by Pakistani security forces. While resorting to violent means for furtherance of any cause cannot but be condemned and denounced in the strongest possible terms, the attack did achieve its intended purpose of bringing to the fore the discrimination that the Baloch have long faced at the hands of successive Pakistani regimes. This perception of unfairness has been noticeably aggravated with the advent of hordes of Chinese workers into the sparsely populated but gas and mineral-rich province of Balochistan, which forms a critical part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The three BLA militants that formed the suicide attack team, equipped with automatic weapons and grenades, and with one of them wearing a suicide vest, arrived near the consulate on an explosive-laden car shortly after 9 AM. They thereafter approached the consulate on foot, attacking the police check post outside the consulate building with grenades and gunfire. Having demolished the post, they proceeded to the visa section of the consulate where they shot dead the two visa applicants. Exchange of gunfire between the militants and the about 35 Pakistani security personnel deployed for securing the consulate premises continued till a large contingent of police and paramilitary Rangers personnel arrived at the scene, cordoned off the area and joined the fight against the three militants, eventually killing them after a protracted stand-off. Security officials finally announced completion of the operation at 12:15 PM. The employees of the Chinese consulate were unharmed in the attack.
Security officials informed after the attack that Kalashnikov rifles, bullets, loaded magazines, a pair of suicide jackets, explosive material, detonators, grenades, first aid material and a flag of the BLA were recovered from the dead terrorists. The fact that they also found food items and medicines with the militants led them to conclude that the militants intended to take hostages and lay a long siege after breaching the consulate.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described the attack as a "part of a planned campaign to create unrest in the country by those who do not want Pakistan to prosper. Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind that we will crush the terrorists, whatever it takes". He added, "The failed attack against the Chinese Consulate was clearly a reaction to the unprecedented trade agreements that resulted from our trip to China. The attack was intended to scare Chinese investors and undermine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. These terrorists will not succeed". Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang condemned the attack, adding that China "requests the Pakistani side to take measures to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals and organizations. Pakistan has made it clear that they will get to the bottom of this attack, crackdown on the terrorist organization and enhance the security of Chinese citizens, institutions and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects".
Pre-empting the knee-jerk Pakistani accusation of Indian involvement that follows any such mishap within Pakistan, India’s external affairs ministry promptly laid potential speculation to rest by unequivocally condemning the attack and asserting that “there can be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism”. It further stated that “perpetrators of this heinous attack should be brought to justice expeditiously”.
The BLA claimed responsibility for the attack via the following message on its Twitter account: “Fidayeen Sarbaz of BLA Majeed Brigade, Azal Khan Baloch, Raziq Baloch and Raees Baloch embraced martyrdom in a Fidayeen attack on Chinese consulate in #Karachi. #Balochistan #Pakistan #China”. It also posted photographs of the attackers under the caption "Karachi: Fidayeen of BLA attacked the Chinese embassy in Karachi". BLA spokesperson Geand (Jihand) Baloch told media houses after the attack that "we have been seeing the Chinese as an oppressor, along with Pakistani forces”, adding that "China is exploiting our resources, destroying the future of Balochistan". The BLA later emailed a statement to the media in which it said that the attack was "aimed at making it clear that China's military expansionism on Baloch soil will not be tolerated". It warned the Chinese to leave or "be prepared for continued attacks".
The BLA is one of several separatist insurgent organizations active in Balochistan that have taken up arms against the Pakistani State since the mid-1970s. Other prominent Baloch insurgent groups include the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) led by Allah Nazar and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) led by Brahumdagh Bugti, the grandson of Akbar Bugti who was killed during a Pakistani military operation in 2006. All these Baloch insurgent organizations that were earlier peeved at Pakistan for unfairly exploiting the province’s resources, especially its natural gas and minerals, and for crushing dissent by blatantly resorting to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have now also turned their anger against China, accusing it of conspiring to take over Baloch lands surreptitiously. Baloch insurgent organizations believe that the Pakistani military is colonizing their province with the help of China, turning them into a minority in their own province. China has funded development of the deep-water port at Gwadar in south Balochistan, and is also investing in other projects of the CPEC in Balochistan. The BLA opposes the CPEC as it deems that the project is aimed at exploiting the resources of Balochistan.
The growing resentment towards the inroads that China is making into Balochistan has found expression in several attacks by the Baloch separatist groups against Chinese engineers and workers in the province. After a recent BLA attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in August this year, the BLA warned in a letter to China’s ambassador to Pakistan that if Beijing continued "exploiting Balochistan’s mineral wealth and occupying Baloch territory" it should be prepared for more attacks. The BLA has claimed responsibility for as many as 12 attacks this year against projects and personnel linked to the CPEC.
In December 2017, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad had warned its citizens in Pakistan to be on alert after receiving intelligence reports about possible attacks targeting Chinese interests. While radical Islamist organizations in Pakistan also pose a serious threat to Chinese interests on account of their indignation at the ill-treatment and vilification of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, the primary and most serious threat continues to emanate from the Baloch insurgent groups. The acuteness of the threat can be gleaned from the fact that the Pakistani military has deployed a special security division comprising as many as 15,000 troops to secure Chinese officials and engineers involved in CPEC projects.
That the Karachi Consulate attack took place notwithstanding such warnings and heavy deployment of troops reveals not only the degree of anger and frustration of the Baloch at being marginalized and rendered outsiders in their own lands, but also that military suppression of the hopes and aspirations of a people only serves to inhibit a stable long-term solution. It remains a fact that the Baloch were not even consulted prior to the launch of the CPEC, nor were they apprised of the benefits that they could expect to derive from use of their territory for the project. Consequently, a majority of the Baloch resent the massive Chinese presence in their province. They view the Chinese mining and infrastructure projects as a joint Pakistan-China scheme to deprive them of their natural resources and flood their province with outsiders.
Faced with this reality, it would be in China’s own interest to convince its heavily beholden all-weather junior partner, Pakistan, to consider a political solution to the Baloch-issue and an infinitely more humane approach to engaging with the Baloch. It can only be reasonable to expect the Baloch to desire a say in how and where external investments are utilized in their province. Unless that happens, attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan, such as the one on the Karachi Consulate will, unfortunately but inevitably, continue to be launched.
As for Pakistan, each such assault targeting China on Pakistani soil will only weaken its already flaccid bargaining position with China.