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Why Pakistan's rebels are attacking Chinese projects

July 17, 2012 16:19 IST

There is a perception amongst those fighting the government in Pakistan that the only sure shot way of drawing Islamabad's attention is to attack the Chinese, as the government does not pay much heed to attacks on hapless Pakistani citizens, says Alok Bansal.

After Baloch nationalists and the Taliban in Pakistan, Sindhi nationalists have also given call against China and Chinese products. Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, the pre-eminent Sindhi nationalist party, declared on July 12 that it would boycott Chinese goods as the Chinese government was facilitating large-scale Chinese investment into the proposed city of Zulfiqarabad in Sindh, which has been a dream project of President Asif Ali Zardari.

The JSQM also planned a protest rally outside the consulate general of China in Karachi, but the police authorities cordoned off the area and blocked all roads leading to it. The party workers, who could not reach there, burnt hundreds of SIM cards of Chinese telecom companies and have called a province-wide protest against the governments of China and Sindh on July 18.

Sindhi nationalists believe that Zulfiqarabad, a modern city spread over a million acres being planned in the memory of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in Thatta district of Sindh, is nothing but a conspiracy to turn them into a minority by colonising their home land by non-Sindhis. In their opinion the Chinese in collusion with the provincial and federal government are the main instruments of this colonisation. Their fears have been aggravated by the phenomenal rise in Sindh's population between 1998 and 2011, which is mainly attributed to the influx of people from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa.

Earlier the Baloch nationalists had given a similar call and have been targeting Chinese nationals and assets regularly. They feel that Chinese are not only robbing them of their natural resources, but in collusion with Islamabad are trying to change the demographic composition of the land through various mega projects being undertaken in Balochistan. They have accused Islamabad of giving away several profitable projects to China without anything in return and perceive China as the major collaborator in Pakistani establishment's nefarious designs in Balochistan.

This has led to the targeting of Chinese camps by rockets, as China is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Balochistan. As a result three Chinese engineers involved in the Gwadar port were killed in May 2004. So strong was the threat to Chinese nationals that Pakistani authorities decided against taking Wen Jia Bao to Gwadar during his visit in 2005, although the Chinese premier was originally slated to inaugurate the port.

In February 2006, Chinese engineers working for a cement plant were killed in Hub. Subsequently a convoy carrying Chinese workers was attacked in Khuzder in July 2007. At that point of time, a large number of Chinese companies were involved in oil and gas exploration activities and were holding 122 leases in Balochistan, with 1,200 Chinese personnel deployed in the region.

Sustained attacks by Baloch nationalists forced three Chinese companies, Great Wall, BGP and a unit of state owned CNPC to pull out of Balochistan. On November 22, 2011, an attack on Chinese convoy in Dera Bugti district killed five persons including three security personnel, although the Chinese engineers escaped unhurt.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has also targeted the Chinese nationals. Two Chinese engineers working in Gomal Zam Dam in South Waziristan Agency were kidnapped by the followers of Abdullah Mehsud in 2004 and one of them was killed during the rescue effort by Pakistan Army. Similarly, the clerics from Lal Masjid also kidnapped Chinese women from Islamabad, which eventually led to the storming of the mosque by the security forces. On July 8, 2007, while the siege of Lal Masjid was going on in Islamabad, three Chinese nationals were killed in Peshawar and another was injured, as they were shot at by radical militants.

In May 2011, during the attack by TTP militants on PNS Mehran, the naval air base at Karachi the attackers were allegedly looking for Chinese nationals working there. A Chinese woman was killed by TTP militants in Peshawar on February 28, 2012, apparently to avenge the atrocities being committed against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Even in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the nationalist forces are protesting against the increasing Chinese inroads in the region.

Consequently, the terrified Chinese personnel, including those working in sensitive installations like Karachi shipyard, have by and large been forced to remain confined to their places of work. In regions like GB, the Chinese personnel are being guarded by Chinese troops. As a result of the precarious security situation, many Chinese companies are planning to prune down their investments in Pakistan. In 2011, one of China's biggest private coal mining firms, the Kingho Group pulled out citing security concerns from a $19-billion deal to extract coal and set up power and chemical plants in Tharparkar district in Sindh province, which could have been the biggest investment by a Chinese company in Pakistan.

The crucial point that needs to be addressed is the reason behind these anti-Chinese actions in a country, where majority of the population is favourably disposed towards China. The prime reason appears to be the extreme sensitivity of Pakistani government to the targeting of any Chinese interest. As a result there is a perception amongst those fighting the government in Pakistan that the only sure shot way of drawing Islamabad's attention is to attack the Chinese, as the government does not pay much heed to attacks on hapless Pakistani citizens.

The fact that serious acts of violence against Pakistani citizens including security personnel by the clerics of Lal Masjid did not stir government to action, but the kidnapping of Chinese nationals did, proves the point. In addition the religious extremists are also driven by their sympathies for the Uighur Muslims. However, in the case of various nationalist forces, which are secular in their orientation, there is also a belief that anti-China stance could possibly win them the support of the United States and the western world. This to a great extent has driven their actions against China besides Chinese role in their regions. The Diaspora from the smaller provinces have been quite active in the US and Europe to highlight the growing Chinese influence in Pakistan.

Sindhi nationalists are not only hoping to get their voices heard by their anti-Chinese stance but are also optimistic about garnering the US support for their cause. Their success in garnering the US support for their cause, at this point of time appears doubtful, despite the presence of a sizeable Sindhi Diaspora across the globe; but their actions are bound to cast a shadow on Sino-Pak relations.

Alok Bansal is senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

Alok Bansal