When senior Chinese foreign policy experts Shi Zhiqin and Lu Yang recommended China“ abandon its traditional way of dealing only with the Pakistani government and instead get in contact with local communities to better accommodate local interests”, it was not yet clear whether or not China would engage local actors directly, nor how it would do so.
Yet in the years since, China has indeed augmented its approach in Balochistan. With the aim of establishing greater stability and ensuring smooth implementation of the corridor, China is taking on a number of roles in not only containing security threats, but also in placating the economic demands of local grassroots groups.With recent reports of a CPEC slowdown in the province, there are strong incentives for Beijing to play these new roles so as to keep up momentum along the corridor.
In the early years of CPEC, China did not engage directly with Balochi actors, but tended to advise Islamabad on how best to secure the corridor from insurgent elements.
Indeed, the beefing up of by Pakistani security forces that followed indicates Beijing requested a crackdown on militants hostile to Chinese interests on Pakistani territory. Of all those hostile to Chinese interests, Balochi insurgents pose the greatest security challenge. Gwadar port specifically has been the site of a number of attacks in recent years. The bulk of Pakistani army’s new CPEC units have since been deployed in Balochistan, including a newly-created special task force of 15,000 troops formed on the request of Beijing.
The building up of military cantonments in Gwadar is another sign of China’s increasing role as consultant to Pakistan on deployment of units around the province, this does not stop at the advisory, there have even Chinese security on the ground. Yet advisors are not the only Chinese involved in CPEC security though, more recently, security agents are.
To date, China has not deployed military forces to Balochistan. Yet while analysts hotly debate the potential for PLA to use Gwadar as a base, Chinese private security companies have been quietly making forays into the region.
In 2016, a leading Beijing-based think tank urged Chinese companies in Pakistan to take safety measures themselves by hiring Chinese security firms.
There have since been a number of collaborations between Chinese and Pakistani security firms. One such partnership involves the Chinese Overseas Security Group, who has forged a joint venture with a Pakistani security firm which is reported to have deep links to the Pakistan Navy.
Others such as DeWe Group, China Security and Protection Group and Hua Xin Zhong An (HXZA) have each shown interest in securing CPEC.
At this stage, Chinese personnel are not being hired as security staff for the corridor as much as trainers for local Pakistani agents. Given the history of Chinese nationals being targeted by Balochi insurgent groups, there remain doubts over whether Chinese personnel will ever be in the front line themselves.
While these operations are still in their infancy, they are a critical first step. CPEC has certainly now opened the Pakistani market for a number of Chinese elite PSCs.
In 2017, China provided the Pakistan Navy with two naval vessels for the maritime security of CPEC. While weapons trade between the countries is not a new development, the supply of targeted military equipment for a proscribed tactical purpose by the Chinese side represented a shift. It is understood that the vessels are meant specifically for securing Gwadar harbor, the future mega port that will connect the corridor to the Indian ocean which has become a prime target of Balochi attacks.
Considering the complexity of the security threats in the province, it is reasonable to expect future weapons deals will be arranged with an eye to containing Balochi threats going forward.
Reports first surfaced in 2018 that China had held closed-door negotiations with Balochi separatist groups with the aim of securing CPEC projects, and specifically, Gwadar port. This attracted a lot of attention from analysts, many of whom questioned the depth of China’s links to these groups.
Yet according to Ghulam Ali, such talks have become common practice for the Chinese, who often hold discussions with all major parties and domestic actors at all levels of governance in Pakistan, albeit discreetly. Yet, Beijing advises Islamabad when it does make contact with sub-national actors, such as the BLA, due to the domestic sensitivity of the issues.
Beyond security, Chinese negotiating prowess has been applied to quell tensions with Balochi economic actors as well. One such case was bringing an end to ongoing protest by fisherman around Gwadar whose access to the sea was being cut off by a CPEC highway project. These protests caused intermittent delays starting from December 2018 and continuing throughout 2019 until Chinese officials at the Karachi Consulate General provided the fisherman with $US 200,000 worth of boat engines, solar-powered lights, fishing nets and other necessary equipment to needed for routine fishing supplies, as well as pledging further aid for populations around Gwadar port under CPEC’s socio-economic development package.
Some analysts see these as signs that China is willing to forgo its stance of non-interference for its strategic interests in CPEC are high enough. While it remains to be seen whether or not the country will overturn it’s long-standing policy altogether, these recent developments on the ground Balochistan show a departure from what Shi Zhiqin and Lu Yang termed China’s ‘traditional way’. Non-interference is, in practice if not in principle, being redefined.