Pakistan’s Silent Compromise: The Chinese Trap Unfolds

by Harleen Kaur

Recently Pakistan and China reaffirmed their commitment to safeguarding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from its “detractors and adversaries”. This pledge came during a meeting between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his Chinese counterpart, Li Qiang, where Sharif assured Beijing of robust security measures for Chinese personnel involved in the $65 billion project. Prime Minister Sharif’s visit to China, at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, aims to enhance collaboration under the expansive CPEC, a cornerstone of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The need for reassurance stems from a series of violent incidents targeting Chinese nationals and CPEC-related infrastructure. On March 26, a suicide attack in northwest Pakistan claimed the lives of five Chinese engineers, exacerbating fears about the safety of Chinese workers. The attack involved an explosives-laden vehicle ramming into a bus transporting staff to the Dasu dam project in Shangla district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, sending shockwaves to Beijing.

Compounding these concerns, insurgents launched assaults on Chinese interests in Balochistan a week prior. They targeted the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) complex and the Turbat naval base near the China-operated Gwadar Port, a critical CPEC component. While security forces neutralised the attackers, the incidents highlighted persistent threats. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group advocating for an independent Balochistan, claimed responsibility. The group has consistently opposed the CPEC, demanding that China abandon its operations in the region.

Jan Muhammed Baloch, a political analyst, emphasised the significance of these attacks, stating, “The audacious attacks on the GPA complex and Turbat naval base reflect the enhanced operational capacity of the BLA to storm heavily guarded areas in Balochistan. By attacking the GPA complex, the group has sent a message of ‘vulnerability’ to China regarding its ambitious plans for transporting Middle Eastern oil through Gwadar Port.”

The escalating violence underscores the increasing difficulties for Pakistan in securing the CPEC. Insurgent attacks, primarily carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the northwest and the BLA in the southwest, pose a substantial threat. In late 2022, these groups declared an alliance against the Pakistani state, further complicating security dynamics.

Despite the grand promises and mutual reassurances between Pakistan and China, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) continues to crawl along at a snail’s pace. Security threats are a major concern, but they are far from the only issue. Political instability, local stakeholder issues, the Covid-19 pandemic, and technical difficulties have all contributed to the slow progress of this megaproject. Yet, in Pakistan, security takes the crown as the number one challenge—unsurprisingly, given the country has been dealing with separatist insurgency and Islamist militancy for two decades.

Recent meetings between Pakistani officials, Chinese Ambassador Jiang Zaidong, and Li Chunlin, vice chairman of China’s National Development Reform Commission, underscored Beijing’s growing impatience. The message was clear: CPEC’s future hinges on the protection of Chinese nationals and investments. “There is understandable anger within the Chinese ranks over CPEC. They are neither happy with the lack of security, nor with the lack of progress on CPEC since 2018,” admitted a Planning Ministry official privy to the Joint Cooperation Committee meetings.

Amid these tensions, the Pakistani civil and military leadership is scrambling to showcase a turnaround, hoping to pin the recent setbacks on jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. It’s worth noting that under Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, there were attempts to renegotiate CPEC terms, with Khan’s adviser even suggesting that the projects be put “on hold”. So much for the “smooth sailing” Pakistan had promised its Chinese partners.

Adding to the woes is the alarming rise in militancy. Terror attacks in Pakistan hit a six-year high last year, with 129 strikes recorded, up from 87 in 2022. Most of these were carried out in the troubled provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and the jihadists and Baloch separatist militias have found a common enemy: the Chinese.

China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region has also been widely condemned as a humanitarian crisis. Reports indicate that over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in what the Chinese government calls “re-education camps,” but which many international observers and human rights organisations describe as concentration camps. These detainees are subjected to forced labour, indoctrination, and severe human rights abuses, including forced sterilisation and separation of families. The Chinese government’s actions amount to a systematic attempt to erase Uyghur culture, religion, and identity.

In stark contrast to its vocal stance on Muslim rights globally, Pakistan’s silence on the plight of the Uyghur Muslims reveals a glaring hypocrisy. Pakistan often portrays itself as the defender of Muslim rights, fervently advocating for Palestinians, Kashmiris, and other Muslim communities facing oppression. However, when it comes to the Uyghurs, Pakistan’s leadership has conspicuously chosen to turn a blind eye.

This silence can be attributed to Pakistan’s economic and strategic dependence on China; the economic benefits and financial aid flowing from China appear to outweigh any moral or ethical considerations for Pakistan. This alliance has led to Pakistan’s muted response, even as credible reports of atrocities against Uyghur Muslims continue to surface.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister and other high-ranking officials frequently express solidarity with Muslims worldwide, yet they fail to address the Uyghur issue. This selective advocacy undermines Pakistan’s credibility and exposes a double standard. By ignoring the Uyghur crisis, Pakistan not only betrays the very Muslims it claims to champion but also tacitly endorses China’s repressive policies.

Adding to this hypocrisy is the situation within Pakistan itself, particularly in Balochistan. The Baloch people, standing against the Pakistani state, face severe repression and human rights abuses. Pakistan’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with Baloch separatists, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, stands in stark contrast to its professed support for Muslim rights elsewhere. This domestic oppression further highlights the inconsistency in Pakistan’s stance on human rights and self-determination.

Protesting traders in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) are also demanding the release of their arrested leaders and the prosecution of PoJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Anwarul Haq over the deaths of four individuals during anti-inflation protests in May. They are also calling on the government to compensate the families of the three protesters and a police officer who were killed in the violence. The traders expressed frustration over the government’s failure to implement promised subsidies on flour and electricity prices, which had initially prompted them to halt their demonstrations.

In an unusual development that grabbed attention in Pakistan, the government acknowledged Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as a “foreign territory”. This admission came during proceedings at the Islamabad High Court (IHC) while it deliberated on the kidnapping case involving Kashmiri poet and journalist Ahmed Farhad Shah. According to a report by Aaj News, Pakistan’s Additional Attorney General stated on Friday that Shah was detained by the police in PoK, which rendered him unable to appear before the Islamabad High Court.

These contradictions underscore a broader reality: the concept of a unified Muslim Ummah, or global Muslim community, is both regressive and obsolete. The idea that all Muslims worldwide share a singular identity and common cause falls apart when confronted with the political and economic realities that drive state behaviour. Pakistan’s selective advocacy and internal repression reveal that national interests invariably trump the notion of a cohesive Muslim Ummah.

Before asking China to invest in its country and before claiming to be a champion of Muslim rights globally, Pakistan must put its own house in order and address the rampant issues of internal unrest and militancy. The current trajectory suggests that Pakistan is slowly falling into a Chinese trap, where economic dependency and security liabilities may compromise its sovereignty and moral standing in the long run. The grand vision of CPEC, while promising in theory, is fraught with practical challenges that Pakistan seems ill-prepared to tackle. The road to prosperity cannot be built on compromised principles and unresolved internal strife.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Khalsa Vox or its members.

Harleen Kaur

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