Is India Playing a Double Game to Disrupt China’s BRI?
A recent surge in deadly terrorist attacks on China’s strategic partnership projects in Pakistan has raised concerns that a foreign sponsor may be orchestrating the violence.
Three Chinese nationals were killed in a suicide bombing at the Confucius Institute in Karachi on April 26. The group that claimed responsibility, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), warned that there would be more such attacks on China’s investments in Pakistan.
Beijing has expressed concern over the growing threat to its strategic interests and angrily denounced the “spilling of Chinese blood”. Chinese security officials last week conferred with Pakistani counterparts to draw up tougher protection safeguards for China’s infrastructure projects and personnel. Pakistan is a key link in Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative as it hosts the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that connects the world’s second-biggest economy with vital energy and trade routes to the Persian Gulf.
The BLA and other separatist militant groups have increased the targeting of China’s projects in Pakistan as a way to undermine the Pakistani government in Islamabad. The Balochi guerrillas are the most prominent and threatening. They have carried out a spate of attacks across Balochistan province, Pakistan’s largest region located in its southwest where much of China’s trade projects are centered, including the Gwadar port. The BLA has targeted Chinese engineers at Gwadar as well as consular officials and the Pakistan Stock Exchange.
Balochistan has had a long-running separatist cause that goes back to the foundation of Pakistan in 1948 from British decolonization in the Indian subcontinent. The province is rich in natural resources but the Balochi population has historic grievances about underdevelopment and alleged exploitation by the central government in Islamabad. In recent years, the BLA’s viewpoint has coupled China as an accomplice in Pakistani oppression. Islamabad and Beijing would argue that overall national development is the best way to secure prosperity for all of Pakistan’s regions.
It is notable that the BLA militant campaign has become more sophisticated and deadly with a focus on Beijing’s $60 billion investments in its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese government has not accused any specific foreign actor of orchestrating the BLA, but security analysts have indicated external forces are behind the uptick in attacks.
A prime suspect is U.S. covert involvement through its CIA and other military intelligence networks, including the closely aligned British agency MI6. Washington has designated the BLA as a terror group. But that doesn’t count for much. The U.S. similarly blacklisted Islamic State and Nusra Front but the CIA (and MI6) colluded with these terror organizations in Washington’s covert war for regime change in Syria.
As is well documented, the United States is embroiled in a titanic geopolitical struggle against China’s ascent as an economic power. The U.S. openly declares China as a threat to its own hegemonic interests as expressed in a recent keynote speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. To that end, disrupting Beijing’s plans for global economic development under its Belt and Road Initiative is a top priority for Washington. The BRI projects in Pakistan would fit into any American covert sabotage operations. The BLA makes for a ready-made proxy for U.S. interests.
Nevertheless, there is scant information in open-source media on a putative link between U.S. and Pakistani militant groups. To be sure, there is ample historical links between the CIA and radical Islamist networks since the Americans fomented jihadist proxies in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. But on the BLA and other Pakistani militants there seems to be little evidence pointing to active U.S. sponsorship.
There are, however, credible signals that India is involved in supporting militants in Pakistan. The two countries have been at war three times since independence from Britain. New Delhi and Islamabad have long accused each other of sponsoring terror groups to destabilize the other.
Pakistan has leveled new accusations that Indian military intelligence is working with separatist militants, including the BLA, to target its mega-projects funded by China.
Last year, nine Chinese nationals were killed in a bomb attack at the Dasu Hydropower Dam. Pakistan’s then-Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi explicitly named Indian military intelligence as being behind the sabotage.
Islamabad claims to have “irrefutable evidence” of India orchestrating the BLA and other anti-government militants.
India-based media have reported on injured BLA fighters being given medical treatment in India. For such aid, the New Delhi government would have to authorize it.
On one hand, the involvement of India in disrupting China’s BRI projects in Pakistan would seem to be implausible. The two economic giants are principal members of the BRICS nations along with Brazil, Russia and South Africa which are all advocating a multipolar world of trade partnerships. In many ways that coalition is seen as a challenge to the U.S.-led economic order. The BRICS are holding their 14th summit in China on June 22-24, hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indian premier Narendra Modi will be among the honored delegates.
On the other hand, India and China have an uneasy relationship. Beijing has historically been closer to Pakistan, India’s perceived foe. New Delhi has also border disputes with China in the Himalayan region where recent deadly military clashes have threatened to escalate into a war.
One conspicuous contradiction is India’s embrace of the U.S.-led Quad group of nations along with Australia and Japan. At the Quad summit held last month in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden was seen glad-handing Modi and sharing an obvious bonhomie rapport. Washington has mobilized the four-member bloc for militarily confronting China for control of the “Indo-Pacific region” as Washington now refers to the Asia-Pacific. India is a willing member of the Quad in a way that jars with its touted advocacy of multipolarism as part of the BRICS forum.
The question looms: is India doing Washington’s bidding by disrupting China’s strategic interests in Pakistan? The spike in more lethal terrorist attacks on Chinese infrastructure projects and nationals suggests an external force. Pakistani officials have indicted India’s covert involvement.
India has its own hemispheric ambitions of expansion. It is not going to simply play second fiddle to China. New Delhi has several trade routes under development that link its economic interests in Central Asia through Afghanistan and Iran to the Persian Gulf. These routes can be seen as competitors to China’s BRI via Pakistan.
India’s bilateral trade with the United States is worth $146 billion a year which is significantly larger than the $125 billion with China. It would not be in New Delhi’s interest to alienate either. But playing a furtive double game might be deemed as accruing strategic advantages for India.