Baloch separatist attacks will encourage Beijing to increase cooperation with Army in order to protect China-Pakistan Economic Corridor assets
Increasing Chinese support for Army will provoke separatists to carry out further attacks on foreign interests and critical infrastructure
Attacks will be restricted to low-level IED blasts, due to lack of overall coordination among separatist militant groups
Four people were killed and at least ten injured in Dera Murad Jamali, Baluchistan Province, on 17 March, around 250 km south-east of the provincial capital Quetta, when a remote-controlled explosive device derailed the Jaffar Express passenger train travelling from Rawalpindi. This follows several other small-scale attacks in Baluchistan over the past few weeks, including an attack in the same location also targeting the Jaffar Express on 4 March, which derailed carriages but caused no casualties, and an IED attack on a gas pipeline in Dera Bugti district on 8 March, which killed four security personnel and injured two employees of a nearby power plant. The two fatal attacks were claimed by the Baloch Liberation Tigers, one of several militant Baloch separatist groups that operate in the region.
Baloch separatists regularly carry out attacks in the province targeting trains, pipelines and other critical infrastructure. Indeed, bomb attacks by similar groups derailed the Jaffar Express in October 2016, killing seven, and again in November 2015, killing fifteen and injuring more than 100. The militants generally claim that increased investment and infrastructural development in the province are exploiting natural resources without delivering economic benefits to locals and these sentiments likely motivated the recent attacks.
Security in Baluchistan has improved in recent years but, the recent attacks demonstrate separatist militants retain the capability to attack transport and energy infrastructure. These groups have also targeted Chinese assets, with such operations including an attempted suicide attack by the Baluchistan Liberation Army on the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November last year. As a consequence, China has increased cooperation with Pakistan’s military in order to secure its substantial investments in the country, which include USD 62 billion of projects along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Chinese support for the Army was evident in Beijing’s 13 March decision to block, for the fourth time, a UN attempt to blacklist the leader of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group, a move that supported Pakistani Army objectives since the military encourages anti-India groups such as JeM in Kashmir as a counterweight to India. Beijing also contributed diplomatically to de-escalating military tensions with India earlier this month, following an attack by JeM fighters on Indian forces in Pulwama, and intends to send fighter jets to take part in Pakistan’s National Day parade on 23 March.
Public displays of military coordination between China and Pakistan will, however, reinforce incentives for Baloch separatists to target Chinese interests in the country. In light of the recent bombings, which show separatists retain the capability to carry out low-level attacks that still cause multiple casualties, it is likely these groups will seek to carry out further operations targeting Chinese assets and conceivably other foreign interests deemed to be exploiting their province’s resources in the coming months. However, due to the overall lack of coordination among these groups, attacks will continue to be low-level and likely restricted to IED blasts. In addition, such attacks will remain largely localised in Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, where the separatists’ capabilities are strongest.