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International relations

US labels Pakistani insurgents 'terrorists' in victory for China

Experts see backdoor deal on anti-Chinese group targeting Belt and Road projects

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers gather after an attack by the Balochistan Liberation Army on the Chinese consulate in Karachi last November.    © Reuters

QUETTA, Pakistan -- The decision this week by the U.S. to name a Pakistani separatist group as a terrorist organization is seen by analysts as part of a backdoor deal between Washington and Beijing, after China allowed a United Nations Security Council resolution against a Pakistan-based militant leader.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday issued the terrorist designation on the Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, following attacks on Chinese-funded Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan's southern Balochistan province. The move will expose and isolate organizations and individuals associated with the insurgent group and deny them access to the U.S. financial system.

Pakistan is home to the largest BRI infrastructure projects in South Asia, and the U.S. decision is seen as a victory for China.

The designation comes two months after China dropped its objections to a Security Council resolution against Masood Azhar, leader of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, naming him a global terrorist.

Experts believe that the timing of Washington's decision is the result of back-channel diplomacy between the Chinese and U.S. governments.

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised if there's a China dimension to this move," Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of Asia programs at the Wilson Center in Washington, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It could be part of a broader deal connected to Masood Azhar," he said.

Mohan Malik, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, believes that the terrorist designation on the BLA is the result of a quid pro quo between Beijing and Washington in return for the Security Council resolution on Azhar.

"[It] will further strengthen the Sino-Pakistan bond and reinforce the view that China will take all measures to protect its growing economic and strategic stake in Pakistan," Malik told Nikkei.

The BLA has been engulfed in an armed insurgency against the Pakistani government since the early 2000s. It has recently focused its attacks on Chinese individuals and interests in Pakistan, believing that China is a colonizing force operating under the pretext of BRI.

The separatist group carried out an attack in August 2018 in Balochistan province that targeted Chinese engineers, injuring five people. Two months ago it attacked a five-star hotel in the province's port town of Gwadar, where foreign businessmen, including Chinese, frequently stay. Nine people, including the four insurgents, were killed in the hotel siege.

The separatists also attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi last November. Seven people were killed, including three attackers, and more than a dozen were injured.

Malik said that by designating the BLA as a terrorist organization, both Washington and Beijing have undermined the prospects of India playing "the Baloch card" in its relations with Pakistan and China.

Analysts note that India had been trying for about a decade to get Azhar on the terrorist blacklist, but China had put a technical hold on the resolution, claiming there was no proof of his direct involvement in terrorist attacks in India. Azhar's organization had claimed responsibility for a February suicide attack in the Indian part of disputed Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary police.

While Washington's move this week is viewed as a victory for China and Pakistan, Kugelman said it is more symbolic in nature and will likely have little real impact on the ground. "I fear this designation won't have much of an effect on the BLA's operational capacity," he said.

Malik said the designation also will not immediately benefit the progress of BRI projects in Pakistan. "[The] future of the Belt and Road projects depends a great deal more on Pakistan's fiscal situation [rather than a designation of BLA], because the terms of BRI projects are likely to remain tilted heavily in Beijing's favor."

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