KARACHI -- Pakistan has banned a political party well known for criticizing China's Belt and Road Initiative along with two other groups for alleged terrorist links, highlighting the country's reliance on Beijing for political and economic support.
Pakistan's interior ministry early this month outlawed Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz-Arisar (JSQM-A), a party based in the southern province of Sindh, along with two militant groups in the same province -- the Sindhudesh Liberation Army (SLA) and the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA) -- citing "reasonable grounds" that the organizations have ties to terrorism.
Since 2003, Pakistan has regularly banned a variety of organizations, including al-Qaeda-linked jihadi militants as well as secessionist insurgent groups. However, after the arrival of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship BRI project, the list of outlawed groups expanded to include ethnic and sectarian groups from the southwestern province of Balochistan and the northern region of Gilgit Baltistan that pose threats to Chinese investment in the country.
The number of outlawed groups has reached 76 with the latest additions from Sindh.
Pakistan and China, which share a narrow border, have a decadeslong history of close political and economic ties. Beijing continues to emphasize its relations with Islamabad as those with India remain tense over a border dispute and New Delhi's own ambitions for regional and global influence.
The recent bans have been linked with an ongoing campaign -- both peaceful and violent -- against the CPEC-linked projects in Sindh that began in 2011 when China announced plans to build a new industrial city called Zulfikarabad along the lines of the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
At that time, the province's ethnic Sindhi groups, including the JSQM-A, launched a peaceful campaign against the projects, accusing China of attempting to become a new colonial power.
Although the Zulfiqarabad project did not materialize, security officials believe that a bomb blast near the Chinese consulate in Karachi in 2012 that injured two Pakistani nationals was the start of armed opposition against Chinese investment in Sindh.
When the CPEC projects, mainly in the field of electricity generation, were launched in Sindh in 2015, the SLA and the SRA focused their attacks on Chinese individuals, mainly using roadside improvised explosive devices, according to a security official in Karachi who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. However, no Chinese national has died in attacks in the province so far.
"Most of the militants use the JSQM-A's platform as a cover to dodge the law enforcement agencies in [the] ongoing crackdown," the official said, justifying the ban on the political party.
On the other hand, rights groups, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, say that law enforcement agencies have rounded up a large number of activists associated with Sindhi ethnic groups, including the JSQM-A, and do not disclose their whereabouts. Law enforcement officials privately acknowledge that but insist that they have detained them for their links with the militant groups that target Chinese interests.
Denying his group has links to terrorism, the JSQM-A's head Aslam Khairpuri said that the party opposes through nonviolent and political struggle outside control over the province's natural resources.
"We regularly organize peaceful protests to show our concerns over enforced disappearance of political activists," Khairpuri said, adding that his group also demands that authorities must bring to court anyone suspected of involvement in subversive activity. "I think it was the reason that the government banned JSQM-A," he said.
The HRCP also asked the government to "distinguish between political parties and terrorist outfits before imposing a ban on any of them" and said that imposing bans on political dissenters, such as the JSQM-A, is against the spirit of the country's constitution and democracy.
Security analysts believe that Pakistan has generally been receptive to Chinese counterterrorism concerns in Pakistan. "As early as 2003, Pakistan was targeting Chinese separatists in Pakistan, such as the al-Qaida-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement, though it was not banned formally until 2013," said Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
"The recent banning of groups targeting or espousing anti-Chinese violent aspiration is an extension of that," he said.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement's purported links to international terrorism, however, are not shared by all experts, notably in western countries. Some have expressed the view that China has played up the threat as part of a crackdown on mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in the country, including Uighurs, a stance Beijing rejects.
Over the last few years, Pakistan has raised a large military force to address Chinese concerns on threats facing the CPEC and there is also some evidence of Pakistan conducting military operations and covert action against militants targeting the Chinese presence, Mir said.