Deteriorating Security Environment in Pakistan Threatens Chinese Nationals, Investments

On Tuesday, a suicide attack in northwestern Pakistan killed five Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver. This is the third attack against Chinese interests and nationals in Pakistan over the past week, underscoring their vulnerability in what is an important Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partner country. DW provided an overview of the most recent attack

Authorities in Pakistan said on Tuesday that five Chinese nationals were among six people killed in a suicide attack in the [Shangla district of] northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Regional police chief Mohammad Ali Gandapur said a convoy carrying Chinese engineers was targeted by a suicide bomber who rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into them.

“Five Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver were killed in the attack,” Gandapur told news agencies.

The senior police official said the victims had been traveling from Islamabad to their camp in Dasu in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — which is the site of the Dasu hydroelectric dam, currently being constructed by the China Gezhouba Group Company.

The attack took place along a winding, mountainous road that runs alongside a deep ravine. [Source]

Waqar Gillani and Shan Li from The Wall Street Journal situated the attack within the context of China’s broader international security issues and the pressures placed on countries receiving Chinese investment:

The attack highlights the increasing security challenges China faces in countries such as Pakistan, a major recipient of Chinese investment. As China has sought to extend its influence globally, Chinese workers in Asia and Africa have come under attack. In Pakistan, local insurgents have targeted Chinese construction sites, citizens and symbols.

[…] The security of thousands of Chinese workers has become a sensitive issue in Pakistan, a showcase for Chinese development investment where Beijing has spent billions on roads, ports and power plants. Pakistan’s precarious finances also rely on lending from China and other allies, as well as from the International Monetary Fund. Islamabad has dedicated thousands of soldiers to protecting Chinese projects and personnel. [Source]

The attack occurred a week before Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s his first overseas official visit to Beijing since Pakistan’s general election last month. Just days earlier, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Guard of Honor was invited to participate in the Pakistan Day military parade. In their condemnations of the attack, many Pakistani officials emphasized their country’s close friendship with China. Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi stated, “Enemies have targeted the citizens of Pakistan’s extremely trusted friendly country. This was not an attack on Chinese citizens but also on Pakistan.” Umar Bacha from the South China Morning Post highlighted other comments by Pakistani officials underlining their close ties with China:

Addressing the killing of the five Chinese nationals in Besham, [Pakistan’s military] said: “The whole nation stands in solidarity with our Chinese brothers and unequivocally condemn this cowardly act.”

The statement issued by Inter Services Public Relations said “strategic projects and sensitive sites” vital for Pakistan’s economic progress and the well-being of its people were being targeted “as a conscious effort to retard our progress and sow discord between Pakistan and its strategic allies and partners, most notably China”.

Pakistan’s military, which is responsible for the security of Chinese nationals working in the country, vowed to hold the perpetrators of the Besham attack accountable “with the unwavering support of … our ironclad ally China”.

“Together we will prevail over adversity and evil,” it added. [Source]

In China, the attack generated a notable amount of interest on social media. Some popular comments on Weibo called for greater intervention to protect Chinese interests abroad: “It’s time to dispatch the security company’s security personnel” and “Can we send troops to strike back? We’ve been targeted so many times.” Others insinuated that the U.S. or India were to blame. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson asked Pakistan to “thoroughly investigate the incident as soon as possible,” and underscored their close bilateral relations:

China strongly condemns this terrorist attack. We express deep condolences to the deceased and extend sincere sympathies to the bereaved families. China asks Pakistan to thoroughly investigate the incident as soon as possible, hunt down the perpetrators, and bring them to justice. Meanwhile, we ask Pakistan to take effective measures to ensure the safety and security of Chinese nationals, projects, and institutions in Pakistan. China is working with Pakistan on the follow-up operation with an all-out effort. The Chinese Embassy in Pakistan has reminded Chinese citizens and businesses in Pakistan to closely follow the local security situation, strengthen security measures, and do their best to take extra safety precautions against terrorist attacks.

[…] China and Pakistan are all-weather strategic cooperative partners and iron-clad friends, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) greatly contributes to the socioeconomic development of Pakistan. Any attempt to undermine China-Pakistan cooperation will never succeed. China opposes all forms of terrorism and firmly supports Pakistan in fighting terrorism. China will work with Pakistan even more firmly to fully ensure the safety and security of Chinese nationals, projects, and institutions in Pakistan. [Source]

This latest attack recalls a similar one in July 2021, when a bomb placed on a bus carrying Chinese workers to the same dam in Dasu killed nine Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis, injuring 21 others. Although no one claimed responsibility for that attack, the Pakistani government stated that it was carried out by the Islamist militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Thus far, no one has claimed responsibility for the March 26 attack. As Reuters noted, “While Chinese interests are primarily targeted by the ethnic militants seeking to push Beijing out of mineral-rich Balochistan, they generally operate in the country’s south and southwest – far from the site of Tuesday’s attack,” whereas “Islamists mostly operate in Pakistan’s northwest, the area where the convoy was attacked.” Abid Hussain from Al Jazeera described two other attacks that occurred in Pakistan over the past week:

On Monday night, separatist fighters attacked a naval airbase in Turbat area in the southwestern province of Balochistan, killing at least one paramilitary soldier. Officials said all five of the assailants were also killed in retaliatory fire.

The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), which has been behind several attacks on Pakistani and Chinese interests in the region and elsewhere, claimed responsibility for the Turbat attack.

Last week, another BLA attack at Gwadar, a port city in Balochistan, killed two soldiers and eight of the group’s fighters. Gwadar is the centrepiece of the $62bn dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, Pakistan’s most ambitious infrastructure and investment project in recent years. [Source]

Reporting on the Gwadar port attack on March 20, Panda Paw Dragon Claw wrote that the intensity of these terrorist attacks “[begs] the question [of] how effectively long-standing security concerns along the CPEC are being addressed”:

How to [i]ntegrate the port better with local economic and human development will be a test of the BRI’s evolving developmental philosophy.

[…T]he message from Pakistan is that the state will counteract terrorist threats “with no mercy.” But attacks across Pakistan are becoming more frequent. February alone saw 87 militant attacks, resulting in 87 fatalities and over 100 injured. The BLA operates across southern Pakistan and Afghanistan, introducing a tricky cross-border element to attempts to clamp down on their activities. [Source]

After the July 2021 attack, the Chinese-led project was temporarily paused, and it is yet unclear how this latest attack will affect the thousands of Chinese nationals who work in Shangla on projects related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. As Salman Masood and Christina Goldbaum reported for The New York Times, many experts appear pessimistic about the security trajectory of Chinese investments in Pakistan:

“This latest attack on Chinese nationals in Pakistan heightens growing fears in Beijing about the bleak future of its tens of billions in investments in the country,” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior director of Eurasian security and prosperity at the New Lines Institute in Washington.

“China has had a front-row seat in witnessing Pakistan’s social, political, economic and security meltdown,” he said. “What is happening in Pakistan, along with the situation in post-U.S. Afghanistan, represents a serious threat to Chinese interests in the broader South and Central Asian regions.”

[…] “The surge in violence is linked to Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the Taliban,” said Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The new wave of violence also points to improving operational capabilities of both jihadists and Baloch separatist groups to hit hard targets in coordinated attacks. Both groups are employing suicide bombers, which underscores steady recruitment into their ranks.” [Source]


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