As China uses Pakistan to counter India and advance its geopolitical ambitions, it faces attacks on its citizens claimed by Baloch activists targeting the ambitious CPEC. Can the new Pakistan PM allay China’s fears in this regard? asks Amit Agnihotri
China has been ‘exploiting’ Pakistan to further its interests in South and Central Asia but has, of late, become increasingly concerned over attacks on its citizens in the Islamic Republic.
The attacks, allegedly from both Baloch activists – dubbed ‘militants’ by the Pakistan authorities –and the Pakistan Taliban, a sister concern of the group ruling neighbouring Afghanistan, have targeted the ambitious $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through Balochistan province.
Announced in 2015, CPEC is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will allow the Asian Dragon to reach markets in South and Central Asia and help it counter US and Indian influence in the region by connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang province with Gwadar port in Balochistan, Pakistan’s south-western province that shares a border with Afghanistan and Iran.
The province is rich in natural resources but has remained poor, fuelling a decades-long separatist movement in the region. Baloch activists had been targeting the Pakistan government since 2000 but now allege that Beijing and Islamabad are jointly exploiting the region with CPEC projects.
Pakistan, in turn, has accused India of supporting the Balochistan separatist movement covertly, a charge denied by New Delhi.
Over the past years, CPEC has brought in a large number of Chinese engineers and other workers to Balochistan and Sindh provinces, while many Chinese educators are teaching Mandarin to the Pakistanis in various universities and institutes.
Activists in these two provinces are opposed to CPEC as they believe that the Chinese investments have not served local interests.
A spotlight was shone recently on the unrest after the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for an attack on April 26, in which three Chinese teachers and their Pakistani driver were killed outside Karachi University’s Confucius Institute.
In a first, the attack was executed by a female suicide bomber and holds a dangerous portend for Pakistan, which, unfortunately, has already become a global hub of terrorist organisations.
The attack outside the Karachi University’s Confucius Institute triggered an exodus of Chinese people living in the area and generated fears among a section of Pakistanis that the ambitious CPEC projects might suffer a slowdown.
Yet the BLA’s attacks are not new. They started in 2000 when the group began targeting the Pakistan establishment.
In May 2017, ten workers were killed by two gunmen on motorbikes, which the BLA claimed was a response to CPEC. In 2018, the group attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi but could not enter the compound.
Last year, on April 21, there was an attack – also claimed by the BLA – on a luxury hotel in Quetta which had hosted the Chinese ambassador. The diplomat escaped without injury but four people lost their lives.
The BLA then started targeting the Pakistan military, which secures CPEC projects and carries out operations against the separatist group.
Before the Karachi suicide bombing incident, a Pakistan Army officer was killed in a gunfight with the Baloch separatists.
In July 2021, as many as ten Chinese nationals lost their lives and another 26 were hurt in a suicide attack on a bus that was carrying them to the Dasu Hydropower Project site. Then, in August 2021, two children were killed and three were wounded in an attack targeting Chinese nationals in the port of Gwadar.
Although China has committed to take CPEC forward, the Karachi bombing incident rang alarm bells in Beijing, which expressed concern over the killing of its citizens and asked Islamabad to punish those behind the crime and prevent such attacks in the future.
‘The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain, and those behind this incident will surely pay the price,’ the Chinese foreign ministry said.
Effectively, this means that new Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will come under increasing pressure from China to secure the CPEC projects and ensure the safety of Chinese nationals – especially given that Beijing was none too happy with his predecessor Imran Khan, during whose tenure CPEC ventures saw a slowdown.
For his part, Sharif condemned the Karachi attack as a‘heinous and a cowardly act of terrorism’, and promised to bring the attackers to book, as he wants to strengthen economic and political ties with China.
In pursuing that objective, the Sharif administration may have to deploy more military units in order to secure CPEC projects, and act against the Baloch separatists to protect Chinese nationals in Pakistan. The flipside of this is that the move might further upset the Baloch activists, who have vowed to conduct further attacks against the Chinese projects.
And CPEC comes with a price attached. The Pakistan authorities must by now have a sense of the Chinese debttrap they happily walked into after Beijing recently demanded an upfront payment of pending power dues worth Rs 300 billion, and even shut down significant capacity run by Chinese independent power producers.
Early this year, China Gezhouba Group Corporationhad claimed commercial compensation of $39 million, prior to resuming work on the stalled Dasu Hydropower Project, after ten Chinese nationals lost their lives and another 26 were hurt in the July 2021 suicide bombing.
Following the blast, the Chinese contractor set down preconditions for resuming work, which included a compensation package and greater security for Chinese nationals. Later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian neither confirmed nor denied the reports about funds that a debt-ridden Pakistan had to shell out.
If Pakistan has not learnt its lessons, the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy – a victim of China’s debttrap diplomacy – should surely serve as an eye-opener for Islamabad. The good news is that Pakistan has started a process to disband the CPEC Authority, set up in 2019 to expedite Chinese projects, in an indicator that, in the Islamic Republic, reality has begun to sink in.
Yet decades of economic mismanagement have burdened Pakistan with a net government debt of Rs 37,873 billion, equivalent to 75.3 percent of its GDP. Although Pakistan recently managed a financial bailout package worth $8 billion from Saudi Arabia, Islamabad will still have to approach Beijing with a begging bowl for its survival.
Moreover, the Pakistan Army’s unhealthy obsession with India, particularly Kashmir, will continue to force Islamabad to take orders, as well as military hardware, from Beijing, which is keen to corner New Delhi.
Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues