Deadly Attacks Threaten China-Pakistan Economic Bonds

Police examine the site of a suicide bombing that killed five Chinese nationals on a highway in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on March 26.   © AP

Tragic Recent attacks in Pakistan on Chinese people pose a significant threat to the economic ties between Pakistan and China. Analysts warn that a series of lethal attacks targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan could have serious implications for Beijing’s substantial investment in the country, potentially increasing security pressures on Islamabad.
Tragedy struck on Tuesday in Besham, a town located approximately 270 kilometres northwest of the capital, as five Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver lost their lives in a devastating suicide attack. A group of individuals were en route to the Dasu hydropower project, a significant electricity generation project supported by China, with a capacity of 4,320 megawatts. Following the outbreak of violence, construction work on the $4.2 billion project, along with two other dam projects, was temporarily halted.

In a span of only seven days, the Besham incident marked the third tragic assault on or in close proximity to Chinese interests. In a troubling turn of events, Pakistan experienced a sharp increase in security incidents aimed at Chinese nationals and assets in 2023. This poses a grave danger to the economic partnership between Pakistan and China. Throughout the year, a total of 17 security incidents involving Chinese nationals in Pakistan were recorded, as reported by various sources such as the China Global Investment Tracker and Pakistani authorities. From targeted attacks on Chinese infrastructure projects to instances of violence against Chinese citizens residing in the country, a series of incidents have occurred.
Regrettably, the security incidents led to the unfortunate loss of lives of Chinese nationals. Tragically, 24 Chinese individuals lost their lives in these attacks. Among the victims were engineers, workers, and other personnel who were contributing to different projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other bilateral ventures. The casualties highlight the serious dangers that Chinese nationals face while operating in Pakistan.

Last week, separatists in southwestern Pakistan targeted the Gwadar Port Authority Complex and a naval air base. These separatists believe that Chinese nationals are exploiting the region’s resources. Gwadar plays a crucial role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a significant part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This initiative, led by Beijing, aims to enhance global infrastructure.
As of now, no organisation has come forward to take responsibility for the Besham attack. Pakistan has been grappling with an increase in militant activity involving various groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and separatists aiming to establish their own territory in Balochistan, a southwestern province.
According to Khuram Iqbal, the author of “The Making of Pakistani Human Bombs,” the recent attack may have been carried out by hired jihadists.
“They transition between different organisations, seldom engaging in jihad for ideological motives,” he stated. “Instead, they make pragmatic decisions, often driven by financial incentives.”
Beijing has consistently called on Islamabad to take further measures to safeguard its citizens and investments, which are crucial for Pakistan’s struggling economy.
The Chinese Embassy in Pakistan has responded with strong condemnation to the Besham attack, urging authorities to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the incident.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, urged Pakistan to implement effective measures to ensure the safety and security of Chinese nationals, institutions, and projects in the country. This statement was made during a media briefing.
Pakistan has taken swift action in response to the attack by establishing a high-level committee to investigate the incident.
“The recent attack in the region raises concerns about a potential security lapse, especially considering the tragic incident in 2021 where nine Chinese engineers lost their lives,” commented Muhammad Shoaib, an assistant professor at Quaid-i-Nikkei Asia was informed by Azam University in Islamabad. “The Chinese are growing increasingly concerned about the rising intensity and frequency of the attacks, particularly because their security measures have failed to prevent casualties,” he stated.
According to experts, the recent security lapses could potentially disrupt the progress of new economic engagements between the two countries. This could also have an impact on Beijing’s plans to increase investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, especially after a new government took charge in Islamabad this month.
The Pakistani Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, is scheduled to visit China in April with the aim of bolstering business relations. However, government sources have informed Nikkei that the recent suicide attack is likely to overshadow Sharif’s economic agenda.
According to Shoaib, the Chinese have no plans to pursue significant economic involvement with Pakistan. China has expressed its concerns regarding the political instability in Pakistan, and the current security situation may give it a valid reason to halt any further economic involvement.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre, expressed concerns that Pakistan’s economic challenges may deter potential Chinese investment.
“The economic situation in Pakistan has effectively halted the initiation of significant new projects.” “The plan is to complete what has already been initiated,” he stated.
Over the past two years, Islamabad has consistently declined Beijing’s request to deploy its own security personnel in order to safeguard Chinese citizens and investments.
“China’s potential request to deploy its own security personnel could pose a significant embarrassment for Pakistan, a situation the country would prefer to steer clear of,” remarked Kugelman. “The recent attack has the potential to escalate an ongoing issue of tension between the two countries.”
In response to the recent attack, Pakistan is anticipated to intensify its efforts to safeguard the well-being of its citizens. Islamabad perceives Afghanistan as the primary origin of militant attacks on its territory and is therefore likely to exert more pressure on its neighboring country.
“Pakistan plans to seek China’s support due to the ongoing presence of Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatists being hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan,” stated Qamar Cheema, executive director of Sanober Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. Pakistan and China are joining forces to develop a unified response against militants, despite their differing policies on militant organisations in Afghanistan. This collaboration aims to ensure a coherent approach in dealing with this pressing issue.

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