China’s investment plans in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework are so promising and ambitious that the primary question of whether the country is secure enough for such massive foreign engagement has been largely overshadowed. Instead, the worth of the project, which was initially tagged as $46 billion, has ballooned to $51.1 billion. But the harsh truth of security risks in Pakistan is not totally lost on Chinese planners. After all, Chinese nationals in Pakistan have been targeted by extremists for many years. The Chinese government has therefore time and again raised this issue with Pakistan.
Taking all these apprehensions into consideration, Pakistani authorities have taken certain measures to guarantee the protection of Chinese workers involved in CPEC. A Special Security Division, including 9,000 army soldiers and 6,000 paramilitary forces personnel, has been assigned with the task of providing security for Chinese nationals and projects. In addition, various types of CPEC security forces are in the making at provincial levels. For example, the Punjab government has its Special Protection Unit while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government recently approved the formation of a 4,200 member security force at the cost of Rs1.2 billion ($11.4 million). The federal government allocated Rs1.8 billion ($17 million) for CPEC security in its budget for 2017-18.
For all the security assurances that Pakistan has offered the Chinese government so far, it did not prevent the abduction and then killing of two Chinese nationals at the hands of Islamic State affiliates. The episode stirred up a storm in the two capitals that in many ways is a microcosm of the not-so-romantic aspect of this relationship. In a first, China asked Pakistani authorities to “take all necessary measures and do their best to rescue the kidnapped Chinese.” As Beijing persisted, Islamabad was reeling from the pressure to recover the two foreigners. Pakistan scrambled to conduct a three-day military operation that unfortunately proved to be an abortive effort as ISIS claimed to have killed both the Chinese. Beijing did not hesitate to express its grave concern over the tragedy, but the more embarrassing and consequential blow to Islamabad had yet to come.
During the 17th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held in Astana, Kazakhstan on June 8-9, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly snubbed a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but could spare moment to sit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others. It was a highly uncharacteristic move for China and Pakistan, which for decades have branded their friendship as free from the trappings of time and changing interests. Even as the Pakistani media kept mum on the story, Beijing was quick to rebut the news as “just nonsense and unwanted” and asserted that the leaders held meetings “several times.” It was a face-saving step to show that everything was normal between Pakistan and China. But by skipping the formal meeting, Xi had already scored his point and made plain to Sharif that all was not well in the aftermath of the killing of two Chinese citizens in Pakistan.
By doing so, China has drawn a new line for Pakistan: even if the two countries are close, any compromise on the security of Chinese workers will not go down well with Beijing and Pakistan will not be spared the consequences. In other words, Pakistan might be trying its best to ensure the protection of Chinese workers, but from China’s perspective, all these measures will be discounted by the mere fact of any incidents. This added proviso is asymmetric for Pakistan.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, war and instability in that country has directly penetrated into Pakistan. Pakistan’s losses in the war on terror are colossal and no secret. In addition to taking lives of thousands of people (including that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), terrorism has costed Pakistan $118 billion. The country has rebounded to a state of relative normalcy after the launching of military operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 and then later that year the comprehensive anti-terror National Action Plan. Still, Pakistan needs to do a lot more to deal with the actual causes and conditions behind this menace. For instance, the highly unexpected spike in terrorist attacks in February 2017, which killed more than 100 people, exposed the limitations of Pakistan’s anti-terror war and efforts. However, Pakistan’s failure to cope effectively with the issue of extremism does not vindicate China’s new line.
A flashback to the past would be helpful. In early 2015, when China was going to unveil its designs of massive investment in Pakistan, the country was far from stable and was largely shunned by other foreign investors. China either underestimated and was oblivious to that ground reality or was expecting friendlier treatment in the forbiddingly hostile environment of Pakistan. In either case, China oversimplified a complex issue. The first case would be an illustration of putting the horse before the cart as China with all its towering ambitions leapt into a country that was still struggling to maintain the writ of state in its territory. Likewise, the expectation of friendlier treatment would be demanding too much, on one hand, from Pakistan’s already stretched security institutions and, on the other, from indiscriminate militant threats (even if some of them have shown lesser or no hostility toward China).
A certain amount of inference is inevitable in the light of this whole debate. Beijing’s snubbing of Islamabad (as Xi did to Sharif) over the security tragedy endured by Chinese in Pakistan is nothing short of a domineering approach. It is yet another manifestation of the fact that China enjoys a disproportionately superior position in this bilateral relationship. Any further pressure could strain Pakistan’s resources and institutions. For Islamabad, such a clumsy episode can be a blessing in disguise if it prompts the government to reconsider the dynamics of this relationship.
In some ways, the civilian government did well by avoiding the full blame. Beijing was put on the defensive when Islamabad shot back that the two slain Chinese nationals had in fact misused their visas and engaged in missionary activities. China’s Foreign Ministry stated that they will work with Pakistan on this issue and stressed that its nationals who visit Pakistan should respect the laws and regulations of the country. Islamabad has also revealed its decision to tighten the visa regime for Chinese nationals.
China will have to understand and even appreciate the efforts being rendered by the Pakistani government and security institutions to ensure the protection and success of CPEC. It will also have to accept the bitter truth that these kind of accidents, despite best efforts, cannot be averted altogether in a country like Pakistan. Instead of viewing Pakistan’s security travails from a purely self-centered position (caring only about its own citizens), Beijing should urge Pakistan to tackle this issue comprehensively and systemically, without any discrimination between good and bad militants.
As far as Pakistan’s role is concerned, there is a lot more yet to be done in this regard. Cosmetic and incident-based measures against extremism can hardly lead to a stable and orderly society. After all, only the Chinese have dared to invest in this country and if they are forced to flee, Pakistan might hardly have another chance.
Abdur Rehman is Research Associate at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He holds a Masters and M. Phil in International Relations from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He is currently pursuing Ph.D. in International Relations at Jilin University, China.