Another Attack on Chinese Nationals in Pakistan Puts CPEC Back Under Scrutiny

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Another Attack on Chinese Nationals in Pakistan Puts CPEC Back Under Scrutiny

In recent years, Chinese projects and nationals have continuously faced terror threats across the country.

Another Attack on Chinese Nationals in Pakistan Puts CPEC Back Under Scrutiny
Credit: Government of Pakistan

On Sunday, militants assaulted a Chinese convoy near the vital southwestern port of Gwadar, Pakistan, while it was transporting a group of Chinese nationals to a development project, according to the military and China’s embassy in Pakistan. The Pak-China Technical Institute, a court complex, and other government offices are located in the region where the incident occurred.

The Chinese embassy denounced the incident, while noting in a statement that there were no deaths among its citizens aboard the convoy. “The Chinese Embassy in Pakistan strongly condemns this terrorist act,” the embassy said, adding that it was “requesting the Pakistani authorities to conduct a thorough investigation on the attack, severely punish the perpetrators, take practical and effective measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again.”

While the statement insisted that “China will continue to work with the Pakistani side,” it also urged “Chinese citizens in Pakistan to be vigilant and take preventive measures against security risks, to ensure the safety of their lives and property.”

According to Pakistan’s military, the incident saw two attackers use “small arms and hand grenades.” One local told Al Jazeera that the attack involved “intense firing for 20 minutes.” Both Pakistan and China said there were no injuries or deaths among the Chinese workers or security forces in the convoy, whose vehicles were reportedly bulletproof in recognition of the threat environment.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming many deaths. However, no other reports from the region confirmed the BLA’s claims of deaths. Previously, the same group, as well as other Baloch separatist groups, has carried out and claimed assaults against China-linked economic projects in the region.

Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, is strategically significant due to its enormous copper, zinc, and natural gas deposits. Armed organizations frequently attack cities in the province. Much of the violence is considered a response to Chinese investments in the region, as China seeks to build a road and rail network connecting its Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea in Balochistan.

Despite a decades-long separatist conflict in Balochistan, China has invested extensively under its Belt and Road Initiative in the mineral-rich province, including the development of the deepwater port of Gwadar. Gwadar, a seaport town on Pakistan’s southwest coast, is undergoing numerous development projects funded by the Chinese government and carried out with the assistance of Chinese engineers. Local residents, however, have protested that the development projects are marginalizing, rather than benefiting Gwadar’s inhabitants – many of whom still lack access to water and electricity.

While Chinese investment and infrastructure development projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have provided significant opportunities for growth and advancement in Pakistan, many parts of society remain skeptical. The continuous attacks on Chinese nationals working on these projects point to larger concerns that must be addressed. Although militant and separatist forces attempt to destabilize the area and hinder economic cooperation for their own propaganda purposes, their recruiting is motivated by fears of losing control and influence.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political analyst, believes that “developments that ignore history and local stakeholder impact breed resentment and allow extremist narratives to take hold.”

The masterminds of these assaults, the Baloch separatists, think that China is plundering Balochistan’s resources and not providing the province with its due share of the advantages of CPEC. Separatists have also accused China of backing Pakistan’s military operations in Balochistan, which have displaced thousands of civilians.

For decades, Baloch separatist insurgents have fought for a bigger part of their province’s natural riches, primarily targeting natural gas projects, infrastructure, and security forces. Separatists have repeatedly targeted Chinese nationals and economic and financial interests in Balochistan, where Beijing is involved in lucrative mining and energy projects.

Beyond Sunday’s attack, other notable instances include a suicide bomb assault at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese envoy in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, which killed four people and injured scores more in April 2021. The ambassador was unharmed by the incident, which the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for.

Attacks against Chinese employees and economic projects have increased since the Taliban took control of Kabul, alongside a corresponding rise in terror attacks by all actors in Pakistan.

In April 2022, a suicide bomber killed three Chinese nationals who taught at a Confucius Institute in Karachi. The BLA claimed responsibility for the terror attack.

In July of last year, a bomb exploded on a bus taking engineers to a construction site near a dam in northern Pakistan, killing 13 people, including nine Chinese laborers. The unclaimed assault strained ties between Islamabad and Beijing, and Pakistan ultimately paid millions of dollars in compensation to the families of the slain Chinese employees.

“The attacks on Chinese investment are a major setback for CPEC,” according to Ahsan Iqbal, former Planning, Development, and Reform Minister of Pakistan. “They have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, which is not conducive to investment.”

The increasing frequency of assaults in Pakistan targeting Chinese nationals and infrastructure projects has prompted major worries about the safety and stability of foreign investment. As these attacks continue, the consequences affect not just bilateral ties with China but also the larger environment of recruiting and maintaining foreign investment.

If similar incidents persist, potential investors may lose faith in the government’s capacity to ensure the safety of their workers and assets. This apprehension hinders new investments and impedes efforts to diversify the economy.

Aside from that, the strikes strain diplomatic ties between Pakistan and China, two nations that have formed a strategic partnership. China has been an important ally to Pakistan, providing economic assistance, investment, and infrastructural development. Any harm done to Chinese nationals or projects not only threatens this vital relationship but also jeopardizes the growth of existing and future cooperation endeavors.

The security of foreign workers and assets is critical for attracting and maintaining investors, and recent instances convey a troubling message. Pakistan must continue to increase security measures, improve information sharing, and work closely with China to address the underlying reasons for these assaults and restore investor trust in the country. Only then will Pakistan be able to fully capitalize on its strategic location and reap the potential advantages of foreign investment for development and progress.