Pakistan-China: Increasing Pressure

In the second ever worst ever attack, in terms of fatalities, targeting Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan, a vehicle driven by a suicide attacker and laden with explosives rammed a convoy of Chinese workers headed to the Dasu Hydropower Plant project site at Dasu in the Upper Kohistan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), killing at least 13 persons, including nine Chinese, on July 14, 2021. Two buses carrying workers from the China Gezhouba Group Co., a construction company based in Wuhan, China, were badly damaged in the explosion. The Dasu Hydropower Plant project is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project.

The worst attack targeting Chinese nationals, since March 2000, when South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) started compiling data on conflicts in Pakistan, was recorded on July 19, 2007, when a suicide bomber tried to ram his explosive laden vehicle into a van taking Chinese engineers to Karachi from Hub town, at the Gadani Bus Stop in the industrial town of Hub in Balochistan, but missed the target when a Police van blocked its way. At least 30 people, including seven Policemen, were killed and 28 were injured. All seven Chinese engineers, including a woman, remained unhurt. This was also the first ever attack directly targeting Chinese nationals.

According to partial data compiled by the SATP, since July 19, 2007, at least 11 attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals have been recorded thus far, resulting in 67 deaths (data till July 18, 2021). The dead included 10 Chinese nationals, 13 Pakistani Security Force (SF) personnel, 36 Pakistani civilians and eight attackers. Another, 50 persons, including five Chinese nationals, have been injured in these attacks.

Some of the other prominent incidents targeting Chinese nationals include:

April 21, 2021: At least five persons, including four Pakistani civilians and a police official, were killed and another 12 sustained injuries, when a bomb exploded in the parking lot of the Serena Hotel located on the Shahrah-e-Zarghun Road in Quetta, Balochistan. No Chinese national was injured. It was a suicide car bombing, but the terrorists could not enter the main hotel building where a Chinese delegation was staying. The explosion occurred before Chinese ambassador, Nong Rong, who was in Quetta on that day, was to arrive at the hotel. The apparent target of the attack was Nong Rong.

May 11, 2019: Four terrorists stormed the luxury Zaver Pearl-Continental Hotel, in Gwadar, Balochistan. The Hotel had around 70 guests at the time, including 40 Chinese nationals. Nine persons, including four hotel employees, one Pakistan Navy soldier and all four attackers, were killed during the eight-hour long siege. BLA’s ‘Majeed Brigade’ claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was aimed at Chinese and other foreign investors.

November 23, 2018: Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) Fidayeen (suicide attacker) ‘Majeed Brigade’ militants attacked the Chinese Consulate in Block 4 of the Clifton area in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, leaving at least six people dead. However, no Chinese national was hurt in the attack. Three militants were killed in the operation by SFs. BLA claimed that the attackers had been assigned the task to target the Consulate.

February 5, 2018: A Chinese national, Chen Zhu (46), who was a top official at a shipping firm, was shot dead by unknown armed assailants in a targeted attack at Zamzama Park in Clifton, Karachi.

Further, one failed terror attack directly targeting Chinese nationals was recorded during this period. SFs defused a bomb planted on the car of a Chinese restaurant owner in the Clifton locality near Bilawal House in Karachi on December 15, 2020. The car being driven by a Chinese national was the target of the would-be attackers.

At least four Chinese nationals were abducted in three separate incidents during this period: two were killed, one is missing and one was released. On May 24, 2017, a Chinese couple, Lee Zing Yang (24) and Meng Li Si (26), was abducted from the Jinnah Town area of Quetta, and subsequently killed. On June 8, the Islamic State claimed the killings and this was confirmed by Foreign Office on October 30.

Not all the Chinese nationals who were targeted by the terrorists were involved in CPEC projects.

At least 66 Pakistani nationals (including civilians and SF personnel) have been killed in attacks not directly targeting Chinse nationals, but targeting Pakistani nationals associated with the CPEC project during this period. In one such attack, on October 31, 2018, five labourers working at a CPEC-related private housing scheme on the Peshkan-Ganz Road, which links Gwadar and Jewani, were killed when a group of unidentified assailants riding motorcycles appeared on the scene and opened fire near Ganz, some 15 kilometers west of Jiwani town in the Gwadar District. BLA ‘spokesperson’ Azad Baloch, claiming responsibility for the attack, stated,

The site attacked today was part of CPEC project… Today’s attack is a clear message to China and all other countries that Balochistan is an occupied territory. We warn all military and other constructions companies to immediately stop working on their projects in Gwadar or they will be targeted by Baloch fighters.

In another attack intended to hurt Chinese economic interest in Pakistan, at least 11 persons were killed when four terrorists attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) on Chundrigar Road, Karachi, on June 29, 2020. Those killed included four private security Guards, one Policeman, two bystanders and all the four attackers. All the persons killed were Pakistani nationals. Significantly, after the June 29, 2020, attack BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeehand Baloch declared,

China holds about 40% equity in the Pakistan Stock Exchange through the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Future Exchange. That is why the attack was not only aimed at Pakistan’s but also an attack on Chinese economic interests and if China continues to take part in Balochistan’s exploitation they will face more attacks.

There has, for long, been strong resentment in Pakistan against China’s ‘economic design’ and this has grown further after the start of the CPEC project in 2013, as both the civilian population and insurgents believe that CPEC is part of a ‘strategic design’ by China to loot resources and eliminate Pakistani, particularly Baloch, culture and identity. The USD 62 billion CPEC is a massive series of projects that includes a network of highways, railways and energy infrastructure spanning the entire country. CPEC is a flagship project in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Not surprisingly, the Government of Pakistan has deputed an estimated 37,000 security personnel to guard Chinese workers engaged in some 22 projects directly associated with CPEC and another 214 related small and mega projects in Pakistan. These include 15,780 military personnel trained under the umbrella of the Special Security Division (SSD) and the Maritime Security Force (MSF).

Despite this, attacks against Chinese nationals/Chinese economic interests continue in Pakistan and have, in fact, increased. Consequently, Chinese anger is brewing. Indeed, on July 22, 2021, China sent a strong message cancelling the 10th Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting, under the CPEC, for an indefinite period. The meeting was scheduled to take place on July 23. Reports indicate that CPEC projects have significantly slowed down. There was hope in Islamabad that things would change after the JCC meeting. CPEC chairman Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Asim Saleem Bajwa had thus stated, on July 10, “The much-awaited JCC meeting will open new vistas for the CPEC and expedite work on the under-construction projects.” Bajwa noted, further, that normally the JCC met at least once a year, but its 10th meeting was being held after considerable delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 9th JCC meeting was held in November 2019.

Pakistan has, in fact, long been under immense pressure to heed to Chinese demands for a direct military presence to safeguard its interest in the country and its surrounding areas. Indeed, the US Department of Defense a report “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” noted,

Beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.
Though there is no official presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan, reports have emerged from time to time about Chinese troops’ presence inside Pakistan. Way back in 2010, a New York Times report claimed that 7,000 Chinese troops were stationed in Gilgit-Pakistan (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). The Dasu attack will further increase the pressure to allow Chinese bases in Pakistan.

China has repeatedly asked Pakistan to take definitive measures to stop attacks on its projects and citizens. Reiterating the demand in the aftermath of the Dasu attack, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s, stated on July 14, 2021,

China has asked the Pakistani side to thoroughly get to the bottom of this as soon as possible, arrest the perpetrators, severely punish them and earnestly protect the safety of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan.
And again, on July 15,

We have asked the Pakistani side to lose no time in conducting a thorough investigation, properly transfer and treat the wounded, strengthen security measures, eliminate security risks, and ensure the safety and security of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan… The Chinese side will work together with Pakistan to strengthen security measures for bilateral cooperation projects and ensure the safety and security of all Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan.

With the economic situation worsening every day, Pakistan is no position to anger its “all-weather-friend.” It needs to take immediate and definitive measures to stop attacks on Chinese. However, this will be a difficult task for Islamabad, as its policy of supporting ‘good terrorists’ has created an environment that enables all kinds of armed groups. Inevitably, moreover, as Islamabad’s desperation and ineffectiveness grow, and as the US dilutes its military commitments in the country, the probabilities of a significant Chinese military presence on Pakistani soil can only grow.