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Security and the Belt and Road: A Critical Analysis of Threats to Chinese Nationals and Businesses in Pakistan

Dr. Jawad Syed

In the wake of the recent tragic and regrettable terror attack against Chinese engineers in Pakistan, it may be useful to refer to the findings of my study on ‘Security and the Belt and Road: A Critical Analysis of Threats to Chinese Nationals and Businesses in Pakistan’ (published as a chapter in my book titled ‘China’s Belt and Road Initiative in a Global Context: Volume II: The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its Implications for Business’, published by Palgrave in 2020).

In the recent attack on 14 July 2021, at least 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals, were killed in an explosion that sent a bus hurtling down a mountainside in Pakistan. The bus was carrying more than 30 people to a hydropower plant site in the remote upper Kohistan region. The Dasu hydropower project is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – an investment and infrastructure plan that includes a network of roads, railways and pipelines between the two countries. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged Pakistan to punish those responsible and protect the safety of Chinese citizens in the country. He said: “China has asked Pakistan to thoroughly investigate the truth as soon as possible, capture the perpetrators, punish them severely, and effectively protect the safety of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan.”

It may be noted that the area where the recent attack took place has witnessed Takfiri Islamist attacks in the past such as the 2013 massacre of 10 foreign mountaineers in Nanga Parbat and the 2012 massacres of Shia Muslims in Chilas and Babusar.

In the aforementioned chapter, I draw a pattern of violence based on data of all notable attacks on Chinese nationals and China- or CPEC-related workers in Pakistan from 2001 to 2017. The analysis reveals that attacks by Takfiri Islamist (Khwarij) militant groups or suspects are the most serious, not only in terms of the number of attacks but also in terms of deaths, injuries and abductions. The study shows that 54% of all attacks on Chinese or CPEC-related projects have been carried out by Takfiri Islamist or Khawarij groups, 31% by Baloch separatists, and 15% by others or those unknown. Both of these militant groups pose a threat not only to the physical security of Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan, but also to the very ideology of the nation-states of Pakistan and China, and the idea of the Belt and Road.

As a rising global power, China is discovering that its ascendancy to economic and political power is paved with great risks. This trend is reflected in recent attacks against Chinese citizens and commercial projects in South and Central Asia. While some of these attacks have roots in the Islamist and separatist insurgency in XUAR, others have roots in transnational Takfiri Islamist and regional nationalist or separatist ideologies.

In my chapter’s conclusion, I note that with varying intensity and frequency, incidents of violence against Chinese as well as Pakistani workers on CPEC-related projects continue to take place in Pakistan. Needless to say, CPEC’s success will be determined by investors’ confidence and their ability to successfully conduct their operations. If these attacks continue, the very scheme that is hoped to revolutionize Pakistan’s industrial and socioeconomic development may be at great risk. Since India and the USA are concerned about the increasing cooperation between China and Pakistan, they are likely to use these incidents as an excuse to criticize the very idea of the Belt and Road and try to hurt CPEC. For CPEC to move forward, militant activities by the TTP, LeJ, BLA and other violent groups cannot continue unchecked. Indeed, the much anticipated socioeconomic and strategic advantages inherent therein for trade across China, Pakistan and Central Asia cannot be reaped unless both forms of militancy are comprehensively addressed and eliminated.