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Chinese Quicksand in Pakistan

Pakistan’s security challenges with regard to the CPEC projects and their Chinese workers go far deeper than a question of providing ‘fool proof’ security to the small sub-set of Chinese nationals in the country, and reach well beyond into the much more intractable issues of economic inequalities, ethnic injustice, the rape of resources, and brutal suppression in the less favoured provinces of the country.

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[ Photo credit: balochistan.gov.pk ]

On March 26, 2024, at least six persons – five Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver – were killed when their convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber in the Besham area of Shangla District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). A convoy of 12 vehicles, nine of them carrying Chinese nationals and three escorting vehicles of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, were on their way to the Dasu Hydropower Project in Upper Kohistan from Islamabad, when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into the convoy, targeting a bus carrying Chinese nationals. While no group has claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a statement denying involvement in the attack.

Chinese workers engaged in the same Dasu Project were earlier targeted on July 14, 2021, when a vehicle driven by a suicide attacker and laden with explosives rammed a convoy of Chinese workers headed to the Dasu Hydropower project site in the Upper Kohistan District, killing at least 13 persons, including nine Chinese. KP Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) DIG Javed Iqbal, had then said that the attackers were from Afghanistan. While Khalid alias Sheikh was identified as the suicide bomber, Muhammad Tariq Rafiq, a TTP ‘commander’, was identified as the ‘mastermind’ behind the attack.

Notably, the first and also the worst attack targeting Chinese nationals 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. The attacker missed the target when a Police van blocked its way. At least 30 people, including seven Policemen, were killed and 28 were injured. However, all seven Chinese engineers, including a woman, remained unhurt. This was also the first attack directly targeting Chinese nationals.

According to partial data compiled by SATP, since July 19, 2007, at least 16 attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals have been recorded in Pakistan (12 in Balochistan, two in Sindh and two in KP), resulting in 84 deaths (data till March 31, 2024). The dead included 16 Chinese nationals, 13 Pakistani SF personnel, 42 Pakistani civilians and 13 attackers. Another, 53 persons, including six Chinese nationals, were injured in these attacks.

Some of the other prominent targeted incidents in which Chinese nationals were killed include:

  • September 28, 2022: Unidentified gunmen killed a Chinese man, Ronald Raymond Chou, in a private dental clinic at Saddar in Karachi. The clinic was run by a Chinese national Dr. Richard Hu, along with his wife Phen Teyin and their assistant Ronald Raymond Chou.
  • On November 3, 2022, the CTD arrested one Sindh Revolutionary Army (SRA) terrorist, identified as Afzal Lund aka Aafi, from the Gulistan-i-Jauhar area of Karachi, for involvement in the attack on the Chinese dentists.
  • April 26, 2022: Five persons, including three Chinese nationals, their Pakistani driver and a security guard, were killed when a women suicide bomber blew herself up near a van transporting Chinese nationals from a Karachi University hostel to the Confucius Institute in Karachi. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) had claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter, releasing the image and name of the attacker, Fidayeen (suicide cadre) Shaari Baloch alias Bramsh, of the Majeed Brigade of the BLA. Shaari Baloch was the first Baloch woman suicide bomber.
  • 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.
  • June 8, 2027: A Chinese couple, Lee Zing Yang (24) and Meng Li Si (26), who had been abducted on May 24 from the Jinnah Town area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, were killed by Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) terrorists.

Meanwhile, there have been several attacks which were not directly targeting Chinese nationals, but intended to hurt Chinese economic interests in Pakistan.

Most recently, the attack in the night of March 25 on the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Siddique Naval Airbase in the Turbat city of Kech District in Balochistan, in which seven persons (six BLA militants and one Frontier Corps soldier) were killed, was not particularly directed against Chinese interest, but the BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand Baloch, while claiming responsibility for the attack, warned China about its involvement in the region, threatening severe attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Balochistan unless China ceases exploitative activities and support for the Pakistani military.

In a major attack, not directly targeting Chinese nationals, but intended to hurt Chinese economic interests in Pakistan, at least 11 persons were killed when four terrorists attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange 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 this attack BLA ‘spokesperson’ Jeeyand 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.

Significantly, the BLA and other Baloch groups are increasingly targeting Chinese nationals and projects after the inception of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)-related projects in 2013. Baloch groups target Chinese nationals engaged in economic activities, as they believe that China, in connivance with Islamabad, is exploiting the resources of the province, while denying any benefits to the Baloch people. They believe that CPEC is part of a ‘strategic design’ by China to loot resources and eliminate Pakistani, particularly Baloch, culture and identity. The USD 65 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 (BRI).

Out of 16 attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals, 14 were orchestrated by Baloch groups (12 in Balochistan, two in Sindh). Two attacks were reported from KP out of which one attack was claimed by TTP. One attack on Chinese national in Karachi involved the Sindhi nationalist group, the Sindh Revolutionary Army (SRA).  

These attacks continue despite Pakistan’s best efforts and assurances to China that all such attacks would be thwarted. The News reported on March 5, 2018, that by March 2018, Pakistan had deployed 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 included 15,780 military personnel trained under the Special Security Division (SSD) and the Maritime Security Force (MSF). Current force deployment are believed to be considerably higher, however, estimates are not publicly available.

Not surprisingly, China is losing confidence, After the April 26, 2022, attack, media sources reported on June 28 that China wanted its own security company to guard its citizens and assets in Pakistan. The Chinese Ministry of State Security asked Pakistan to allow a Chinese security company to operate inside the country. Islamabad, however, denied the request.

Again, on September 25, 2022, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a media statement declaring that Beijing was not satisfied with the security arrangements for the Chinese companies and nationals working on CPEC projects across Pakistan. The Foreign Ministry disclosed that Chinese diplomats met with their Pakistani counterparts on the sidelines of the United Nation General Assembly (UNGA) summit at that time, where they asked for tighter security arrangements. According to reports, after not being able to repay the debt owed to power companies and providing additional security to Chinese nationals, the Pakistani Government failed to restore China’s confidence.

Later, the then Federal Minister of Interior in Pakistan Rana Sanaullah, while visiting Gwadar on February 12, 2023, announced that ‘fool proof security’ would be provided to Chinese nationals in Gwadar Port. After visiting Gwadar and reviewed security arrangements for the Chinese nationals, Sanaullah declared, “All locals and foreign nationals would be provided fool proof security.”

Again, on September 6, 2023, KP Police Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Hazara Range, Mohammad Ijaz Khan, stated that security for Chinese nationals working on mega energy projects in Upper Kohistan District had been enhanced. He, however, cautioned, “Though we have beefed up security of Chinese engineers and labourers at the sites of Dasu Hydropower and other projects, you should be extra vigilant.” 

The March 26, 2024, attack again highlights the inherent weakness of the Pakistani security establishment in providing security to the Chinese nationals and interests, as well as the domestic frictions CPEC has sharpened. This created an environment of fear among the Chinses companies and people engaged in work in Pakistan. Indeed, the Chinese company, Gezhouba Group Company, on March 27, 2024, halted construction on two major dam projects – the Dasu Dam in KP and Diamer Bhasha Dam in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Chinese company has demanded that Pakistani authorities come up with new security plans before reopening the sites, where around 1,250 Chinese nationals are working. “Around 750 Chinese engineers are engaged in the Dasu Dam project, while 500 are working on the Diamer Bhasha Dam,” an unnamed senior official from the KP interior department disclosed on condition of anonymity. He said the movement of Chinese engineers has been restricted to the compounds where they live, close to the sites.

Pakistan’s security challenges with regard to the CPEC projects and their Chinese workers go far deeper than a question of providing ‘fool proof’ security to the small sub-set of Chinese nationals in the country, and reach well beyond into the much more intractable issues of economic inequalities, ethnic injustice, the rape of resources, and brutal suppression in the less favoured provinces of the country. While these inequities have been repeatedly documented and have been taken note of, particularly by the Supreme Court of Pakistan which has called for urgent redress, Islamabad remains obdurately on the path that has created chaos in the country over the past many decades. The surge in terrorist activities in the country, including targeted attacks against Chinese interests, is unlikely to be permanently contained if it is approached simply as a security threat, even as the fundamentals of the protracted conflict are ignored. 

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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