As Terror Attacks Target Chinese in Pakistan, Ruptures in the ‘Iron Brotherhood’

CPEC Chinese China Pakistani flags

Five Chinese nationals were killed when a suicide-attacker rammed his explosive-laden car into into a bus transporting staff from Islamabad to the 4,320-megawatt Dasu hydropower project project in Besham Tehsil, Shangla District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Mrach 26. There has been a spate of attacks targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, that has sent a ripple of anxiety all the way to Beijing. The attack has led to suspension of work at the dam project part of the multibillion-dollar flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The Besham attack is not an isolated targeting of the Chinese working in Pakistan. There have been a series of assaults in a span of a few days specifically targeting Chinese interests, including recent attacks at the Gwadar Port Authority Complex and the Naval base in Turbat in Balochistan, which have also been developed under the aegis of the CPEC.

The tragic incident at Besham is eerily reminiscent of the July 2021 attack in which 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals were killed when a coach carrying them to an under-construction tunnel site of the same Dasu hydropower project fell into a ravine in the Upper Kohistan area after an explosion.

The Chinese embassy has demanded investigations into the attack. In its statement the embassy said, “The Chinese embassy and consulates in Pakistan have immediately launched emergency work, demanding that the Pakistani side conduct a thorough investigation into the attack, severely punish the perpetrators and take practical and effective measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens.” Investigators from China have reached Pakistan to probe the death of five Chinese nationals and Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi met the investigators at the Chinese Embassy to brief them on the investigation. On 1 April, Pakistani police said that they had arrested 12 people in connection with the attack.

When questioned about how the terrorist attack has affected China-Pakistan cooperation and bilateral relations, Press Conference on March 27, 2024 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lin Jian responded, “Immediately after the attack, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan activated the emergency response mechanism”… “We asked Pakistan to speed up the hunt for the perpetrators, punish them by law, let justice be done for the victims, and take effective steps to protect the safety and security of Chinese personnel in Pakistan.”

In recent days other CPEC-related projects have been targeted in Pakistan. On March 20, Baloch insurgents who strongly oppose China’s investments in Balochistan, stormed the Gwadar Port Authority complex armed with automatic assault weapons. A day before the Beshamattack, on March 25th, Baloch insurgents launched an audacious attempt to infiltrate the Pakistan naval air base in Turbat. Pakistan’s second-largest naval air station PNS Siddique in Turbat, which deploys Chinese drones, is strategically important within the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project.

While the Majeed Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army has taken responsibility for both the attacks in Balochistan, the attack on the bus carrying Chinese personnel to Besham in KP remains unclaimed by any group.

A year ago, on April 26, 2022 three Chinese nationals, were killed while four others were injured in a suicide attack outside the University of Karachi’s (KU) Confucius Institute. The Chinese consulate in Karachi was also attacked in November 2018.

This time however there appears to have been a stranger response on the part of Beijing. In an article for Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn, Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies the attack has caused “significant alarm” and aside from impeding crucial infrastructure projects, it has “shaken the confidence of Chinese nationals working in Pakistan.” Rana says , “Chinese companies have suspended work on at least three critical hydropower projects: the Dasu dam, the Diamer-Basha dam, and the Tarbela 5th.”

Despite statements by both Islamabad and Beijing, professing solidarity, and confidence in their ‘iron brotherhood’ there are reports of the Chinese side having expressed anger and frustration with Pakistan regarding lack of security — these complaints are escalating to senior levels of the Pakistan army who are expected to comply with Chinese demands.

In fact on April 5, more than a week after five Chinese engineers were killed in Bisham, President Asif Ali Zardari had to personally assure Chinese Ambassador Jiang Zaidong that security will be provided to all Chinese nationals working on different projects in Pakistan. Despite these reassurances there is palpable fear among the Chinese personnel working in Pakistan. Accoding to the Interpretor, Chinese companies suspended civil works on both the Dasu and Diamer–Bhasha dam projects in the aftermath of the suicide attack. Almost a thousand Chinese engineers working on both projects have stopped work.

Quoting government sources, the newspaper Dawn reported that the Chinese company, Power Construction Corporation of China (PCCC), had suspended civil works at the Tarbela 5th Extension Hydropower Project in the Swabi district of KP province and laid off over 2,000 workers after the killing of Chinese nationals in the suicide attack. The report said that the suspension of work on the 1,530 megawatts Tarbela extension project (T5) was notified by the manager of the PCCC, and that the project’s site workers and office staff members had been laid off until further orders due to security reasons. A later report said that PCCC has formally called its workers back to duty by SMSes.

Pakistan meanwhile rather than conducting proper investigations has decided to play terror victim and blame the attack on “foreign entities” who wish to harm the relations between Pakistan and China and disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

Rather than focusing on a sharp investigation, Pakistan’s PM Shehbaz engaged in hyperbole, “I visited the Chinese embassy just after this cowardly terrorist attack carried out by our enemies who want to disturb and damage our friendship which is higher than Himalayas and deeper than ocean, and offered sincerest condolences on behalf of me and the nation to the Chinese people and government.” These baseless allegations are in fact a cover up for the range of internal security problems that Pakistan has failed to address. Despite raising an entire special security division (SSD) to provide protection to Chinese contractors and workers along CPEC, sustained attacks on the Chinese indicate the level of opposition that CPEC projects face.

In January this year, massive protests broke out in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir against Pakistan’s exploitative policies in the region and the protesters also blocked the China-built Karakoram Highway. The displaced residents of the area whose houses have been demolished and farm lands acquired have been opposing the multi-billion dollar CPEC which passes through the region.

Several reports also indicate a growing discord at the working levels between the Chinese and Pakistani sides. Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz is reported to have alleged that, “The Chinese living here do not want to follow security discipline. They are resentful when they are asked to follow security protocols. They don’t want to come under any discipline as they fret over it,” attesting that there is discordance between the two sides over security issues.

Last year in Mansehra, a Chinese national named Tian had to be rescued from a mob which was accusing him of committing blasphemy. The Chinese worker at Dasu hydropower project, was arrested on some fake charges and kept at the Police Lines in Abbottabad to ensure his safety. The reality is that no foreign worker in Pakistan, even a Chinese is safe and can be targeted by radical mobs even at the slightest hint of anything perceived as blasphemous. Recall the horrific lynching and burning of 49-year-old Sri Lankan PK Diyawadana on 3 December 2021 in Pakistan’s Sialkot. The mob was later taking selfies with Diyawadana’s dead body.

Furthermore, massive corruption impairs Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC in Pakistan. Incidents of violence by Chinese workers or contractors against Pakistani workers at construction sites and security men remain hushed up and are rarely addressed.

Chinese and Pakistani officials frequently tout CPEC as a game-changer which is ‘progressing well,’ but on several occasions officials in private discussions point to problems in the execution of the $62 billion dollar project. There is lack of clarity about the status of projects and transparency issues like energy privatisation, expansion of coal plants, payment issues.

With compounding security worries for China, reports of corruption and disagreements over functioning, there has been hardly any work on the CPEC. Whether openly voiced or not it can be surmised that development and construction of the economic and transport corridor connecting Gwadar and Kashgar has been negatively affected by the ever rising violence in Pakistan.

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