But while Pakistan has been trying consistently to provide protection, Chinese personnel have died regularly in attacks on them in Pakistan. This is casting a shadow on the so-called all-weather friends.
A lot of explaining to do - Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a recent visit to China.
In the recent prominent development between China and Pakistan, Chinese President Xi Jingpin met with the Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Both the leaders wholeheartedly reiterated the commitment to mutual strategic cooperation and a cordial economic partnership between the two countries. However, this show of support in front of the whole world may not be the whole picture of the China-Pakistan relations.
This was evident in the handout the Chinese side issues after the Shehbaz Sharif-Xi Jingping meeting. It noted, "President Xi expressed his great concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in Pakistan, and conveyed his hope that Pakistan will provide a reliable and safe environment for Chinese institutions and personnel working on cooperation projects there." This observation made by Xi Jinping was made largely in the context of the security threats that the Chinese personnel face within Pakistan as there has been a considerable increase in the instances of targeted attacks among Chinese civilians residing in the country.
In one of the recent incidents that sparked attention, a Chinese Pakistani dual national was attacked by a lone shooter in Karachi. The targeted individual, Dr. Richard Hu Lee owned a dental clinic along with his wife, Margaret. It was revealed that the Pakistani attacker managed to kill Lee’s assistant, Richard Chow while injuring the other two. Even though no individual came forward to claim responsibility for the attack, it was clear that this particular attack is not an isolated incident. It was earlier the same year that a suicide bomb attack was orchestrated in the Confucius Institute of Karachi University.
The incident led to the deaths of four civilians, including three Chinese nationals and one Pakistani driver. It is claimed that the attack was carried out by the Baloch militant groups. The attack can hence be seen as a part of the larger Balochistan question wherein the Baloch separatists have categorically targeted the Chinese nationals as a part of their rebel against the Pakistani state.
The role of Baloch separatists
Balochistan remains to be one of the most conflicted and economically underdeveloped areas of Pakistan. Over the years the neglect of the region has sparked various separatist sentiments and conflicts of identity. The militants have often taken a recourse to an aggressive approach largely translating into attacks against civilians and Pakistani authorities. However, in another course of action the separatists have also started initiating targeted attacks against Chinese nationals. The primary reason behind this could be the penetration of the Chinese economic initiatives in the region backed up largely by the Pakistani state.
At the base of these Chinese economic initiatives is the Chinese Belt and Road Project which also involves the creation of a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) whose projects are worth between $40-60 billion (a lot of Pakistan's hope of rebuilding its flailing economy is based on CPEC's success). Now, this economic corridor is aimed to run across Pakistan which would make shipment of goods through China easier. At the heart of this project lies the Gwadar Port, which is a part of the Balochistan region. As a consequence to this initiative, there has been a considerable increase in Chinese investment activities within Balochistan. Chinese state owned companies have been increasing steadfastly in the region that may threaten the interests of the natives of Balochistan. This is because the Baloch separatists view these developments as a tool in the hands of the Pakistani state to quell the separatist movement overall.
The suicide bomb attack in Karachi was carried out by a Baloch woman named 'Shari Baloch' who became the first female suicide bomber of the Majeeb Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA had categorically warned the Chinese state that more attacks on the Chinese personnel and civilians would follow. The threats have been so direct that the Chinese nationals were asked to leave the country or face grave consequences: “The Baloch Liberation Army guarantees you that CPEC will fail miserably on Baloch land, you still have time to quit Balochistan, or you will witness a retaliation from Baloch sons and daughters that you will never forget:, these were the words of the Baloch commander to the Chinese President Xi Jingping. The Chinese foreign ministry, on the other hand, asserted that “the blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain and those behind this incident will pay the price.”
Prior to the attack in April, there have been instances of other Baloch crackdowns on Chinese nationals. It was in 2018 that another suicide bomb attack was carried out on the Chinese engineers in the Dalbadin area of Balochistan. Even an attack on the Chinese consulate was claimed by the Baloch militants. The attack has left about seven people dead including two policemen and a private security guard. These attacks are a direct indication of the Baloch opposition to the Chinese economic succession and investment activities in their region.
Chinese Fleeing Pakistan
Amidst the constant attacks and direct threats from separatist organisations, the Chinese nationals in Pakistan fear for their security. Civilians are reportedly aiming to leave the country in the face of the growing anti Chinese sentiments in the country. In the face of such constant attacks, it can be argued that the Chinese confidence in the security situation in Pakistan must be shaking in this regard. It was primarily after the April suicide bomb attack in Karachi that the Chinese nationals resorted to leaving the country in search of greater security.
It was also in the midst of these attacks that the Chinese Mandarin teachers were called back from Pakistan. This widely suggests that the Chinese government also seems alarmed by these developments and in this case there would be a greater focus to ensure security of their own citizens.
Implications on the China Pakistan Relations
The attacks on the Chinese nationals are not an isolated development and hence they are a part of the larger opposition to growing Chinese activities within the country, especially Balochistan. Balochistan in itself has remained a sensitive issue for Pakistani domestic policy however, in this case it might trickle to affect the Pakistani policies regarding China as well. This is because the attacks on its nations is largely viewed as a security issue for China and amidst the growing talk of greater cooperation in economic and security areas, this can lead to some cracks in the partnership between the two countries.
As per the official reports, the Chinese population was growing at a very high pace in Pakistan, with a projected rise to about five million Chinese nationals within the country. These officials majorly contribute to economic activities and investment projects within Pakistan but they also contribute to enhancing the cultural links between the two countries. However, the rising instances of such attacks may hamper their growing relationship, especially in the context of the breakthrough CPEC which forms c critical the basis of their current cooperation. Put simply, the Chinese are increasingly worried that if this violence continues and the body count continues to rise, CPEC might never get completed. This would be a disaster for both China and Pakistan.