Trade Meets Terrorism
Four people have been confirmed dead after militants attacked the Chinese consulate in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. Two police officers were among the victims of the attack, which was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – a separatist militant group which argues that Chinese investment in Pakistan is against national interests.
The attack occurred on Friday morning when gunshots were heard in the upmarket Clifton area where the consulate is based. Three gunmen had tried to storm the compound but were stopped at a checkpoint by security guards and then ultimately shot dead. The BLA claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they saw the Chinese – along with the Pakistani forces – as oppressive. It’s believed the attack was motivated by Chinese investment and construction projects – the majority of which are linked to the development of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). All of the Chinese consulate staff were confirmed to be safe, while the Pakistani government condemned the attack. A heightened security presence remains throughout the area; however, authorities in Beijing have expressed concern over the safety of Chinese citizens in Pakistan and have called for strengthened security measures to be established around the consulate.
Friday’s attack was significant in that it was a direct attack on the Chinese government; however, this is not the first time Chinese interests have been targeted by groups opposed to the CPEC. In August earlier this year, three people were killed when a suicide bomber targeted a group of Chinese engineers in the Balochistan province in an attack later claimed by the BLA. The Karachi attack also came on the same day a suicide bomb explosion targeted a Shia Muslim area in the Orakzai area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing at least 30 people in an attack which has since been claimed by the Islamic State (IS). Although the security situation in Pakistan remains unstable, China is yet to be deterred by militant attacks alone.
The CPEC is part of the wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to establish a regional network of economic interconnectivity. Many have criticised the BRI as a means to establish Chinese dominance in regional economic affairs. The CPEC in particular aims to connect China’s western Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in southern Balochistan. Not only does the project intrench the Chinese government’s hold in the autonomous Xinjiang region, where ethnic Uighur Muslims are systematically oppressed, but the project will also establish China as a key trading partner for Pakistan.
Chinese funding for the project has been crucial, with billions being poured into Pakistan’s infrastructure. The CPEC is intrinsically dependent on Chinese funding and Pakistan has been keen to ensure the safety of the large teams of Chinese national who travel to Pakistan to work on CPEC projects. An estimated 10,000 Pakistani security personnel have allegedly been dedicated to protecting the interests of Chinese workers in Pakistan. While previous targeted attacks, such as the one which occurred in August, have mostly occurred in remote parts of the sparsely-populated region, Friday’s attack was considered more significant because it was carried out in the country’s biggest city.
Although Balochistan is rich in mineral resources, some of the poorest communities in Pakistan reside there – putting local residents and the government at odds. The situation has resulted in violent clashes between Baloch nationalists and the security forces. The BLA claim this is because of the government’s exploitation of the region in the interests of Chinese investment. In an interview following Friday’s attack, BLA commander Aslam Baloch claimed the growing Chinese presence posed a threat to their bid for regional sovereignty. “For the past 15-20 years, Pakistani occupation in Balochistan has turned volatile since China has become its crime partner”, said Baloch, as he accused China of monopolising the resources of the region for CPEC projects. The BLA are more than aware that their insurgency stands little chance against China’s resources as a superpower state; however, the BLA stand firm in their resistance against the alleged occupation and have appealed to international human rights organisations, claiming hundreds of Baloch people have been killed, abducted, or displaced by the Pakistani intelligence agency.
Terrorism isn’t the only issue the CPEC has encountered. Having opened its doors to the large-scale infrastructural projects alongside investment from China, the Pakistani economy has struggled to keep up with the rate of development. The country’s deficit has soared and could force Pakistan into requiring an emergency loan from China – one of its biggest creditors. Separatists claim China’s foreign economic policy is designed to put pressure on aligned countries by making them dependent on Chinese loans. Meanwhile, Pakistan also faces the possibility of being rejected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the Trump administration suspended financial security aid earlier this year, claiming Pakistan had given “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help”. The US holds the largest single-vote in the IMF, granting it significant influence. The recent attack in Karachi may not have significantly hindered the CPEC projects by itself, but it has served to draw attention to the increasing challenges facing Pakistan and China: with violent social and political turmoil at home and mounting economic pressures abroad.