As Violence Surges, Can Pakistan Protect Chinese Projects?

China has invested billions in megaprojects across Pakistan. But a resurgence in militant violence is threatening to derail badly needed investment.

·         Investment in Pakistan, which began in 2015 as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, involves around $60 billion of planned projects.

[ABS News Service/10.07.2024]

In a busy port city along Pakistan’s southwestern coast, a newly built security barrier and hundreds of new checkpoints safeguard Chinese workers.

Farther down the Arabian Sea coast, in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, officials added hundreds of police officers to a special unit charged with protecting Chinese-funded development projects. And in the capital, Islamabad, officials created a new police force specifically to protect Chinese nationals.

Across Pakistan, authorities are hurrying to bolster security for Chinese workers after a surge in militant violence targeting Chinese-funded megaprojects. The attacks have threatened infrastructure, energy and trade projects that have kept Pakistan’s economy afloat through a dire economic crisis.

That investment in Pakistan, which began in 2015 as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, involves around $60 billion of planned projects. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers are thought to be in Pakistan, though estimates vary widely. Chinese investment has proved critical since support from the United States tapered off after the war in neighboring Afghanistan ended in 2021.

The Chinese-funded projects struggled with security challenges from the start. But over the past three years, as militant groups have resurged across Pakistan and the number of terrorist attacks has soared, Chinese investments — or even just projects perceived to have some connection to China — have become increasingly vulnerable.

A series of attacks this spring highlighted that threat. In late March, armed fighters targeted the Chinese-built and operated port in Gwadar along the southwestern coast of the Arabian Sea, killing two Pakistani security officers. Days later, militants attacked the country’s second-largest air base, citing opposition to Chinese investment to extract the region’s resources.

The day after the air base attack, five Chinese workers died after a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden truck into their vehicle. The next month, five Japanese workers were the object of a suicide attack in Karachi after being mistaken for Chinese workers, according to the police. (The Japanese escaped unharmed, but a bystander, who was not a foreigner, was killed.)

“The bottom line is that one of Pakistan’s closest allies and most important donors is now the foreign entity that is the most vulnerable to terrorism in Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

“Pakistan’s economy is in a very precarious state,” he added. “Islamabad can’t afford to have one of its most critical donors feel that level of vulnerability. The stakes are very high.”

Already, the security situation appears to have dampened Beijing’s confidence in investing in Pakistan. Last month, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, visited Beijing and met with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in an effort to secure an additional $17 billion in funding for energy and infrastructure projects. But the visit ended with no firm pledge for future investments from Beijing.

There was a “vague promise to enhance economic cooperation, but these outcomes fell short of the substantial agreements Pakistan had hoped for,” said Filippo Boni, an academic specializing in China-Pakistan relations at the Open University in Britain.

Since the start in 2013 of China’s Belt and Road Initiative — $1 trillion of infrastructure development programs in roughly 70 countries — Pakistan has been the program’s flagship site. Beijing has planned billions of dollars in megaprojects in the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and it has started on several, including the deepwater port in Gwadar.

Along the way, China has also lent more and more to Pakistan as the country has faced a major economic downturn, with inflation hitting double digits and joblessness soaring.

For years, the megaprojects have faced security threats from militant groups operating in Pakistan, including the Islamic State affiliate in the region; armed separatists; and the Pakistani Taliban, an ideological twin and ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Many harbor grievances against China, experts say. The Islamic State and Pakistani Taliban seek revenge for Beijing’s repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. In recent years, both groups have begun collaborating with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur organization that China has long accused of inciting unrest in Xinjiang, according to a United Nations Security Council report released in January.

Others, like the Baluch Liberation Army, an armed separatist group in Baluchistan Province, oppose outsiders — including Pakistan’s central government and China — benefiting from the province’s natural resources.

“They view Chinese development efforts as reinforcing Pakistan’s central government, which they perceive as oppressive,” said Iftikhar Firdous, an expert on armed groups with The Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based research platform.

Over the past three years, violence from those groups has surged, an increase that many experts attribute to the Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials have accused the Taliban government of offering safe haven to some groups, like the Pakistani Taliban, which they say has allowed violence to flourish.

The Afghan government has denied those claims, and it has cracked down on other terrorist groups within the country, including the Islamic State. But one result of that was to push militant fighters into Pakistan, experts say.

As violence has rebounded across Pakistan, so, too, have attacks on Chinese workers and projects.

Seeking to rebuild Beijing’s confidence, in recent months Pakistani authorities have bolstered the ranks of a dedicated security division within the police and military established in 2015 to safeguard Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects. They have discussed additional fencing around the port in Gwadar, the centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

But the country’s law enforcement is already overstretched, officials say. Police and army officers are ill-equipped to confront militants, many of whom are armed with American-made weapons procured from Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdrew. More focus on protecting Chinese nationals could come at the expense of protecting Pakistanis, they warn.

Chinese officials have urged Pakistan to let private Chinese security contractors protect its projects in the country, an idea Pakistani authorities have rejected.

The countries have also been at odds about other approaches to coping with the threat from the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P., said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

Pakistani officials have sought to pressure the Afghan government to act against T.T.P. fighters. At times Pakistan has directly attacked them, officials say, firing airstrikes into Afghanistan and expelling Afghan refugees.

China has taken a more collaborative approach, Mr. Mir said, effectively offering to normalize relations with Afghanistan in the hopes of persuading Taliban officials to negotiate with the T.T.P. on Beijing’s behalf.

Pakistani officials have faced resistance from their own citizens over the recent increase in security measures for Chinese workers.

In Gwadar, hundreds of residents have poured into the streets in recent months to protest the government’s digging a trench to separate the compound where the Chinese live from the rest of the city.

The trench was the latest security measure. Checkpoints line major roads, where every few miles police and army personnel scan identification cards and search vehicles. Hundreds of police and army officers roam the streets. There has been talk of walling off the Chinese-built portion of the city entirely with a new fence.

“Living in Gwadar already feels like living in a security zone,” said Mumtaz Hout, 29, a university student. “Now these new trenches, and the talk of future fencing, are further restricting our movement and violating our basic rights.”