Pakistan-China partnership has existed for decades and since 2014, with the announcement of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for which China wants to invest more than $46 billion in the country, it has further strengthened.
But in recent years, this cooperation has come under a lot of strain due to increasing attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan.
The main responsibility of these attacks has been largely attributed to Baloch separatists from the Balochistan province, which has seen an insurgency since the inception of Pakistan, as the Baloch claim Pakistan to be an occupying force, with China now helping the Pakistani occupiers financially. China is heavily invested in this region as it provides Beijing access to the Indian Ocean, where it wants to expand its strategic military interests.
But the Baloch separatist attacks are not the only cause of concern for the Chinese as now Chinese nationals are facing the wrath of common radicalized Pakistani Muslims. Last month, the Pakistani police was forced to arrest a Chinese national on blasphemy charges after he allegedly insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, a conviction for the offense carries the death penalty.
As per media reports, police identified the man only as Mr. Tian from China and said he was arrested, hours after hundreds of residents and laborers working on a dam project blocked a key highway and rallied to demand his arrest.
According to the police, the accusations arose from a workplace disagreement: Tian allegedly became upset and reprimanded two local drivers for taking too much time from work to pray. Other laborers then claimed he had insulted the prophet.
Already, the work on this dam called Dasu had faced suspension since July 2021, following a deadly suicide attack targeting a bus carrying Chinese and Pakistani nationals in Kohistan district, where the dam is located. The bombing killed 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals.
The Chinese resumed work on the project last year, when Pakistan enhanced security. Pakistani and Chinese engineers are trying to complete the project by 2026.
However, with the issue of the blasphemy case now, the Chinese nationals working on the project have to be even more wary, especially since there are reports that the Pakistani authorities intervened to help the Chinese national escape prosecution, which is rare in blasphemy cases, given the potential public backlash.
ATTACKS PRECEDE THE CPEC PROJECT: RESEARCH
According to an international research report from 2007, targeted attacks against Chinese nationals even pre-date the CPEC project. Between 2004 and 2007 there were four such attacks, killing a number of Chinese nationals. The Pakistani government has repeatedly tried to blame a foreign hand in these attacks, but many Chinese scholars and officials do not subscribe to the ‘foreign hand’ perspective and consider home-grown terrorism and religious extremism within the country to be the causes of these attacks, as per the report.
Alarmingly, in recent years there has been a sharp increase in such onslaughts, with the attack last year in Karachi being one of the boldest against Chinese interests in the country when Shari Baloch, a 31-year-old mother of two, became the first woman to carry out a suicide bombing killing three Chinese citizens and their Pakistani driver in front of the Confucius Institute in the city.
Karachi has seen several more such attacks against Chinese nationals with the most recent one being in September last year, when a man posing as a patient in a dental clinic run by Chinese nationals opened fire at them, killing one and injuring two other Chinese citizens.
Also, last year in May, Pakistan caught another woman attacker who wanted to target a Chinese convoy, along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and recovering the explosive device, according to Pakistani media reports.
In 2019, the CPEC project saw another hit with Baloch separatists storming a five-star hotel in Pakistan‘s port city of Gwadar, killing at least five people. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), an ethnic Baloch separatist group fighting for independence for Balochistan province, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that four fighters were involved.
“Our fighters have carried out this attack on Chinese and other foreign investors who were staying in PC hotel,” said Jihand Baloch, a BLA spokesperson, in a statement emailed to the media.
In 2018, again in the city of Karachi, three suicide attackers of the same Pakistani insurgent group the BLA stormed the Chinese consulate in the city, with the group releasing a statement after the attack stating that it had carried out the attack because “China is exploiting our resources.”
Reportedly, Beijing is becoming more concerned about such security threats to Belt and Road investment projects, which could jeopardize new investment and the completion of projects.
Pakistani authorities have tried to calm concerns of the Chinese government, but have also demanded more financial resources from Beijing to better secure Chinese interests. This has prompted some to wonder if Pakistan is allowing these attacks to happen, in order to profit from more Chinese investments into the security apparatus and infrastructure of the country, controlled by the Pakistani military, known for pocketing such gains.