03/28/2024, 17.31
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Chinese investments under attack in Pakistan, a problem for Beijing and Islamabad

Three Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in Pakistan have been hit in seven days. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharf is set to visit to China next month to boost the economic ties but, for analysts, new projects are not likely to materialise. While the latest suicide bombing has not been claimed, several groups have reasons to go after the Chinese.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – On Tuesday, five Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver were killed in a suicide bombing in Besham, a city about 270 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The attack, the third in seven days against Chinese interests, follows a series of similar incidents in recent years that could jeopardise Beijing's investments in Pakistan.

The Chinese engineers who were victims of the attack were heading to Dasu, where a US$ 4.2 billion dam is under construction as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative launched by China in 2013.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen condemned the attack, while reiterating the importance of relations between the two countries, which are not only “all-weather strategic cooperative partners,” but also “ironclad brothers”.

Nevertheless, “China calls on Pakistan to promptly investigate the incident, make every effort to arrest those responsible and bring them to justice, and take practical and effective measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens," China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Any attempt to undermine China-Pakistan cooperation will never succeed,” it added.

In response to the attack, Pakistan has formed a committee to probe the attack. Lacking domestic capital, Pakistan depends heavily on Chinese investments (US$ 62 billion for CPEC).

Unlike the past, no group, neither the Pakistani Taliban, nor the Baloch separatists, or the local cells of the Islamic State (IS) group have claimed responsibility for the attack in Besham.

According to several analysts, the attack was probably carried out by mercenary terrorists.

For researcher Khuram Iqbal, jihadists-for-hire “move from one [militant] organisation to the other,” and rarely pursue jihad for ideological reasons,” but rather “act pragmatically, quite often for financial incentives.”

The Dasu dam was already the target of an attack in 2021 blamed on the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban; in the incident, 13 Chinese and four Pakistanis were killed in a bus as it made its way to the site.

Last week, Baloch separatists carried out an attack in the port of Gwadar (the flagship of the China-Pakistan economic corridor) and a naval base in Balochistan, southwestern Pakistan. Locals strongly believe that local resources are being plundered by Beijing.

This is nothing new. The Balochistan Liberation Army carried out other attacks against the Chinese, including targets unrelated to investments.

In April 2022, a female suicide bomber blew herself up just outside Karachi University, killing three Chinese teachers and their Pakistani driver.

The Islamic State (IS) also has its own reasons for going after Chinese interests. According to analyst Zaigham Khan, IS militants are angered by China’s abusive treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic Muslim group living in Xinjiang, an autonomous region located on the border with Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Regardless of who is behind the attacks, they pose a serious problem for Islamabad. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is expected to visit Beijing next month to boost trade with China, but economics is likely to take a back seat.

The “Chinese will not go ahead with any major economic engagement with Pakistan," said Muhammad Shoaib, an assistant professor at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. "China is also concerned about political instability in Pakistan”.

Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, agrees.

“Economic stress in Pakistan [has] essentially put in place an unofficial moratorium on launching major new projects. The idea is to finish what has already been started," Kugelman explained.

Beijing could ask for the intervention of Chinese personnel to ensure the safety of its own citizens, a request Islamabad has repeatedly refused in the past.

“It may not be long before China demands to bring in its own security personnel, which would be an embarrassment for Pakistan and something it would much rather avoid," Kugelman noted.

Indeed, the latest “attack could intensify what has long been a rare bilateral tension point," he added.


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