Why Attack Chinese CPEC Related Projects? – OpEd

Let’s explore the reported terrorist attack on a Chinese engineers’ vehicle of the Dasu hydropower project near Besham city in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province on March 26, 2024: The first and most well-known excuse cited whenever a major terrorist incident occurs in the country, the media, security experts, and even state institutions start to make sweeping allegations is that there is a foreign hand in the attacks. The same is the case for the recent Shangla attack especially those targeting Chinese nationals related to projects. Thousands of Chinese engineers and laborers are working in Pakistan. Most of them are associated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is an extension of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure program.

The Pakistani foreign ministry said in a statement; “Today’s attack was orchestrated by the enemies of Pakistan-China friendship. We will resolutely act against all such forces and defeat them, Pakistan will continue to work with our Chinese brothers in ensuring the safety and security of Chinese nationals, projects, and institutions in Pakistan.” The TTP has been projected as the prime suspect, as one of its commanders was declared the mastermind behind a similar attack on the Chinese in Kohistan in 2021.

China seen to Loot Resources by Locals 

Balochistan is the country’s largest province by area but also its poorest, despite being rich in natural resources, including oil, coal, gold, copper, and gas reserves. This has bred accusations from many in Balochistan that successive Pakistani governments have neglected their concerns while exploiting the province and benefitting “foreigners”. 

Significantly, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and other Baloch groups are increasingly targeting Chinese nationals and projects after the inception of CPEC related projects in 2013. Baloch groups target Chinese nationals engaged in economic activities, as they believe that China, in connivance with Islamabad, is exploiting the resources of the province, while denying any benefits to the Baloch people. They believe that CPEC is part of a ‘strategic design’ by China to loot resources and eliminate Pakistani, particularly Baloch, culture, and identity. The USD 65 billion CPEC is a massive series of projects that includes a network of highways, railways, and energy infrastructure, spanning the entire country. CPEC is a flagship project in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Attacks by Baloch separatists and Islamist groups on Chinese nationals and infrastructure in Pakistan have disrupted China’s economic plans, particularly under the CPEC. The BLA has claimed responsibility for some attacks. “Baloch insurgent groups see China as a superpower with an expansionist agenda, which is taking away their resources without their consent.” The $60 billion CPEC, which connects Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan with China’s Xinjiang province, is the flagship project of China’s ambitious multi-billion-dollar BRI. 

Out of 16 attacks directly targeting Chinese nationals, 14 were orchestrated by Baloch groups (12 in Balochistan, two in Sindh). Two attacks were reported from KP out of which one attack was claimed by TTP. One attack on Chinese national in Karachi involved the Sindhi nationalist group, the Sindh Revolutionary Army (SRA). Resulting in 84 deaths including 16 Chinese nationals (data till March 31, 2024). The Baloch separatists view China as an Economic Colonial power which has furthered their sense of alienation and economic deprivation by colluding with the Pakistani state.

History of Militant Groups in the Region

The region has always been difficult to govern. Security institutions, bureaucracy, and the area’s political leadership have tried to run the administration — while compromising on laws and rules. Even in cases of major disputes, the administration tries to resolve them through local jirgas and by involving religious scholars. 

Pakistan’s militant landscape may not be too complex but is diverse. Ideologies, sociopolitical factors, and group dynamics all work within local contexts. Local context and dynamics are more important than broader ideological and political motivations. The state’s history of compromise with militant groups has emboldened them.

Shangla, upper and lower Kohistan, and Battagram districts of the Hazara region in KP and the adjoining Diamer district in Gilgit-Baltistan share religious, social, tribal, ethnic, and cultural codes. The Deobandi school is dominant in the region and blends with conservative social traditions, particularly the honour code. Recently, it has gained notoriety for attacks on Chinese workers involved in development projects in the area.

Security of Chinese Nationals and CPEC Projects?

The latest attack has again targeted Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydropower project. Last July, the Pakistani government decided to form a task force comprising personnel from the Pakistan Army, Punjab Rangers, Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts and police, to ensure “foolproof” security. This attack will bring back China’s past demand to allow private security companies to protect Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan.

Pakistan has refused to allow private Chinese security companies to operate in the country, fearing that allowing private Chinese security companies will not only reflect poorly on their leadership and the military. The country and the world would see the arrival of private Chinese security companies as a precursor to the arrival and stationing of the People’s Liberation Army troops in Pakistan.

“Pak-China friendship higher than Himalayas, deeper than ocean, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel.”Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attack and visited the Chinese Embassy to offer condolences over the death of Chinese nationals in the suicide attack and conveyed his condolences to the victims’ families and the government to China. China and Saudi Arabia are two countries that a new Pakistani prime minister first visits upon taking office. The most recent attack could change the focus of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coming visit to Beijing for any new economic projects in view of the current security measures for Chinese residents and projects. 

China’s MCC to exploit Afghanistan’s Copper 

China was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Afghanistan and it moved fast to congratulate the Taliban government in Kabul. Eyeing to explore ways to begin mining copper at Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) Aynak, Afghanistan’s best-known deposit located about 40 kilometers south-east of the capital and an ancient Buddhist archeological site. The reserves of an estimated 240 million tons of 2.3 percent grade copper are believed to be worth at least $50billion. China’s Jiangxi Copper has a 25 percent stake in MCC Aynak with MCC and a 30-year contract worth $3 billion to develop the deposit, believed to be one of the world’s largest untapped high-grade projects.

China is the biggest consumer of copper, estimated at 51% of global production and owner of numerous copper mines around the world. China’s investments in Afghanistan’s underground resources may soon resume but the Chinese investors will require clearance of the Archaeological authorities. However, the aggravating humanitarian crisis and the desperate pleas for foreign funding by Afghan politicians lead to think that the government will choose China’s investment propositions, even if these come at a huge cost of total exploitation by the Chinese investors who are known for the same.

To the separatists, CPEC and its development projects have worsened their socioeconomic grievances. CPEC was believed to be a game-changer by the Pakistani government, but CPEC has yet to result any material benefits for Balochistan. Gwadar, where the deep-sea port is located, lacks infrastructure, clean drinking water and basic health facilities. Surprisingly Gwadar’s electricity is imported from neighbouring Iran. 

CPEC may fail under its own weight due to local resistance. Pakistan appears to be going the Sri Lanka way like it got sold out through the Hambantota port to China. Pakistan’s CPEC and Gwadar Port will lead them the same garden path. With jihadist groups joining the fray with Baloch separatist groups attacking the Chinese, Pakistan’s new government will find it hard to convince Beijing to start new projects. Without addressing the genuine grievances of the Balochs and working with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to deal with the challenge posed by the TTP. The security situation is unlikely to improve. Afghanistan also needs to learn lessons from the Pakistan story of exploitation of their copper mines in future by the Chinese.