China has been perturbed about the incident leading to the killing of 9 Chinese citizens in a suicide blast in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The deep-rooted fear that the Chinese have of such incidents being repeated has led them to discuss the issue with Pakistan Foreign Minister Mahmood Kureshi and ISI chief Faiz Hameed, who visited China on July 23. Besides a number of issues discussed by both sides, the safety and security of Chinese workers dominated the meeting.
The Chinese have been wanting assurances for the safety of the Chinese nationals consistently and the Pakistan establishment has found it to be most challenging to ensure this in a landmarked by the presence of various militant entities and consistent violence and terrorism, intelligence sources said.
China’s concern is that while it has been showcasing Pakistan as the classic example of success associated with the BRI project, such incidents could cause serious damage to the Chinese initiative, leading to a negative drift.
Sources said that those well versed with Chinese operational tactics in such situations feel that China would want serious commitment from the Pakistani side to safeguard their interests or else it will stall the projects. The Chinese have also been concerned about the manner of handling of the case by the Pakistani authorities with initial efforts to project the incident as a result of vehicle failure.
This has led to a lack of trust between the two sides and resulted in the Chinese sending a team of officials to investigate the matter, without depending on the Pakistanis. China has been increasingly concerned about the safety of its projects and the personnel deployed on these projects, as any escalation of such attacks could seriously dampen the interest among Chinese companies to invest in Pakistan.
In the ever-fluid security situation in Pakistan, where numerous groups and militant entities operate at different levels without any semblance of clear allegiance, it is indeed challenging for the Pakistani security establishment to keep the Chinese workers safe and secure.
In December 2020, Chinese businessmen came under attack in Karachi, ostensibly by a lesser-known organization — Sindheedesh Revolutionary Army (SRA).
In May 2017, two Chinese nationals were killed in Balochistan. At that stage, the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the killings. In 2017, the Chinese had significant inputs about the likely targeting of Chinese nationals by various entities in Pakistan. This resulted in the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad issuing a warning (in December 2017) to all Chinese nationals and companies investing in Pakistan of an imminent “terrorist attack” on Chinese targets.
Chinese nationals were provided with special briefs by the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad with detailed instructions on how to deal with an exigency situation involving targeted attacks and also awareness building about local culture, tradition and living style.
They were given leads in the Pakistan Army and police at the locations where they were deployed as part of projects undertaken by Chinese companies so that they could depend on the army/police for security support.
The December 2017 warning could have been based on incidents of targeted attacks on Chinese assets during 2015 and 2016. Chinese workers have been the target of various Pakistani terror organisations ever since they set up a base in Pakistan as part of the CPEC project and other related activities.
As early as in May 2004, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) had gunned down three Chinese port workers at Gwadar in Balochistan province. In 2013, five oil tankers carrying fuel for a Chinese mining company at Saindak, Balochistan, came under fire by militant groups.
Sources said that China has been mainly concerned about the attacks by ETIM cadres or their co-opted groups on Chinese nationals and projects. Every incident of attack on Chinese nationals in Pakistan is critically investigated by them to ensure that there is no linkage to ETIM and related groups.
China continues to remain concerned about the Uighur threat ever since it faced the wrath of the group inside China as long back as the 1990s.
At that stage, Uighur militants targeting the Chinese operated out of bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. In 1997, a Kazakh-based Uighur had carried out a blast in a bus in Beijing and in August 2016, an ETIM bomber had rammed a car into the gates of the Chinese Embassy in the Kyrghyz capital of Bishkek.
In one of the daring incidents in August 2015, two suspected ETIM militants carried out a bomb attack in the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, killing 20 people, including five Chinese nationals.
The location was chosen intentionally since it is visited by Chinese tourists often and Thailand was chosen because of the action by the Thai government in repatriating around 100 Uighurs to China to face persecution.
As long as China indulges in the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, the threat to Chinese interests would exist from groups such as the TTP, IS and Al-Qaeda, which has traditionally objected to the brutal violation of human rights in Xinjiang.
The IS had also threatened the Chinese government in a video released in March 2017 against the repressive policies of China in Xinjiang. There is no doubt that groups such as the ETIM can operate more freely and with ease in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they could get the support of other militant organisations based on common sympathy and mutual regard.
Sources said that operating in these territories with the help of other entities and using their cover prevents the ETIM from being identified as involved in such crimes.
Moreover, the ETIM would want the responsibility for such attacks on the Chinese to be shared by a variety of militant groups to portray the larger spread of hatred among the Islamic militant groups against the Chinese.
The fact that the Chinese have sent an investigating team to probe the case of the latest blast in Pakistan is also an indication of the low degree of trust that exists between the two sides.
The visit by the Chinese investigating team has also led to strong objections from different sections of the media, which claimed that such a practice is damaging to the credibility of the Pakistani security establishments.
There is no doubt that with the situation getting increasingly complex in Afghanistan and the possibility of heightened activation by radical Islamic groups, Chinese assets in Pakistan could be targeted more frequently by Pakistan-based militant groups working in cohorts with the ETIM.
Any amount of promise by Pakistan on this count will not hold good as the Pakistan government and security forces have themselves not been able to secure their critical institutions from such attacks.
The attack on the military school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed 149 people, including 132 school children, several of whom belonged to the families of Pakistan Army officers, brings out the degree of security that the Pakistan security establishments and its army provide.
If the army cannot protect a school belonging to it, expecting assurances from the Pakistan government on fool-proof security for Chinese workers is a farce. The Chinese would have to face the situation as it comes since they have committed themselves significantly towards showcasing the success of the BRI project in Pakistan.