In an embarrassing development for “all-weather friends” China and Pakistan, Karachi police have resorted to temporarily shutting some businesses run and frequented by Chinese nationals in the city as they scramble to prevent terrorist attacks that could compromise Islamabad’s strategic relationship with Beijing. This development came almost a month after China had “temporarily” closed the consular section of its embassy in Islamabad days after advising Chinese citizens to remain cautious due to the “deteriorating security situation” in Pakistan. It appears that despite several requests and warnings from Beijing, Pakistani authorities have shown a lackadaisical attitude to safeguard lives of Chinese citizens living in Pakistan. Interestingly, some reports suggest that Islamabad is indirectly pressuring Beijing to pardon its massive loan from China or extend deadlines to avoid the impending default.
Various terrorist groups operating in Pakistan continue to target Chinese nationals and projects connected to the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A growing number of Pakistanis suspect that China is slowly encroaching on their land under the guise of enhancing their economic situation through commercial projects, mining operations, and other financial investments. The increasing anti-China sentiments among the Pakistani population are becoming difficult to control for the local government and security agencies. As a result, state authorities are not taking sufficient security measures to safeguard Chinese nationals. Notably, Pakistan cannot afford to finance another dedicated military unit to protect Chinese interests in the country. Consequently, Beijing is dissatisfied with the existing security arrangements and has repeatedly raised concerns with Islamabad. In January, Foreign Minister Qin Gang expressed to his Pakistani counterpart Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that “the Chinese side is highly concerned about the safety of Chinese citizens in Pakistan and hopes that the Pakistani side will continue to take strong security measures.”
Bhutto-Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rules Sindh province, where Chinese businesses and nationals are facing the main threat from militant outfits. According to media reports, Karachi police took measures to seal off some Chinese businesses due to intelligence alerts indicating possible attacks in mid-March. One report quoted local officials, “Despite repeated warnings, several Chinese-owned businesses failed to implement security protocols, leading to their sealing until satisfactory security arrangements are made.” As a result, local police authorities closed down businesses, including a Chinese restaurant, a supermarket, and a marine product company, for non- compliance with standard security protocols outlined in the ‘Sindh Security of Vulnerable Establishments Act’, a provincial law that mandates security arrangements for targeted locations. It is an embarrassing development for both the local and central governments for failing to provide adequate security to Chinese businesses in Karachi, which is the business capital of Pakistan.
Karachi has witnessed numerous attacks on Chinese nationals as separatist groups have expanded their targets beyond Pakistani state institutions and personnel. One of the most notable attacks occurred in April 2022, with a suicide bombing near the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, which claimed the lives of three Chinese teachers and a Pakistani driver. Additionally, there was an attack on the building that houses the stock exchange in June 2020, partly owned by a Chinese consortium, as well as an attack
on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in 2018. The Baloch Liberation Army has claimed responsibility for all three incidents. In last September, an ethnic Chinese cashier was killed at a dental clinic while the dentist and his wife were injured in a shooting. A Sindhi rebel group was suspected to have been responsible for the shooting. All these targeted attacks suggest that local rebel groups fear that increasing Chinese influence could seriously jeopardise their freedom of movement and freedom to claim their own natural resources.
It is worth noting that, apart from ethnic separatist factions, violent Islamic groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) have also carried out attacks on Chinese citizens in Pakistan and have threatened them to depart the country. In July 2021, a TTP-led suicide bombing struck a bus transporting engineers to a construction site near a dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohistan region, killing 13 individuals, including nine Chinese labourers. Pakistan subsequently compensated the families of the deceased Chinese nationals with millions of dollars, creating an added financial burden on Islamabad. Moreover, Beijing is apprehensive about the recent alliances between Baloch rebel organizations and the TTP. Furthermore, both IS-K and al-Qaeda have issued warnings in their propaganda publications of targeting Chinese citizens. The casualties among Chinese nationals in Pakistan are causing anxiety in the minds of Chinese companies and the Xi Jinping’s government. These targeted attacks will severely impede Chinese investments in Pakistan, creating tension between the two “brotherly” nations.
China has been exerting pressure on Pakistan to permit private Chinese security contractors to work within its borders. However, even if Pakistani authorities compel some Chinese enterprises to cease operations for their own safety, the issue is unlikely to disappear. With China intending to expand CPEC in the region, the security challenges for Chinese nationals in Pakistan and Afghanistan are expected to become even more complex.