Although China claims to be an “all-weather” ally of Pakistan, the former has serious security concerns for its citizens working in Pakistan on various China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects.
China and Pakistan signed the CPEC project agreement in May 2013. But, complete technical plans of the project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have not been made public yet, leading to resentment among the Pakistani intelligentsia.
In mid-August, Pakistani militants assaulted a Chinese convoy near the vital southwestern port of Gwadar inside Pakistan while transporting a group of Chinese nationals to a development project.
The Chinese embassy in Pakistan claimed there were no deaths in this attack among the Chinese nationals in the convoy, though it condemned the attack. It also requested the Pakistani authorities to conduct a thorough probe, severely punish the perpetrators, and take practical and effective measures to prevent similar incidents.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack, announcing many deaths in the convoy, including Chinese nationals.
However, no independent confirmation of deaths came. Previously, BLA and other Baloch separatist groups had carried out and claimed assaults against China-linked economic projects in the region.
No Prosperity To Locals In Pakistan From CPEC
The reasons for these attacks are not hard to fathom. Contrary to the widespread perception that CPEC would usher Pakistan into an era of prosperity and development, the problem appears to be mounting for Pakistan due to CPEC.
The Chinese have imposed a condition in the CPEC agreement that Chinese companies and their workers can only execute specific projects that Chinese companies deem strategic.
As these projects are not contributing to enhanced employment and prosperity for Pakistan citizens and the local population in occupied territories, a lot of animosity against the Chinese has been generated among them.
Not just in Balochistan, even the Gilgit-Baltistan region has witnessed protests from locals against CPEC due to the large-scale exploitation of the land and resources of the area.
Locals Up In Arms Against Land Grab, Human Rights Violations
He also highlighted the human rights violations through the use of armed forces against unarmed civilians and those peacefully protesting the China-Pakistan nexus.
Also, most Chinese working on CPEC projects are said to be criminals brought to Pakistan to do hard labor from Chinese prisons, which, in turn, creates law and order problems in parts of Pakistan.
Nawab Mohammad Yousuf Talpur, a senior leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, alleged in the National Assembly of Pakistan’s Parliament in March 2018 that many Chinese prisoners were working on development projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Talpur said several Chinese nationals had been arrested in ATM fraud cases, especially in Karachi. However, Pakistan’s interior ministry has denied knowledge of Chinese prisoners joining CPEC projects as laborers.
Debt Trap Is A Serious Threat To Pakistan
CPEC has also sparked criticism that it burdens Pakistan with unreasonable debt, allowing China to use “debt-trap diplomacy” to gain access to strategic assets.
Chinese commercial banks accounted for nearly 30 percent of Pakistan’s total external debt of about US$100 billion in 2022-23. The State Bank of Pakistan estimates that the outgo on account of foreign debt servicing of Chinese loans would be US$23 billion per year, which Pakistan would find difficult to repay.
Between July 2021 and March 2022, over 80 percent of Pakistan’s bilateral debt service went to Beijing. Higher interest rates in the case of Chinese commercial banks — 5.5 percent to 6 percent, against 0.5 percent to 1 percent charged by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — have severely crippled Pakistan’s economy with no solution.
China Concerned Over Its Citizens’ Security
It is also estimated that since the Taliban’s comeback in Afghanistan, the attack on Chinese workers in Pakistan on CPEC projects has increased by about 60 percent.
In the wake of rising attacks on Chinese workers by Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan, Baloch freedom activists, and other groups in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, China has been finding it hard to replace Chinese-origin workers, who were killed in these attacks inside Pakistan.
China plans to demand to deploy its security men carrying weapons inside Pakistan to protect its citizens from attacks. Pakistan’s sovereignty would be seriously questioned if the Chinese imposed this demand.
Pakistan’s Internal Political Turmoil Is A Risk For China
Current political and economic turmoil in Pakistan are also major concerns of China and have raised genuine fears among Chinese policymakers regarding the future of their investment and the CPEC.
Hu Shisheng of the South Asia Institute of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations noted recently that the present Pakistani regime is incapable of reviving its economy, and the protests by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s supporters are crippling the efforts.
The Xi Jinping regime in Beijing censored all media and social media posts, particularly on Weibo, relating to the violent protests by Khan’s supporters. In contrast, the news of his arrest received over a million hashtag posts and state media coverage.
JF-17 In Doldrums Over Faulty Engine
Another thorn in bilateral relations appears to be servicing Russian-made RD-93 engines currently used in the JF-17 fighter aircraft. Pakistan had bought JF-17 aircraft from China, the majority of which are now lying useless because of engine malfunction or lack of servicing and spare parts from China.
Due to the tepid response of China National Aero Technology Export and Import Corporation (CATIC) in providing necessary spares and support, Pakistan has been exploring the option of directly negotiating the service of engine spares with Russia.
Russian engine company Kilmov has indicated its willingness to supply the necessary spares. However, due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the Russian military export agency, Rosoboronexport, supposed to export the spares and repair facility to Pakistan, has come under US sanctions.
The JF-17 engine troubles and its poor serviceability are seen as a liability by the Pakistan Air Force, and this issue has already soured the Pakistan-China relations.
- NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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