Last week’s attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by Baluchi separatists underlines China’s growing vulnerabilities in connection with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These are likely to get worse and may ultimately lead to China assuming a new and quite different security role in the region.

On 23 November, a group of Baluchi separatists attacked a Chinese consulate, resulting in an hour-long shoot-out with Pakistani police and security guards that left seven people dead. This is the 12th attack this year on Chinese interests in Pakistan by the Baluchi Liberation Army, which claims that it is fighting the “exploitation of Baluchistan’s mineral wealth and occupation of Baluch territory” by China.

The protection of BRI projects and Chinese nationals will likely become an increasingly important factor in China’s engagement in the region.

Indeed, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which involves building a series of roads, railways, and pipelines from China through Pakistan to the Baluchi city of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, promises to transform Baluchistan in many ways.

In Gwadar, a Chinese company has announced plans to build housing for up to 500,000 Chinese workers. If it proceeds, there are plans to build a gated community where, among other things, locals without a permit would be excluded. Chinese companies have also been invited by the Pakistan government to “open up” the mineral-rich Baluchistan province, to the great displeasure of some.

While these attacks are unlikely to stop CPEC’s progress, they may well have a cumulative effect of altering the nature of China’s security presence in the region. Many BRI projects are located in very insecure regions, and the Chinese government and companies may have previously underestimated security threats. This is now changing, and the protection of BRI projects and Chinese nationals will likely become an increasingly important factor in China’s engagement in the region.

In protecting Chinese people and assets, Beijing’s first preference will be to rely on local security forces in order to minimise its on-the-ground security footprint.

The effectiveness of this will depend on the security environment, the quality of local security forces, and the nature of China’s relationship with the host government. As part of the CPEC, Pakistan established a special security force of around 15,000 troops to protect Chinese projects – but this is unlikely to be enough.

Chinese companies may rely heavily on private security contractors, especially Chinese contractors that employ former PLA personnel. Chinese contractors are preferred not only for language and cultural reasons but also to safeguard confidential information. In Pakistan, Chinese contractors work with local contractors, with Chinese personnel typically acting as security managers inside Chinese compounds, while Pakistani soldiers and security contractors work on the outside.

Pakistani security forces respond outside the Chinese consulate on 23 November 2018 (Photo: Sabir Mazhar via Getty)

Chinese private security contractors sometimes play more active roles. They have been particularly active in Sudan and South Sudan, including participating in a Sudanese army mission to rescue 29 kidnapped Chinese nationals.

But the use of security contractors also carries risks. Unregulated and relatively inexperienced contractors may, for example, exacerbate security problems or take actions that have adverse consequences for China’s reputation. Nor can it be assumed that they will always have the same interests as Beijing.

The failure of local security forces or contractors to protect Chinese nationals and investments could necessitate the direct involvement of Chinese military personnel. This may have already occurred in Pakistan, where there are reports of a Chinese security presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to protect transport infrastructure and construction units.

There are indications that China’s Marine Corps could become its principal ready response force in the region.

The Marine Corps, modeled on the US Marines, is under the command of China’s South Sea Fleet, which has responsibility for the Indian Ocean. According to a report by the US Department of Defense, China’s Marine Corps is currently undergoing a major expansion from 20,000 to 100,000 personnel. A Marine company is already deployed to the Chinese base at Djibouti (which has facilities to accommodate up to 10,000 personnel) and there has been speculation about future deployments to Gwadar.

China’s Marine Corps or special forces deployed in the region or based in China would allow the country to respond to contingencies throughout the region. Several Chinese military exercises in the Indian Ocean region are openly focused on using Chinese forces to protect BRI projects.

But in protecting people and assets, China may also increasingly find itself drawn into the local security affairs. As China’s Global Times argued:

China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, but that doesn’t mean Beijing can turn a deaf ear to the demands of Chinese enterprises in protecting their overseas investments.

This would represent a fundamentally new mission for Chinese security forces. Never before has China publicly contemplated using the PLA to protect Chinese citizens and assets beyond its borders.

Importantly, there will also be a risk of mission creep.

As we’ve seen with other countries, the existence of the military capabilities may create temptations to use them to protect and advance China’s other interests in the region.