Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The threat within: Pakistan’s ties to China

A suicide attack on a convoy of Chinese engineers in Balochistan threatens to have far reaching economic consequences.

The aftermath of a 11 August suicide attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin region, Balochistan province in Pakistan (Photo: Ali Raza/Getty)
The aftermath of a 11 August suicide attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin region, Balochistan province in Pakistan (Photo: Ali Raza/Getty)

Last month, a suicide bomber in Pakistan’s Balochistan province attacked a passenger bus transporting 18 Chinese engineers from Saindak town in the southwest to Dalbandin Airport. The engineers were on their way home for a holiday after working on the Saindak Copper-Gold project. When the heavily guarded convoy approached Dalbandin town, around 340 kilometres from Quetta, the provincial capital, it was attacked on the highway.

The attacker missed his timing in the attempt to target the bus, and as a result the number of casualties was minimised. The blast still injured six people, including three Chinese engineers. The bombing was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a proscribed militant organisation fighting for an independent Balochistan. The significance of this attack is that it was the first time the Baloch separatists had used suicide bombing to target Chinese in Balochistan, site of the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. CPEC, as it is known, is seen by the Pakistan government as an investment and financial lifeline.

In 2004 and 2006, Baloch separatist groups had killed Chinese personnel in the port city of Gwadar. In 2017, ISIS claimed to have kidnapped two Chinese citizens, who were later executed. However, there had not been any suicide attack on Chinese personnel in Balochistan before the 11 August attack, which marks an escalation of the efforts of Baloch separatist groups against Chinese interests in the province and a worrying prospect for CPEC.

If the warnings are taken at face value, there will be more attacks on Chinese personnel in Balochistan in near future.

The attacker was Rehan Baloch, 22, the son of Aslam Baloch, an operational commander of BLA. In a video a released after the attack, Rehan warned China that if it continues “exploiting” the resources of Balochistan, it should be prepared for more such attacks. Normally, the propaganda videos of BLA are in Balochi language, but the video of Rehan was purposefully recorded in English to give a direct message to China.

BLA is one of the several Baloch ethnic separatist groups fighting against the state of Pakistan for an independent Balochistan. The current phase of the separatist insurgency started in 2005, reaching a pinnacle in 2009, until the Pakistan military cracked down. As a result, the insurgency has become weak, yet the militants have not fully been eliminated. A change in tactics has seen them focus on high-value targets, such as Chinese personnel.

The threat posed by Baloch separatists for CPEC is recognised by China as well. China was reportedly engaged in direct negotiations with Baloch separatists to convince them not to attack its interests in Balochistan in exchange for financial compensation. Although the Chinese government denied the report, analysts in Balochistan believe that there were definitely some negotiations that did not yield desired results. The suicide attack in Dalbandin is a clear indication that whatever took place has failed.

Moreover, the reaction of China to the Dalbandin suicide attack was strong. It not only condemned the attack but asked Pakistan to beef up the security for its personnel in Balochistan. Peng Yunfei, the security chief of Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, travelled to Quetta, capital of Balochistan, and held a meeting the provincial chief secretary. The details of the meeting were not made public, but it is believed that Peng Yunfei demanded strict security for Chinese personnel in the future. This special visit was another sign China’s security concerns in Balochistan have increased.

If the warnings of Rehan Baloch are taken at face value, there will be more attacks on Chinese personnel in Balochistan in near future. BLA is weak operationally, yet attacking the Chinese could increase its bargaining power, while the use of suicide bombers speaks to the group’s desperation.

Gwadar port in Balochistan is the starting point of CPEC, and CPEC is crucial for Pakistan’s economic sustainability and the continuation of the strategic partnership with China. If the attacks on Chinese interests in Balochistan intensify, then this will hamper CPEC projects, something Pakistan could not afford.

This also comes at a time when Pakistan is running out of foreign exchange reserves to pay its growing imports. China has guaranteed to provide bailout loans to Pakistan after the US government opposed IMF bailouts. Attacks on Chinese personnel in Balochistan could jeopardise all this.   

Pakistan needs stability in Balochistan so that the Chinese funded projects can run smoothly, and Chinese personnel operate freely. Pakistan has to address this problem by working towards a political solution of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency.

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