Pakistan: CPEC Security Needs Attention – OpEd


On August 13, a convoy carrying Chinese engineers came under attack in Gwadar. The incident took place near Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. The Baluchistan Liberation Army – a separatist group operating in the province – claimed responsibility for the attack. While the incident caused no casualties on the Chinese side, the attack raised questions over the security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) even ten years since the project was launched in 2013.

The multibillion-dollar CPEC is the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BIR). Gwadar holds significant importance as the principle component of CPEC, housing the world’s deepest Gwadar port, and China is also building an international airport in Gwadar which may be inaugurated next month.

Last month, Pakistan and China celebrated the tenth anniversary of CPEC and the two countries reiterated their commitment to the project. Recently, Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng attended the 10th-anniversary celebrations of CPEC, where the two countries revived projects for the Second Phase. However, with the security situation deteriorating in Gwadar – the prima facie of CPEC – the project is poised to face significant security challenges. 

BLA keeps the security situation undermined in Baluchistan, by mainly targeting Chinese workers and CPEC sites. The first suicide attack on the Chinese took place in 2018 in Baluchistan, which injured three Chinese engineers. Later in the same year, the Chinese Consulate in Karachi was attacked, killing two policemen and two civilians, before the attackers were neutralized. Furthermore, in 2020, BLA claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange and said their aim was a “Chinese exploitative plan”. 

In 2021, nine Chinese were killed including four other passengers when explosives struck a bus carrying Chinese people. Following heavy losses, the Chinese government asked Pakistan to pay $38mn in compensation to the Chinese victims. Furthermore, three Chinese language teachers were killed in another suicide attack at Karachi University in 2022. BLA has also aimed to cause damage to the Chinese infrastructure in the Province. In April 2023, the BLA group set fire to the Chinese company Zong’s six mobile phone towers. 

BLA terrorist activities are increasing in the region, especially since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It has been reported that groups like the BLA are using American military gear and weapons, apparently smuggled into Pakistan. Resultantly, the advanced U.S. weapons have increased the military capabilities of terrorist groups like the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch separatist groups, such as the BLA. This also gives credence to the reports, suggesting a growing nexus and coordination among these groups to wage attacks against the Pakistani state and its interests. Encouraged by the support, the BLA has reportedly issued a 90-day ultimatum to China to vacate Gwadar.   

With the rise of attacks on Chinese workers and infrastructure, a new discourse is emerging, claiming that China-Pakistan relations are in hot waters. However, the rumors are misleading. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has condemned the attack, saying that any attempts to sabotage China-Pakistan friendship or CPEC will never succeed. However, previously the Chinese government has also conveyed its concerns and urged Pakistan to ensure on the safety and security of the Chinese citizens in the country. 

Responding to the suicide bombing at the Karachi University, the Chinese Foreign Minister said “The blood of Chinese people should not be shed in vain, those behind this incident will surely pay the prize”. Reportedly, the Chinese even desired to deploy their own security to protect its citizens, which Pakistan objected and assured that the Pakistani security forces are able to protect Chinese nationals. It is worth mentioning that Pakistan has raised a Special Security Division (SSD) to protect CPEC and the Chinese workers in Pakistan. 

In 2022 when Pakistan’s former Prime Minister met Chinese President Xi Jinping in China, he expressed great concern about the safety of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and assured the Chinese leadership that Pakistan will provide a reliable and safe environment for the Chinese personnel working on projects in Pakistan. Moreover the day after Gwadar attack, the Chinese Foreign Minister stated that Beijing will continue to work with Islamabad to jointly counter the threats of terrorism and protect the safety of Chinese personal institutions and projects in Pakistan. This also shows a mutual understanding between the two countries in fighting terrorism as a shared challenge.

The recent attacks on Chinese convey in Baluchistan have drawn attention to the security challenges facing CPEC. The incident came in the backdrop of the ascension of Anwar Ul Haq Kakar as the new caretaker Prime Minister from Baluchistan. The BLA’s history of disruptive activities including attacks on Chinese personnel and infrastructure underscores the need for heightened security measures. The future of the China-Pakistan partnership will be crucial in preserving regional stability as both countries reaffirm their commitment to combatting terrorism while taking their bilateral relations to new heights. In a nutshell, CPEC is the key to the thriving China-Pakistan relations, and ensuring security to complete this project will eventually cement the bilateral relations between the two countries. 

Muhammad Nauman Jalil

Muhammad Nauman Jalil studied MPhil in International Relations at the Quaid e Azam University, Islamabad. Currently, he is a Researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).

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