Challenges mount as Baloch insurgents ramp up attacks on Chinese nationals

By Zarak Khan

Pakistani army soldiers July 30 in Islamabad patrol before the visit of Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng. He visited Islamabad on July 30 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

Pakistani army soldiers July 30 in Islamabad patrol before the visit of Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng. He visited Islamabad on July 30 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- The Sunday (August 13) attack on the Chinese convoy in Gwadar, Balochistan, demonstrates how banned insurgent groups with anti-China sentiments are increasingly reappearing in the country, focusing their attacks on Chinese nationals and exacerbating Pakistan's already precarious security landscape.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a proscribed militant outfit, has claimed responsibility for the attack on Chinese engineers, who were guarded by the Pakistani military in Gwadar.

Gwadar is a key location for Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), whose projects include developing a deepwater port.

Conflicting narratives

In a statement, the BLA claimed that two members of the Majeed Brigade, a sub-unit of the group, killed four Chinese nationals and 13 Pakistani security personnel.

The group warned of more deadly attacks on Chinese targets, asserting that Beijing is "criminally involved in relentless plundering and looting of Balochistan resources in Gwadar and ... Saindak [a copper and gold mining project in Chaghi district]."

However, the Pakistani military, the Chinese government and various newspapers have denied any harm to Chinese nationals.

"Two terrorists were killed by security forces after they attacked a military convoy," Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement.

The statement did not cite any presence of Chinese nationals in the convoy.

Three Pakistani soldiers were wounded, a police official told AFP.

Militants ambushed a convoy comprising three bulletproof sport utility vehicles and a van, carrying 23 Chinese personnel, the state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times reported.

"An improvised explosive device (IED) exploded during the attack, and the van was shot at. The shots created cracks in the glass," it said.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad demanded that the Pakistani government "severely punish the attackers and take practical and effective measures to ensure the safety of Chinese nationals, institutions and projects."

Challenge of securing Chinese nationals

Baloch insurgent groups -- the BLA and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) -- have targeted Chinese interests in recent years, warning Beijing against entering agreements under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Pakistan component of China's BRI.

These attacks upset Chinese leaders, who have urged Islamabad to enhance the security of their citizens.

"Balochistan's ethnic ... insurgency started in 2004 and escalated significantly, growing deadlier with the arrival of the CPEC a decade ago," said a Quetta-based security official who requested anonymity.

The BLA and BLF are components of Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS), an operational alliance of Balochistan and Sindh militants formed to target Chinese interests, he noted.

In April 2022, a female suicide bomber killed three Chinese teachers in Karachi. In August 2021, two children were killed and three were wounded in an attack targeting Chinese nationals in Gwadar.

In Karachi, the BLA claimed attacks on the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSE) in 2020 and the Chinese consulate in 2018. Chinese companies own 40% of the PSE.

In addition to Baloch militant groups, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was responsible for the 2021 suicide attack on a bus in Dasu that killed nine Chinese engineers. The TTP was also blamed for the 2021 bombing at a luxury hotel in Quetta. The attack did not harm the Chinese ambassador.

These attacks strained Islamabad-Beijing ties, prompting cash-strapped Pakistan to provide compensations ranging from $4.6 million to $20.3 million to 36 Chinese victims of terrorist attacks, Express Tribune reported in January 2022.

"Ensuring comprehensive security for Chinese engineers in remote regions presents significant challenges, both in terms of difficulty and cost," said Fakhar Alam, a specialist at an Islamabad-based security firm that deals with foreign companies.

"Thousands of security personnel have been deployed to counter threats against Beijing's interests," Alam told Pakistan Forward.

Pakistan last year rejected a request from Beijing to allow a Chinese private security company to operate in Pakistan to protect Chinese nationals and projects.

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