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EFSAS Commentary

CPEC blues; attacks on Chinese Nationals in Pakistan


Nearly two months after the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad warned its citizens that it had information about a series of terrorist attacks planned against Chinese organizations and staff members domiciled in Pakistan, two Chinese nationals were shot on Monday in Pakistan, one of them fatally. A lone gunman opened fire at 46-year-old Chen Zhu, the managing director of a shipping firm in Karachi, and Ye Fan, a young trainee at the same company, in what the police called a targeted attack.

“The embassy alerts all Chinese organizations and citizens in Pakistan to stay vigilant, safeguard personal security, reduce time spent outside and avoid going to crowded places as much as possible", the December 2017 statement asserted. It was triggered by an allegation that a member of the Uyghur separatist group of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) had entered Pakistan under false pretenses and was plotting an assault against Sun Weidong, the Chinese Ambassador at the time.

The Uyghurs, a minority community, religiously, culturally, and politically alienated, Muslim people of Turkic origin contrary to the officially atheist, Han Chinese-dominated People’s Republic of China, have long faced violent persecutions and repressions from Beijing’s communist authorities. Since many Uyghurs see China as a colonizing power, which attempts to undermine the Uyghur’s cultural identity, political rights, religion and to exploit their region's natural resources, various separatists movements have been established. As a response, Beijing acted strictly against those separatists in Xinjiang, which pushed many Uyghurs towards the path of radicalization and militancy in recent years.

Although the Uyghur issue has been generally viewed as an internal Chinese security problem, experts argue that it should be examined in the context of rising global Jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. The Chinese Embassy has long worried that Uyghur militants receive training in Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is argued that the ETIM is based in North Waziristan, an area which has largely been out of the Pakistani government’s control. As a result, Beijing has long urged Islamabad to eradicate militants, hiding out in the anarchic Pakistani tribal areas, home to a lethal mix of militant groups, which include the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The failure of the Pakistani military to accomplish a state of stability has led China to suspect that the military establishment of Pakistan is sympathetic to the Uyghur jihadist movement and that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is using Uyghur militants to fight in other places like Indian Administered Jammu & Kashmir and Afghanistan; given Pakistan’s history of using militants as proxies, such presumptions appear highly plausible.

Pakistan’s ideological support towards the Uyghurs and other extremist outfits could fatally strain Islamabad’s crucial politico-economic links with Beijing and become a sore point in their relationship. This could become an exceptionally pernicious problem, considering the construction of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - the biggest single project under Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ trade and infrastructure plan, which has become an embodiment of the claimed 'all-weather friendship' of the two neighboring countries.

The February attack of two Chinese citizens was not a precedent. In June 2017, Islamic State (IS) militants pretending to be police officers kidnapped and killed two Chinese nationals in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which is the capital of Balochistan province - the epicenter of the CPEC project. IS has on numerous occasions declared jihad against China on the grounds that Beijing is mistreating the Uyghur Muslim population. Analysts believe that rising resentment against the establishment of the CPEC is a contributing factor.  

Although the multibillion developmental ‘game changer’ plan was ostensibly established for the purposes of fostering trade and people-to-people contact, enhancing both countries’ political and logistical control over their frontiers and capability to deal with external and internal security threats and on paper appeared as a win-win situation, in reality the foundation of the project was settled in very murky waters. The immigrant Chinese labor force has taken away jobs in Pakistan - a country with high unemployment - and Pakistan’s Government has confiscated land of locals in Gilgit Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan under the pretext of development and jobs. The infrastructural development happening without any local involvement, has created enormous dissatisfaction and tension among the indigenous people. As a result, the local population suffers numerous human rights violations on a daily basis, with Baloch nationalists fearing that the influx of Chinese workers and nationals could potentially turn the demographic balance of the region against them. These concerns of marginalization have also been shared by residents of Gilgit Baltistan, in Pakistan's north, who say "we will become a minority and economically subservient".

It has become evident how the CPEC is currently being built in the midst of inter-ethnic conflicts and environmental hazards. Disregarding the discontent of the domestic populations, China and Pakistan are playing a Russian roulette with separatist groups that experience rapid extremist radicalization. Beijing’s fears are not just with the Uyghurs, but also with a wider array of jihadi sympathizers, who enjoy the blessings of Pakistan’s military establishment.

As Siegfried O. Wolf, the Director of South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), Partner of EFSAS, argues:

"The CPEC, funded and most likely constructed exclusively by China, could be a primary target of Uighur fighters in the region. Islamabad needs to do something to prevent this from happening. Otherwise it could have a negative impact on its ties with China and its weak economy".

As long as China was accomplishing its agenda without any major obstacles, the country turned a blind eye to all issues surrounding the construction of the CPEC, while exploiting Pakistan’s vast natural resources, neglecting the voices of the indigenous people, shrugging off shoulders over the presence of terrorist outfits and evading the principles of international law. Yet once its own nationals have started falling prey to some of these problems, it has realized the need of widely opening its eyes and acting up.

By ignoring cultural grievances and acting in contravention of international law, Beijing once again shows its passivity in the fight with global jihad while catering to its regional and global strategic ambitions. The flaws in the Sino-Pak relationship will surface once the Chinese funding fails to lead to the anticipated returns and violence and instability thwart all initial projections.

Rather than simply throwing more investment money in its crown jewel, the CPEC project, China must address the very core of the aforementioned ethnic disputes, rephrase its security policies, respect international law and the sanctity of disputed territories (Gilgit Baltistan), confront Pakistan for its support of violent extremists and take a stance, before its endeavors turn into an economic minefield, which sets off under the command of extremism. Such a scenario will not only be disastrous to Pakistan and China, but to the whole of South Asia.