Two suicide bombings in the space of just over one month have cast doubt on the future of China’s ambitious projects in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, with renewed concerns over the safety of Chinese personnel in the region.
On Friday, a motorcade carrying Chinese personnel working at the East Bay Expressway project in Gwadar, the Arabian Sea port where the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) ends, was attacked by a suicide bomber, Pakistani and Chinese officials said, with two local children killed and one Chinese worker injured. This followed another bomb attack on July 14 targeting Chinese workers at the Dasu hydropower project, that killed 13 people including nine Chinese nationals.
The attacks prompted an unusual statement from Chinese authorities on Friday. "Recently, the security situation in Pakistan has been severe,” the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said, adding that it "launched the emergency plan immediately, demanding Pakistan to properly treat the wounded, conduct a thorough investigation on the attack, and severely punish the perpetrators.”
"At the same time, relevant departments at all levels in Pakistan must take practical and effective measures to accelerate to implement strengthened whole-process security measures and upgraded security cooperation mechanism to ensure that similar incidents will not happen again,” the statement said, noting “there have been several terrorist attacks in succession, resulting in the casualties of several Chinese citizens.”
Pakistani authorities in a statement said "the bomber targeted the convoy of Chinese nationals comprising four Chinese vehicles with integral security details of the Pakistan Army and police contingent on the East Bay Expressway near Fishermen Colony in Gwadar.” “A young boy ran out of the colony once the convoy reached there to target Chinese vehicles. Fortunately, soldiers of the Pakistan Army in plain clothes employed as hanging around security rushed to intercept the boy; who immediately exploded himself about 15-20 meters away from the convoy,” said a statement reported by the Press Trust of India .
The July 14 attack had already deepened concerns among Chinese companies and workers, particularly amid the instability in neighbouring Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover. Workers for Chinese companies involved in the Dasu project were "reportedly on tenterhooks and fearful of another terrorist attack,” the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported, quoting a local interpreter for one Chinese firm as saying "Pakistani mobile army units only provided protection to Chinese staff travelling between the Barseen residential camp and the hydropower project’s various sites outside Dasu town in the remote Kohistan region."
"Without consistent army protection at the worksites, senior executives of the Chinese firms have reportedly refused to put their staff at risk and ordered a go-slow,” the interpreter said, while Arif Yousafzai, deputy commissioner for Lower Kohistan district, said “full-fledged activities are yet to be resumed” although “the work has not been stopped completely”.
Many Chinese projects in Afghanistan have also been on pause. While China on Monday was among the first major countries to say it “stands ready” to work with Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover and Chinese state media have celebrated the U.S. exit, there are long-persisting concerns among Chinese officials over the Taliban’s links to jihadist groups going back to the 1990s that “very much remain”, said Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of “The China Pakistan Axis”.
“If you've seen the recent developments with CPEC and the Chinese investments in Pakistan, there's been far more anxiety about the security situation there in the last few months than in the last few years,” Mr. Small told The Hindu. “They're concerned that effectively, Afghanistan could be used as strategic depth for the Pakistani Taliban, and that that would have implications for their investments and security interests in the country. The attack that we saw a few weeks ago was probably the largest loss of life you've seen in a terrorist attack on Chinese personnel in Pakistan, full stop.”
Most Chinese experts have blamed the July 14 attack on the Pakistani Taliban or TTP. Authorities in Pakistan claimed the attack was "executed by the Swat chapter of TTP”, saying the attacker was "trained in Afghanistan”. Pakistan’s officials including the Foreign Minister claimed the attacker "received support from Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies”, claims which New Delhi rubbished as “absurd” and “yet another attempt by Pakistan to malign India in a bid to deflect international attention from its role as…a safe haven for proscribed terrorists”.
Pakistan’s claims haven’t received wide attention in the Chinese press, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement on August 13, in response to queries about the claims, stopped short of directly endorsing the allegation. It said “further investigation by Pakistan is still ongoing at the moment” and China "firmly opposes any force using terrorism to seek geopolitical gains”.
China on July 28 invited a delegation from the Taliban and sought a commitment from the grouping to “make a clean break” with jihadist groups, although some Chinese analysts remain skeptical of that likelihood. Nevertheless, some Chinese companies have expressed hope, regardless of China’s past concerns, that the Taliban takeover might bring stability if the civil war ends.
“While some Chinese companies are involved in several major projects in Afghanistan, including the Aynak Copper Mine project, which is the second-largest copper mine in the world, many have been stalled or seen slow progress due to political instability in the country,” the Communist Party-run Global Times reported. "With a major political shift, some believe that there could be a chance for those projects to resume,” the newspaper said.
"We would consider reopening it after the situation is stabilised, and international recognition, including the Chinese government's recognition of the Taliban regime, takes place," a source at China Metallurgical Group Corporation told the paper, which noted that the group won the right to mine its deposits for 30 years and signed a contract in 2008 but the project was yet to start operation. According to the paper, Chinese companies had contracts for projects worth $110 million in Afghanistan as of 2020 but "because of social instability, several large projects in the country have been suspended”.