An attack by gunmen on two Chinese workers in Pakistan on July 28 is the latest in a string of incidents that has left Beijing reevaluating how best to protect its citizens and interests in the country, which has become strategically important as the centerpiece of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The most recent incident happened in the port city of Karachi, where gunmen on a motorbike opened fire on a car carrying the Chinese men, which sent them to the hospital with serious bullet wounds, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.
The shooting comes on the heels of a July 14 explosion that caused a bus carrying Chinese and Pakistani personnel for a Chinese-funded dam project in northwest Pakistan to plunge into a ravine, killing nine Chinese citizens and four Pakistanis in an alleged terrorist attack.
While Chinese workers and diplomats have been targeted before in Pakistan, the scope and frequency of the attacks is growing.
The bus incident represents the deadliest-ever attack on Chinese personnel abroad and comes as the region braces itself for a worsening security situation in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops that could spill over into neighboring countries like Pakistan.
“This recent wave of attacks is happening at a moment when the violent actors that tend to be most interested in targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan are undergoing a resurgence,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, told RFE/RL. “The risks to Chinese workers in Pakistan will only increase with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.”
The authorities are still investigating both incidents -- Pakistani law enforcement announced that they arrested two suspects in connection with the explosion on July 28 -- but the motive behind the attacks is not immediately clear, and no group has claimed responsibility for either incident. Still, China has responded with an aggressive posture and forceful rhetoric.
The Chinese state-run Global Times said Beijing is closely following the shooting in Karachi and in response to the bomb blast, the newspaper said, anti-government forces who target Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan would incur Beijing’s wrath.
This was followed by similarly tough language by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who called for punishment of those responsible and for Pakistan to better protect China’s interests in the country.
"[China] will not only provide the necessary support and assistance if Pakistan's strength is insufficient, China's missiles and special forces could also directly participate in operations to eliminate threats against Chinese [nationals] in Pakistan with the consent of Pakistan,” said a July 16 Global Times editorial. “We will set an example as a deterrent.”
A New Normal
The spate of attacks comes as China looks to cement its status as a regional leader in South and Central Asia. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) -- an estimated $60 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects under the umbrella of the BRI -- has grown into one of the most visible displays of China’s geopolitical ambitions abroad.
The changing situation on the ground brings with it added security costs for CPEC. According to Kugelman, the situation could become increasingly risky for Beijing’s wider ambitions in Pakistan and potentially lead to China reconsidering its security options in the country.
“China has demanded more security in the past and yet the attacks have continued to happen,” said Kugelman. “One of the big questions is whether continued attacks could propel China to change course in how it addresses its security issues in Pakistan.”
Beijing appears to already be pressing Pakistan for action in the wake of the attacks.
Following the bus explosion, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry called the incident an accident, which prompted a strong response from Beijing, which later demanded a probe of the blast. A Chinese investigative team has since been dispatched to Pakistan, and Islamabad appeared to change track on the explosion.
During a July 16 phone call with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan assured his counterpart that Pakistan would investigate the “terrorist attack.”
Beijing also canceled the 10th Joint Coordination Committee meeting -- a gathering that oversees CPEC and is chaired by top Pakistani and Chinese officials -- and suspended work on the Dasu Hydropower Project, where the workers killed in the bus explosion were employed. It added that most local employees would be laid off. That measure was later reversed following a request from Pakistani authorities.
Beijing also met with top Pakistani officials on July 23 to discuss the security of Chinese citizens in the country and press Islamabad for changes, with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
“As the Americans leave [Afghanistan], attention is being diverted toward China,” Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, told RFE/RL. “This has been building for some time, but it is reaching a new phase. [Beijing] is looking for how it can bring things back under control.”
Looking To Afghanistan
While the attacks still go unclaimed, Chinese experts have pointed to two groups that have targeted Chinese personnel and interests in the past as potential attackers: Balochistan militants and the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP).
Baluch insurgents claiming to be aided by Sindhi separatists attacked Pakistan's stock exchange in June 2020, and in 2018 three gunmen tried to enter the Chinese Consulate in Karachi before being killed in a shoot-out. The attack was later claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, a separatist group.
In April, China’s ambassador to Pakistan was narrowly missed in a terrorist attack at a hotel in Quetta where his delegation was staying.
While stopping short at singling out a specific group on July 28, Qureshi blamed unnamed “enemies” for the Karachi attack on Chinese workers. Similarly, Pakistani Army spokesman Major-General Babar Iftikhar attributed the risk in attacks to the accelerating conflict in Afghanistan, saying during a July 17 interview that “the leadership of all these [terrorist] networks is sitting across the border [in Afghanistan].”
According to a recent monitoring report prepared for the United Nations Security Council, the TTP is growing in Afghanistan with an estimated 6,000 fighters along the Afghan border.
The report added that the group has “distinctive anti-Pakistan objectives but also supports the Afghan Taliban militarily inside Afghanistan against Afghan government forces.”
The Security Council report also pointed to the presence of hundreds of militants in Afghanistan with the aim of attacking China.
There was a focus on anti-Beijing militants on July 28 in Tianjin, China, when Wang hosted a Taliban delegation.
The talks reportedly covered urging the Taliban to accept a diplomatic solution to resolve hostilities in Afghanistan, but also focused on getting the militant group to rein in foreign fighters and not provide sanctuary to groups that could target Chinese interests, both inside and outside of China.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and stepped up attacks on Chinese personnel has led to some speculation that China may push Islamabad to have its own security in Pakistan, as it currently does in many other countries along the BRI where Beijing uses private Chinese military contractors to protect workers and companies.
But Siddiqa says such measures would face stiff resistance in Pakistan. While Islamabad is keen to preserve its relationship with Beijing and assuage its growing security concerns, Pakistani officials remain worried about the implications of Chinese security forces operating in the country, which could be a “slippery slope” for Islamabad.
“There will be more pressure on Pakistan to protect the Chinese and maybe let the Chinese take care of their own security,” said Siddiqa. “But Pakistan absolutely does not want this. They do not want Chinese boots on the ground.”