Karachi terror attack strains Pakistan’s ties with China

Posted: September 14, 2022 in Nikkei Asia Review
Tags: , , , , , ,

Still catching up, this time a short piece for Nikkei Asian Review in the wake of the attack in Karachi by Balochi separatists which murdered the Confucius Institute director and some of his staff.

Karachi terror attack strains Pakistan’s ties with China

New government needs to listen to the concerns of Balochi separatists

Police officers and a crime scene unit gather near a passenger van after a blast at the entrance of Karachi University’s Confucius Institute on April 26: The attack crossed many red lines.   © Reuters


Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” 
(Oxford University Press, April 2022).

While Beijing would never admit it, the rise of Shehbaz Sharif as Pakistan’s new prime minister is a welcome development.

Sharif’s early and positive comments toward China, the fact his new Finance Minister Miftah Ismail made meeting officials from the Chinese Embassy his first formal encounter and the appointment of Ahsan Iqbal as minister responsible for the managing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor were all clear signals that the new government wants a cooperative relationship with Beijing.

That chummy mood was shattered by a brutal suicide bombing on April 26 that was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army at Karachi University and which killed the director of the Confucius Institute, Beijing’s cultural promotion organization, as well as two Chinese staff and their Pakistani driver.

The suicide bombing was the latest in a series of attacks by separatists who are now targeting China because of Beijing’s heavy investment in Balochistan, which includes the much discussed Gwadar Port.

Balochi separatists have a history of targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, launching a number of dramatic attacks over the years that include targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the Chinese-built Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar and the Karachi stock exchange.

Shehbaz Sharif meets with Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of China Pang Chunxue to offer condolences for the victims in Islamabad on April 26: The chummy mood was shattered. (Handout photo from Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office)   © Reuters

In 2018, then-Balochi leader Aslam Baloch dispatched his eldest son as a suicide bomber to blow up a busload of Chinese engineers going to work in Balochistan. No one aside from the bomber was killed, but that attack kicked off a violent campaign that has now taken another dark twist.

The latest attack on the Confucius Institute, a soft but prominent target, crossed many red lines, the most conspicuous of which was the unprecedented use of a female suicide bomber. The fact she appears to have been a well-educated, middle-class woman who leaves behind two young children suggests how broad and attractive the Balochi narrative has now become.

Amid the scramble to better understand precisely who was behind the attack, there are hints that other militant groups may have played some sort of support role. And as is usually the case in this troubled region, many are looking for signs that outside powers might be manipulating the Balochi cause for their own ends.

The usual suspects for those conspiracy minded are India and the United States. Afghanistan used to be the third, but this is less likely given the Taliban government’s crackdowns on Balochi groups based in Afghanistan, groups the former Western-backed government seemed to tolerate, a major source of discord between Islamabad and Kabul.

The bigger point is that the Balochi separatist cause is continuing to gain traction inside Pakistan and is only getting worse, with militants getting more and more ambitious, and seemingly able to strike at will.

In January, a bomb was detonated at a crowded market in Lahore, killing three, and in February, a large detachment of militants took on two bases belonging to the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force charged with maintaining law and order in Balochistan.

At least 20 militants and nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in fighting that went on for many hours, although Balochi groups said the casualty rates were much higher, claiming that nearly 200 Pakistanis were killed, with only 16 of theirs dead.

By targeting the Confucius Institute, Balochi militants are sending a clear signal to the many thousands of Chinese who live and work in Pakistan.

Because not all Chinese living and working in the region are linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, many of them live beyond the security perimeter that has been put around official CPEC projects. These people are now all clearly targets too, vastly expanding the number of people Pakistani authorities need to worry about protecting.

It is not clear what Beijing’s answer to all this will be. One option would be to deploy a Chinese military detachment. More likely is that China will step up military and intelligence aid, as well as increase their discrete security presence on the ground. Chinese private security contractors will doubtless start to appear more frequently.

But this is only a stopgap answer. China is clearly unhappy, and while they might be willing to absolve the new government for responsibility for this latest attack, the underlying problem is that Pakistan seems unable to bring the separatists under control.

If we continue to see attacks like this on Chinese nationals, it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing to send its people to work in the country. More importantly, the repeated targeting of Chinese nationals undermines the myth that Chinese investment in Pakistan is seen as benign on the ground. A much wider and more dangerous narrative that Beijing has little desire to take hold.

The truth is that across this wider region, China is increasingly becoming the most consequential player on the ground. This attracts allies and enemies alike and is a role that has responsibilities, as much as Beijing might want to shy away from them.

Islamabad clearly needs to take a different tack in Balochistan. Locals feel persecuted and see little opportunity in modern Pakistan. Stories of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture are common. Nor do locals see much direct benefit from Chinese investment.

Greater transparency and engagement are needed. Otherwise, the conflict will continue to metastasize and create problems with one of Islamabad’s most important partners on the world stage.

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