Geopolitics

Security of CPEC: What Next?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Apr , 2024

Targeting Chinese Nationals

Plagued by recurring security issues, Beijing’s  more than a decade old  ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] project suffered yet another setback last week when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive laden vehicle into a convoy carrying Chinese engineers working on the Dasu Hydro electric project near Besham city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [KP] province. In this attack, five Chinese and one Pakistani national lost their lives.

Coming hard on heels of suicide attacks on the Turbat air base and Gwadar port, this incident has once exposed the woeful inadequacy of the security arrangements that increases vulnerability of Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects. This is because the latest attack isn’t the first time that Chinese nationals working on the DasuDam project have been targeted; in 2021, an explosion in a bus carrying Chinese nationals left nine of them dead.

CPEC Security

Overall responsibility for ensuring security of those working on CPEC as well as the assets of this project is that of the Pakistan army for which it also has a host of paramilitaries as well as intelligence and law enforcement agencies under its command.

In September 2016, Rawalpindi created an additional force [34th Light Infantry Division] exclusively for providing protection to Chinese nationals working on CEPC. However, when this 15,000 strong mammoth force [commonly referred to as Special Security Division or SSD] was unable to provide the requisite degree of security, the Pakistan army created yet another similar sized SSD in 2019.

Surprisingly, despite putting a whopping 30,000 soldiers [along with several others] on the job of ensuring safety of Chinese nationals working on CPEC projects, instead of showing discernable decline, there’s been a phenomenal spike in both the intensity and frequency of attacks. This clearly indicates that armed groups are giving the Pakistan army more than a run for their money.

Passing the Buck

Islamabad has tried every trick in the book to water down its own security lapses by blaming foreign “hostile agencies” and at times has even gone to the extent of trying to cover up terrorist attacks by denying their occurrence and the 2021 Dasu Dam project bus attack is one such classic example. Readers may recall that after this incident, Pakistan’s Foreign Office [FO] had announced that the bus went off the road “after a mechanical failure resulting in leakage of gas that caused a blast.” [Emphasis added].

However, when Beijing called Islamabad’s bluff and outrightly rejected this outrageous claim, Pakistan’s then Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary immediately changed track by admitting that “Initial investigations… have now confirmed traces of explosives [and] terrorism cannot be ruled out.” [Emphasis added]. Having established the terror angle, one awaited Islamabad’s next predictable move of passing the buck and it didn’t disappoint.

A month later, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced that “According to our investigation, Afghanistan’s soil was used for this attack, for its planning, its execution and the making of the plans, we see them clearly connected to an NDS [National Directorate of Security, Kabul’s spy agency before Taliban takeover] and RAW [Research and Analysis Wing, Indian intelligence agency] nexus.” [Emphasis added]. Like all other unsubstantiated allegations, this one too found on favour anywhere!

Rawalpindi’s Skewed Counter-Terrorism Strategy

Pakistan army’s counter-terrorism strategy is a study in contrast. On the one hand, it had [till very recently] been treating TTP, which killed and injured thousands of Pakistanis soldiers and civilians with kid gloves. It unsuccessfully tried to buy peace through negotiations and making unwarranted concessions like unconditional release of TTP terrorists with blood of Pakistani security force personnel and civilians on their hands, it has been extraordinarily harsh while dealing with BNGs.

On the other hand, Rawalpindi has been using disproportionate force against the Baloch people with scant regards for safety of innocents, the old, infirm, womenfolk and children. It liberally uses the air force to bomb inhabited areas on mere suspicion, employs attack helicopters equipped with rockets and machine guns as well as heavy calibre artillery to wreak death and destruction on the hapless residents of Balochistan which have even horrified PTI chief Imran Khan.

In an old and undated video [available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCTTMdwsIZ4] before he became prime minister, Khan can be heard saying, “Our army bombing people in Balochistan, how can we bomb our own people, is there any army you are bombing? It is our own people with their children, but it is important to understand [that] are we just bombing our people, just think about the sin of bombing villages with the women and children. [Emphasis added].

The Pakistan army has consistently tried to play down Baloch nationalist sentiments by trying to portray its fighters as greedy opportunists who are being paid lavishly by New Delhi to indulge in violence acts to disrupt the CPEC project. What Rawalpindi conveniently avoids mentioning is that it’s the Pakistan army’s abhorrent practice of orchestrating enforced disappearances, taking  punitive actions and its barbaric ‘kill and dump’ policy that is forcing locals to pick up the gun.

Even Human Rights Watch [HRW] has been repeatedly taking note of and exposing Rawalpindi’s inhuman practices during counter-terrorism operations in Balochistan.

HRW’s 2011 annual report quotes Secretary-General of Baloch Republican Party Bashir Azeem [who was then 76 years old] revealing that in April 2010 when he was in “unacknowledged detention” of the security forces, a Pakistani official had boastfully told him that “Even if the president or chief justice tells us to release you, we won’t. We can torture you, or kill you, or keep you for years at our will. It is only the Army chief and the [intelligence or ISI] chief that we obey.”

Prognosis

The latest string of attacks conclusively proves that the Pakistan army is incapable of providing adequate security to Chinese nationals working on the CPEC project. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehebaz Sharif’s personal visit to the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad to condole the death of Chinese nationals killed in Besham suicide car bomb attack followed by assurances of bringing the perpetrators to justice and ensuring “fool-proof” security indicates that Islamabad apprehends that the recent attacks could well prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks Beijing’s back.

Beijing has on a number of occasions in the past proposed use of Chinese security agencies for ensuring CPEC security but Islamabad has resisted this move since it would reflect poorly on the Pakistan army’s professional abilities and raise questions on the country’s sovereignty. Its patience with Islamabad on the CPEC security issue has worn thin, and so, it won’t be long before China decides to push its way by deciding to use its own assets for ensuring the safety of its nationals working on CPEC. 

“Ironclad friendship” apart, it’s unlikely that Beijing will remain a mute spectator while its nationals working on CPEC continue to be attacked with impunity. While a few Chinese companies may have closed shop after the Besham suicide car-bomb attack, but having already spent a good part of its estimated USD 6.6 billion budget, Beijing will ensure that come what may, this project sees the light of day.

It’s no secret that despite the all the talk about CPEC being a “game changer” for Pakistan, this mega project is primarily meant to serve Beijing’s strategic and commercial interests. Accordingly, Beijing would be loath to continue making compromises on security related issues associated with this project just to humour Islamabad. 

And with Article 71 of China’s 2015 Counter Terrorism Law having been suitably amended to read, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Chinese People’s armed police forces may assign people to leave the country on counter-terrorism missions,” it’s only a matter of time before CPEC resonates with the thumping of Chinese boots!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Nilesh Kunwar

is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur.

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