Baloch fires a shot at China’s soft power, putting the CPEC in jeopardy

4 May, 2022 | Riya Girdhar

Traditional security is necessary for CPEC projects, but state institutions cannot overlook the strategic and political environment.

The suicide bombing at Karachi University’s Confucius Institute, which targeted a van carrying Chinese academics, was a strike against China’s soft influence. The attackers appeared to understand that the institute represented China’s cultural and civilisational expression, and that China, more than any other country, wanted to convey a soft image.

Second, the attackers chose a female suicide bomber to maximise the impact and gain more worldwide attention. This has sparked a discussion on the Baloch insurgent movement’s shifting dynamics.

China’s response was swift and forceful, with the Chinese foreign ministry declaring that anyone responsible for the event will be held accountable. The announcement will put more pressure on Pakistan’s leadership. Pakistan responded to the strike in a more coordinated manner this time than in the past. When terrorists from the banned TTP assaulted a bus carrying Chinese employees at the Dasu dam site in 2021, the then-government attempted to conceal the facts, claiming that the event was caused by a vehicle malfunction. Only as a result of Chinese pressure did the government reverse its position and allow Chinese investigators to assist Pakistani agencies in their investigation of the incident.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, on the other hand, raced to the Chinese embassy after the Karachi University bombing to express his sympathies and promise to bring the murderers to justice.

China may appreciate Sharif’s overture, but to resolve Beijing’s security worries, state institutions in Pakistan will need to take steps that satisfy Beijing. This is also necessary for the successful completion of the CPEC projects.

Pakistan has already spent a significant amount of money protecting Chinese nationals and ensuring the security of CPEC projects. In 2016, the Special Security Division was established. It consists of two light infantry divisions, each with 15,000 personnel (the first was formed in September 2016 and the second in 2020, according to reports). The SSD also has the support of 32,000 Frontier Corps, police, and Levies security officers, as well as a dedicated intelligence network to identify or neutralise terrorism-related threats.

According to the Global Times, a state-owned Chinese tabloid, Chinese enterprises working on CPEC-related projects are satisfied with the security measures. The cost of security, to which China contributes, is, however, extremely significant.

Second, the overall strategy for securing CPEC is fairly traditional, focusing mostly on securing work sites and escorting convoys of engineers and labourers. Companies in China are nevertheless concerned about the safety of their employees in big cities.

The expense of security is another key issue that drives up the cost of CPEC projects. Pakistan has again postponed the approval of a Rs36 billion project to offer security to Chinese nationals working on the multibillion-dollar ML-I project, according to media reports. The latter is a massive undertaking that necessitates a hefty security blanket. Aside from that, the Chinese are concerned about the management, training, and screening of security personnel.