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Attack in Pakistan’s Gwadar strikes near heart of China’s interests

Challenge of securing Belt and Road projects resurfaces for new Sharif government

Convoy of Chinese engineers attacked in Pakistan's Gwadar
Convoy of Chinese engineers attacked in Pakistan's Gwadar

ISLAMABAD — A militant attack near the southwestern Pakistani port of Gwadar has reignited security concerns surrounding China’s Belt and Road projects in the country, challenging the new government in Islamabad and undermining assurances to Beijing.

Eight militants stormed the Gwadar Port Authority complex on Wednesday, 7 kilometers from the port itself and operated by China Overseas Ports Holding as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). They crashed a car full of explosives into the gate of the complex, but it did not fully detonate. As many as five security personnel were killed, along with all eight attackers, local officials told Nikkei Asia.

The attack “was foiled by the security forces,” a security official said on condition of anonymity. The Majeed Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group that wants to carve out an independent state in the province of Balochistan, claimed responsibility. The BLA called the attack a warning to foreign investors interested in Gwadar — an apparent reference to the Chinese operating Gwadar port.

Lin Jian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Thursday reiterated that Beijing stands with Pakistan. “We firmly support Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism and defend national security and stability,” he told reporters.

But the deadly incident calls into question the effectiveness of Pakistan’s efforts to expand security for Chinese interests in the country. Beijing has repeatedly urged Islamabad to do more to protect its nationals and investments, which cash-strapped Pakistan sorely needs. Already, Chinese personnel were restricted to the port compound in Gwadar, the centerpiece of the $50 billion CPEC.

It also comes weeks after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took office following Pakistan’s controversial elections. The fledgling government aims to resume active work on CPEC projects.

Fakhar Kakakhel, an independent analyst specializing in militancy in Pakistan, called Wednesday’s attack symbolically significant. “It made headlines, and that is what the Baloch insurgents want,” he said. The BLA “wanted to register a message that despite strict security measures they [are] able to reach their targets.”

Kiyya Baloch, an independent analyst who tracks violence in Balochistan, said the attack took place inside a high-security zone in one of Pakistan’s most well-guarded cities. “Through this attack, Baloch separatists delivered a message to the world that Gwadar is not safe to invest in, for China or any other interested foreign party,” he said.

مجید-برگیڈConvoy of Chinese engineers attacked in Pakistan's Gwadar
Convoy of Chinese engineers attacked in Pakistan’s Gwadar

In a news conference on Tuesday, Lin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, insisted that Beijing “stands ready to work with Pakistan to build an upgraded CPEC to deliver greater benefits to the two peoples.” But experts say the attack will once again pressure Pakistan’s government to step up security for Chinese concerns.

“Both Baloch insurgents and [Pakistani Taliban] fighters are targeting the region where CPEC is passing through,” noted Kakakhel, who has authored a book on militancy. “Peace in the region is the only solution to CPEC completion.” He believes that the government needs to pursue dialogue on addressing the needs of Balochistan, particularly with the youth, rather than “escalating tension and applying the same [hard-handed] tactics.”

The analyst Baloch suggested that China might again demand the right to bring in its own security, a proposal Pakistan turned down in 2022.

At the very least, the attack is likely to lead to tougher measures in and around Gwadar, experts say.

“Now more security checkpoints in Gwadar might be established, and targeted operations can also be carried out against the insurgents,” Baloch said. “Islamabad can raise this issue with Iran, demanding it to take action against Baloch separatists allegedly based in Iran.”

Nasir Sohrabi, president of the Rural Community Development Council of Gwadar, said the latest attack has unnerved the local population.

“The situation is tense in Gwadar, and people are worried about their safety and mobility in the aftermath,” he said. “The image of Gwadar as a destination for investment will be affected as a consequence.”

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