The bomb that took the lives of Chinese personnel working on a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in Pakistan could have a much wider impact.
A blast on a bus carrying engineers and surveyors to the Dasu hydro-electric project, which is a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), resulted in the death of 13 people, including nine Chinese citizens, and injuring around forty people on 14 July. The explosion resulted in the vehicle plunging into a ravine.
Pakistan initially denied that the incident was a terror attack, but Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry tweeted on 15 July that:
‘Initial investigations into Dasu incident have now confirmed traces of explosives. Terrorism cannot be ruled out, PM is personally supervising all developments in this regard’.
China, on the other hand, was quick to call the incident a terror attack. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, commenting on the attack, said,
‘China is shocked & saddened at reports of casualties in the incident in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. We mourn for those who lost their lives & express sympathy to their families & the injured.’
China also warned its citizens in Pakistan to be vigilant and only go outdoors if necessary.
Beijing postponed a CPEC-related meeting in the aftermath of the attack. The meeting was to be held on 16 July but was pushed to after the Islamic festival of Eid.
The attack is not the first on Chinese workers in Pakistan; there have been others in Balochistan and Sindh provinces as well. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, raised the issue of the terror attack and called for the perpetrators of the attack to be arrested with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the side-lines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. A few days later, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, met with Pakistan Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa. After the meeting, both sides stated that they would:
‘… thwart designs of all inimical forces challenging the resolve of Pakistan and China, particularly strategic co-operation between the two sides.’
Bajwa assured him that Pakistan would work to ensure the security of Chinese citizens there.
The attack was discussed during Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s visit to China for the third round of the China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue with his Chinese counterpart. A joint statement that was issued condemned the attack. According to the statement, both sides also sought to identify the perpetrators of the attack and reiterated their commitment to ensure the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan and prevent the “recurrence” of such incidents.
The Attack and Impact on CPEC Project
China also sent a delegation of 15 people to investigate the attack; an enquiry into the terror attack, which includes those officials, has begun. Pakistan’s Railway Minister, Sheikh Rashid, assured China that the enquiry would be completed at the earliest and also stated that the attack was the handiwork of those who sought to disrupt the CPEC project.
Beijing has also put the Dasu Project on hold as a result of recent developments. This is not the first CPEC related project to have been put on hold. China has also shown reluctance to approve a US$6 billion ($8.1 billion) loan for the Karachi-Peshawar/Mainline-I (ML-I) railway track project. There have been differences between both sides over the cost of the project. While the initial cost of the single largest project under CPEC was US$9 billion ($12.2 billion), that cost was reduced to US$6.8 Billion ($9.2 billion), but Beijing has not been satisfied with the lower cost. China has also expressed its apprehensions regarding the ability of Islamabad to service its debt.
In recent months, a number of other CPEC projects have been put on hold. China expressed its dissatisfaction with the pace of the overall CPEC project in 2019, and the CPEC Authority (CPECA) was established, with a retired army officer as its chairman. Opposition parties objected to the legal immunity granted to the CPECA chairperson. They had also pointed out that Chairman Asim Saleem Bajwa’s family was involved in overseas family businesses. During Qureshi’s recent meeting with Wang Yi, the progress and renewed relevance of the CPEC project was discussed.
China’s Plans to Extend CPEC to Afghanistan
Beijing had proposed to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan, which signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China to get on board the mega project in 2016. Last year, Pakistan agreed to re-open the border markets with Afghanistan and Iran. Prime Minister Imran Khan had said that re-opening those markets would not just have economic implications. China has also mooted the idea of a highway connecting Kabul and Peshawar.
Given the recent developments in Afghanistan and the attacks on the Chinese personnel, it remains to be seen if China, which signed a 25-year co-operation agreement with Iran last year, will shift its focus to Iran at least in the immediate future to go ahead with its connectivity objectives. In May this year, Pakistani Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that China was keen to play a role in the Chabahar Port project. India views the port as a gateway with Afghanistan and Central Asia and has taken over Phase 1 of that project. The Iranian Foreign Minister also said that Chabahar project provided an opportunity for ‘all to come together’ to help Afghanistan. While India has not publicly opposed Chinese participation in Chabahar, it would not be comfortable given their current bilateral tensions. Although the current situation in Afghanistan has opened a window for co-operation between all stakeholders, New Delhi reiterated that pragmatism and flexibility are essential and stated positions on crucial issues need to be given up.
The recent attack raises a number of issues. First, the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will have ramifications for neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran. Second, China cannot ignore those threats and the CPEC project is likely to be affected. Finally, it raises the question of whether China will re-assess its connectivity plans for Afghanistan and Central Asia and give more emphasis to Iran in its vision.