It has taken China just three weeks to reverse its line on threats to its nationals working in Pakistan in what seems to be a bid at damage control.
On December 7 last year, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad warned its citizens in Pakistan, advising them to be on alert after receiving intelligence reports avout possible attacks by Pakistani militants.
But on January 2, Chinese ambassador in Islamabad, Yao Jing, told the Urdu Service of BBC, he singled out the threat prospects in volatile Balochistan saying the Baloch militant organisations are no longer a threat to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
He made a political statement, uncharacteristically of the Chinese, saying rhetorically that members of banned outfits were “not true Pakistanis”.
“If they [Baloch militants] are true Pakistanis, they should work in the interest of Pakistan,” he said brushing aside their capacity of becoming a threat to China, Pakistan and their CPEC project.”
Balochistan and the Gwadar port located there that is at the heart of the USD 60 billion CPEC, has confounded the Chinese ever since they began constructing the naval port and base. Two engineers had been killed during the early phase of this work.
The reversal in such a short time could be timed for cushioning Islamabad that is under severe attack from the US’ Trump administration.
It needs recalling that on December 7, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said on its website that it had information about a “series of terror attacks” planned against Chinese organisations and personnel, without giving details. It urged its citizens to stay inside and avoid crowded places.
The Embassy notified the Pakistani Interior Ministry of possible ‘threat’ to even the ambassador who has been touring Pakistan extensively in the provinces meeting political and military leaders and in the national capital, meeting the army chief and the ministers.
Significantly, the envoy did not talk of militants in other provinces, especially Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where militants of all hues are posing a threat to the road and infrastructure coming up under the CPEC since that opens up isolated areas that allow for militancy to outside access and to development.
An estimated 10,000 Chinese workers have come to Pakistan so far from out 400,000, the optimum level that is projected when the CPEC goes full steam ahead. These workers are employed in development of infrastructure projects under Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.
The port and road-building projects have come under frequent attacks, especially in Balochistan where Baloch groups have opposed Chinese-led projects alleging that the province is denied its share of employment, development and prosperity that is siphoned off by the more powerful Punjab and its elite.
Earlier last year, two Chinese nationals who were believed to be Christian missionaries were abducted from Quetta and killed by the militant Islamic State group.
For decades, a small number of Uighurs, an ethnic minority in western China that has chafed under Beijing’s rule, have sought refuge with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, peppering over the ground reality, Ambassador Yao said he was satisfied with the security provided to the 10,000 Chinese nationals working on different CPEC projects in Pakistan which also has some 60,000 local people on different jobs.
The Chinese are both concerned and irked by the security, and for both its need and its efficacy. The growing role of the militant bodies, some of which have been created and nutured by the military establishment and who have begun to cock the snook at the mentors/benefactors cannot be ignored by the Chinese who are in Pakistan with men, material and money.
Having achieved their strategic goal by gaining access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan, the Chinese are now posing themselves as ‘businesmen.’
Muhammad Akbar Notezai who works with daily Dawn, on a trip with other media colleagues, was told by his hosts: “You know, we are businessmen. So, we visit Pakistan for the same purpose. But unfortunately, when we are in Pakistan, we have to visit places under stringent security.
The Chinese official further asked: “Why do we have to have all the security? We want freedom of movement in order to meet people, not security. That is our main concern. Because we are businessmen.”
Recalling the December 7 warning, Notezai writes in The Diplomat magazine: “Undoubtedly, Chinese are concerned about the security situation in Pakistan. China has only recently warned its citizens about possible threats in Pakistan. This is alarming for Pakistan, which is aware of its obligation to provide safe environment for all foreign visitors, including Chinese nationals, and understands that security is a prerequisite for development and investment.
“Although security forces in Pakistan claim to have disrupted the network of militants groups in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, the militancy has yet to end.
“In Balochistan, Chinese nationals have been killed by militants. In Sindh, a Chinese engineer was targeted in a roadside bomb in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh province, while on his way to Port Qasim, but fortunately escaped unhurt. In this context, China’s recent warning to its citizens about possible threats is unsurprising. The militants are still active, and Pakistan must do much more to make sure Chinese and other nationals can visit in safety.”
Drawing a contrast that is flawed, but gives a relatively better picture of the Punjab province, Notezai writes:
“Thankfully, the environment for Chinese and foreign nationals in Pakistan’s most populous and developed Punjab province is safe. They can roam freely, as well as can interact with people with ease. For these reasons, Chinese investment is mostly directed toward Punjab.”
Despite the constant reminders to the world that China and Pakistan are “all-weather friends” and their friendship is clad in ‘iron’, Notezai notes that “people-to-people contact between Pakistan and China is extremely limited. At the grass roots level, their people know little or nothing about each other.”
A Chinese professor at Sichuan University told him bluntly: “This is all because of one reason: security.
“Chinese cannot openly and freely interact with their Pakistani friends for that reason. So there is no substantial engagement between them, which is why they are not fully aware of each other. If there were no security issue, then the people of the two countries could better understand and intermingle with each other.”
Conceding implicitly that the Chinese Uighur are trained and sheltered by and in Pakistan, Notezai says that “security forces have been pushing back on militants, including Uighurs in North Waziristan. For this reason, Chinese complaints about Uighur militants have dwindled in recent years.”
The Pakistan security establishment’s campaign ‘nationwide’ against the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) and other groups has resulted in “peace is being restored in some parts of the country that were once no-go areas.”
Notezai poses the inevitable question: “But is the peace temporary or permanent?
He quotes Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khalid who he said was “ confident on the question of the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan.”
“The state of Pakistan is providing security to Chinese nationals, and they (Chinese) are satisfied with that.”
Notazai takes this with a pinch of salt.
“The ambassador may be right about the claim of providing security to Chinese nationals in Pakistan. However, that is not the question. The question is: When can Chinese move around Pakistan without security?”
The answer to this may be, if not ‘never’, it may be, “not for a long, long time to come.”