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Belt and Road

Deadly IS attack threatens China's Belt and Road in Pakistan

Prime Minister Imran Khan pressured at home to act against militants

Demonstrators gather on Jan. 7 in Lahore, Pakistan to protest the killing of miners by IS militants.   © AP

KARACHI -- A deadly attack by the Islamic State group in the southwestern region of Pakistan targeting Shiite coal miners has again revived security threats for China's Belt and Road Initiative and increased pressure on Prime Minister Imran Khan to act against the militants.

In the morning of Jan. 3, unidentified assailants abducted 11 coal miners from Mach town, 48 km east of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan Province. The attackers blindfolded the coal miners and killed them by slitting their throats. All the slain coal miners belonged to the ethnic minority Shiite Hazara community.

Later, Islamic State Khorasan Province -- an IS offshoot with purported hideouts in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- claimed responsibility for the attack via the group's Amaq news agency. The militant group also released pictures of the slaughter.

These brutal killings triggered a protest in Quetta by the Hazara community with the bodies of the slain coal miners. Protesters refused to bury the dead until the Pakistan government took concrete steps to provide security in the future. The protest ended on Saturday at midnight when the regional Balochistan government agreed to form a high-powered investigative commission.

This attack by IS has revived security threats to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC -- the $50 billion Pakistan component of the Belt and Road Initiative.

According to IS ideology, atheist China is an enemy because it has forcibly encroached on Muslims in China's Xinjiang Province by not allowing Uighur Muslims to practice Islam.

Islamic State has previously attacked Chinese nationals in Balochistan. In May 2017, the group kidnapped two Chinese nationals from Quetta, announcing that both had been killed the following month. That incident halted the free movement of Chinese nationals in Quetta city.

According to experts, this attack by IS has left Balochistan unsafe for Belt and Road projects in the future. Bostan, the site chosen for one of the nine Special Economic Zones under the second phase of CPEC, is located 100 km north of Mach where the coal miners were killed.

"The deteriorating situation in Balochistan is only likely to generate more difficulties for the already problematic implementation of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects in the province," Jeremy Garlick, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Economics in Prague, told Nikkei Asia. He added that this terror incident could also hinder further initiatives to obtain foreign direct investment in Balochistan.

Despite mounting security threats, experts believe that Beijing will not delay projects in Balochistan. "Beijing has long demonstrated a large risk tolerance for deploying capital in unstable areas," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at Wilson Center, adding "We see this not only in Pakistan but also in its investments in volatile areas of Africa and Southeast Asia."

Mourners of the tragedy that hit Pakistan's minority Shiite Hazara community   © Reuters

But this latest attack will further show Beijing just how precarious the security situation is in Balochistan. "We've already seen recent upsurges in separatist violence, and the additional reality of [Islamic State] means that Chinese projects face the twin threat of separatist and Islamist terror," Kugelman added.

This terror attack and the subsequent protests by the Hazara community have also put huge pressure on Pakistan's government to root out IS militants from Balochistan. Experts believe that the government has been put on the defensive, and the optics have been dreadful.

"This [terror attack] will, at the least, prompt Beijing to pressure Islamabad to provide better security in the region; not a new demand by Beijing, and one that hasn't had its intended effects, given that the violence continues to flare," Kugelman said.

While Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, Pakistani officials still blame India for orchestrating this attack to destabilize Pakistan.

"It's a well-thought-out move and in this gambit, the target is to stir the Shiite-Sunni fault line in the country, which will have negative domestic and foreign policy implications for Pakistan," Senator Anwaar ul Haq Kakar told Nikkei.

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