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Belt and Road

Pakistan insurgent attacks on China project seen to persist

Despite high risks to CPEC, Beijing will not back down on investments, experts say

A Paramilitary soldier takes position beside a wall during an attack on the Chinese consulate, where blasts and shots were heard, in Karachi, Pakistan on Nov. 23, 2018.   © Reuters

KARACHI -- An armed attack by Pakistan's Baloch insurgents at the Pearl Continental Hotel near strategic Gwadar port indicates that Chinese interests in Balochistan will continue to be targeted.

On Saturday evening, four militants stormed the Pearl Continental, a heavily guarded luxury hotel about 1 1/2 km from Gwadar port. Foreign investors and businessmen, including Chinese, frequently stay at the hotel.

Militants gained control of a portion of the hotel and it took security forces more than 12 hours to clear the building. The operation ended with nine people dead, including all four attackers. Four hotel staff members and one Pakistani commando were among the dead. Officials claim no guests were harmed.

Majeed Brigade of the Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack. "China or any other foreign power will not be allowed to exploit the natural resources of Balochistan and they will be targeted with brute force until and unless they leave Balochistan," BLA spokesman Jeeand Baloch said in a statement released to media.

In November last year, the same group claimed responsibility for an attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the hotel attack, calling it "a bid to sabotage economic prosperity in Pakistan." The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad also denounced the attack and praised the response of Pakistan's armed forces.

BLA claimed that dozens of Chinese were killed, but this could not be verified and government officials have rejected the assertion.

Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a U.S.-based research institute, said that "on a tactical level the attack may not have been a major success, given that reports suggest there were minimal casualties."

He added, however, that the raid was a major blow to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. "It took place in the city that houses Gwadar port, one of the cornerstones of the entire CPEC enterprise," he said. "And it was an attack on a high-profile and highly secured target in a strongly secured city."

Experts believe that although a major issue, the attack will not force China to revamp CPEC policy. "China will not fundamentally rethink its policy of investments in Pakistan after this attack," said Dr. James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He noted that China has higher risk appetite compared to other foreign investors, hence such attacks will not force China to change course.

Kugelman agrees. "China has a track record not just in Pakistan but elsewhere in the world for tolerating ample security risks in areas where it invests heavily." He also stated that Chinese publicly support Pakistan's efforts to address security challenges, but in private worry about their investments, despite their high risk tolerance.

After the attack, social media users and a number influential journalists demanded action against BLA militants to safeguard CPEC.

"While it is tempting to see the attack as a breach of security and call for more securitization of the region, this will not resolve the problem," said Professor Dibyesh Anand, head of social sciences at the University of Westminster, London.

He explained that unless CPEC is recast as inclusive development by China and Pakistan and that local Baloch are made stakeholders, attacks like these are likely to continue.

Kugelman believes that Pakistan has never hesitated to crack down against the BLA and its supporters, and this time will be no different. This is especially true considering the location and target of the attack, which dealt a significant blow to Pakistan and its critical ally China.

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