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Belt and Road

Terrorist attacks show Pakistan's need to reassure China on security

Suicide bombing on key part of Belt and Road may make Beijing nervous

The attack took place in southwestern Balochistan Province, the heart of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. @AFP/Jiji

QUETTA, Pakistan -- Terrorist attacks on Chinese workers in southwest Pakistan are unnerving Beijing, just as Islamabad seeks financial support from its neighbor to pull out of a balance of payments crisis.

A suicide bomber wounded six people, including three Chinese engineers, earlier this month in an attack on a bus near the town of Dalbandin in Balochistan Province.

The Baloch Liberation Army, a banned separatist group, claimed responsibility for the blast, saying it was carried out "to warn China to vacate Balochistan and stop plundering its resources."

Baloch insurgent groups carried out fatal attacks on Chinese in 2004 and 2006, and earlier this year an unidentified gunman killed the Chinese general manager of Cosco Shipping Lines Company in Karachi.

Last week's attack was the first suicide bombing targeting Chinese in Balochistan, which is at the heart of the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor -- a massive series of projects that include a network of highways, railways and energy infrastructure that span the entire country.

CPEC is a flagship project in China's ambitious Belt and Road initiative, and a key for Pakistan's economy as it struggles to keep creditors at bay. Any further attacks may give Beijing jitters about whether it can continue to send workers to the country, making it necessary for Pakistan to reassure China over the safety of its citizens.

Pakistan's foreign currency reserves have halved over the past 20 months, with Chinese lending and devaluations of the rupee keeping the nation afloat. At around $10 billion, the country's reserves are barely enough to finance two months of imports.

China has hinted that it will lend Pakistan enough money to avert a crisis, and Islamabad needs to keep Beijing satisfied because its only other option is a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, which the U.S. opposes.

"Beijing will continue to be nervous," said Michael Kugelman, deputy editor of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, a U.S. think tank. "One of the key assurances China will want to get from Pakistan's new government is that there will be sufficient security for CPEC and the Chinese workers helping develop it."

Kugelman added that most terrorist attacks in Pakistan have occurred on or near actual or envisioned CPEC routes.

Imran Khan, the country's new prime minister, has to ensure the security of Chinese personnel working in Pakistan to ensure CPEC progresses smoothly.

He told the Chinese ambassador on July 30 that his party gives "resolute support to the Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC, and believes that cooperation in CPEC will offer significant opportunities to Pakistan."

Imran Khan, Pakistan's incoming prime minister   © Reuters

The Financial Times has reported that China is directly negotiating with Baloch separatists to protect its investment in Pakistan.

Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow with German Marshall Fund's Asia Program, said that Chinese officials routinely seek out contact with groups to discourage them from targeting Chinese investments.

"The scope for China to negotiate with insurgents is limited," said the author of "The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics."

"The Chinese can offer economic incentives, but on political matters, the Pakistani government is the relevant interlocutor."

On Monday, Imran Khan talked on the phone with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and vowed to coordinate closely with China on all "issues of mutual concern," according to a press release from Khan’s office.

“China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a project of national significance and will remain a priority during his government," Khan told Li, according to the press release. He also lauded the services of Chinese workers in the development of Pakistan.

The remarks were made after the Chinese premier voiced his hope that the project will be completed as scheduled.

Li invited Khan to visit China, to which Khan replied that he is “eagerly looking forward” to his first visit to the country and invited Li to visit Pakistan.

Nikkei staff writer Yuji Kuronuma in New Delhi and Mitsuru Obe in Tokyo contributed to this article.

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