Category Archives: China-Pakistan

Karachi Deaths Will Underscore Beijing’s CPEC Security Concerns

THE DEATHS OF three Chinese teachers in a suicide bombing in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan’s Sindh province, is the latest attack on nationals and infrastructure connected with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a critical link in the Belt and Road as it connects western China to the Arabian Sea opposite Oman.

The blast occurred outside the entrance to the University of Karachi’s Confucius Institute, where the three were teachers. A fourth was injured. The Pakistani driver of the minivan carrying them also died.

The Baloch Liberation Army, a separatist group that says that China-funded projects exploit the local population, has claimed responsibility for the attack. It has long gone after Chinese targets within and beyond its home province.

The response of the foreign ministry, expressing grave concern and calling on Islamabad to punish the perpetrators, suggests that Beijing still hopes that the Pakistani authorities can improve security for its Pakistan-based nationals. 

That may be hoping against hope, given the increasing sophistication and coordination of the Baloch insurgents’ attacks, both on Chinese interests and Pakistan’s military.

Proving that it can blunt the threat of the Balochi and other Pakistani militant groups that pose to Chinese interests — last year, the Pakistan Taliban was deemed responsible for the deaths of nine Chinese nationals in an explosion that hit a bus convoy carrying engineers to a hydro-power plant construction site in northern Pakistan — will be a challenge for new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s administration and the military-security establishment.

The two countries have an ‘all-weather’ strategic partnership whose importance was reaffirmed during the visit of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan to Beijing during February’s Beijing Winter Olympics. That trip brought multiple attacks on Pakistani military bases, which renewed Beijing’s pressure on Islamabad to keep Chinese assets and citizens in Pakistan safe — a concern that has again been tragically reinforced.

Update: The Baloch Liberation Army said on April 27 that it would intensify its attacks on Chinese targets. Meanwhile, the suicide bomber has been identified as a 30-year old mother of two who was studying for a master’s degree at the university. Female suicide bombers are rare in Pakistan.

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China’s Debt Diplomacy Takes A Credit Hit

SRI LANKA AND Pakistan might count as among the ‘dangerous and chaotic places’ that President Xi Jinping last November advised Belt and Road (BRI) investors to avoid. Both are strategically important waystations along the BRI that are under severe financial stress and in political turmoil.

As friends of China, both would be looking east for assistance, aid that Beijing is being slow to provide. It has not yet reissued a promised $4 billion of loans to replace those Pakistan paid off in late March. Nor has it responded to Sri Lanka’s request for $2.5 billion in credit support.

China has become the largest government creditor over the past decade. Its state-owned policy banks often best the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in annual lending to developing countries.

The scale of that lending and the lack of transparency as to its terms have drawn criticism for exacerbating debt problems in poorer countries and accusations of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan’s optimism that Beijing will come through for them is running into a new realism in Beijing. This is already evident in China’s circumspect approach to debt relief in Africa.

At last November’s high-level BRI symposium, Xi urged a cautious approach to lending along the Belt and Road. For the past couple of years, it has been apparent to top leadership that China’s banks have taken on too much debt in countries with uncertain repayment prospects.

A slowing economy at home and the persistence of domestic financial stability concerns have only made these worries more acute.

Securing approval for new credit lines is becoming harder even for policy banks as authorities emphasise the need for improved risk management and controls.

Sri Lanka has already turned to IMF in Washington for help with preparing an economic recovery programme as a basis for restructuring its debt and emergency financial assistance. Pakistan’s new leaders also plan to work with the IMF to stabilise the country’s economy.

Sri Lanka, in particular, will have as weak a negotiating hand with the IMF as it has had with Beijing.

China’s concern will be that Sri Lanka will have to accede to IMF demands, including who should occupy key government positions. That could mean a government less well disposed to China than some of its predecessors.

Similarly, the ousting of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister may cost Beijing a friendly if not necessarily firm ally in a country that provides an essential connection between the BRI’s two halves.

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Pakistan’s Imran Needs To Reassure China

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (left), at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, February 6, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua/Liu Weibing

AFTER VLADIMIR PUTIN, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, seen on the left in the photograph above, is arguably the highest-profile visiting world leader to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Pakistan is a strategically important interconnection between the two halves of The Belt and Road. Imran’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang resulted in a lengthy statement affirming the importance of bilateral ties, with notable mention of joint commitment to the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The corridor has been under attack by ethnic Baloch militants seeking independence for a vast, mountainous, mineral-rich region that straddles Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

A low-level insurgency has been underway for two decades. Chinese nationals and infrastructure along the corridor have become favoured targets. At its northern end lies Xinjiang province with its onward connections to the energy markets of China and Central Asia, and at the southern, Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base.

The level of violence has flared up in recent weeks, with dozens of deaths of Pakistani military and militants. Attacks on army posts in Pakistan’s Balochistan province the day before Imran arrived in Beijing were better coordinated and more sophisticated than before. The timing is unlikely to have been coincidental.

Baloch militants greeted Imran’s return from Beijing with another attack on the provincial capital, Quetta.

Although Islamabad has got its latest bailout programme with the IMF, for $6 billion, back on track, Pakistan’s economy remains in a parlous state. It still needs Beijing’s money and China remains its key partner in a delicate four-way geopolitical dance also involving India and the United States.

Imran has also been battling with the Pakistani Taliban Movement. Both it and the Balochistan Nationalist Army claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in Lahore last month.

The Pakistani prime minister will have had to reassure his increasingly nervous hosts that he is on top of the security situation. Tellingly, the first thing he did on his return from Beijing was to cancel a scheduled Cabinet meeting to visit Balochistan province to discuss the corridor and the security situation.


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Lithuania To China: Don’t Call Us…

Screenshot of Huawei P40,  Xiaomi Mi 10T and OnePlus 8T 5G smartphones

LITHUANIA KNOWS A thing or two about standing up to large Communist states. It also has previous with China, most recently over the naming of Taipei’s representative office in Vilnius as Taiwan’s, which led to Beijing demanding Vilnius recall its ambassador.

Thus the exhortation this week by its defence ministry to Lithuanians to throw away their Chinese smartphones and not buy new ones fits a pattern.

The advice followed a cybersecurity analysis by the ministry’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) of three 5G-enabled smartphones introduced into the Lithuanian market last year and seen in the screenshot above. There is one each from Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus, a brand of BBK Electronics that also owns the Oppo and Vivo brands. 

The NCSC found that:

  • Huawei’s official app gallery directs users to third-party online stores that sell malicious or virus-infected apps, raising data breach risks; 
  • all three devices routed user data through servers based in third countries such as Singapore that are not covered by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and are Chinese company-owned, meaning the data would have to be turned over to Chinese authorities on request; and 
  • Xiaomi’s smartphones have a built-in censorship feature, which it says is deactivated in Europe but, the NCSC says, can be activated remotely. 

Each device uses a variant of Google’s Android operating system.

Huawei says no user data is sent externally and Xiaomi that it does not censor communications. However, the NCSC’s findings will confirm the mounting fears in Western countries that Beijing is using the commercial prowess of its technology companies to advance the deployment of its growing cyber capabilities, particularly for espionage and data gathering. 

The NCSC will release further findings by the end of the year, likely intensifying the European backlash against Chinese hardware.

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China Will Move Cautiously But Purposefully In Afghanistan

Map showing location of Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan

BEIJING HAS PROBABLY been as taken aback as the rest of the world by the speed with which the Taliban has resumed control of Afghanistan — and created an American-sized power vacuum in the region.

China will, however, be in no hurry to rush in to fill it, even as its leaders take private delight in what they will regard as further evidence of the global decline of the United States.

In the near term, Beijing will happily profess its philosophy of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs. At the same time, it will buy as much peace and stability from the Taliban as it can while keeping the Wakhan Corridor tightly bottled up.

The eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor, a remote mountain valley on the ‘roof of the world’, forms China’s short (less than 100 kilometres) horseshoe-shaped border with Afghanistan. An ancient trade route spilling into Xinjiang through the Wakhjir Pass, it has long been closed at the Chinese end for fear of the drugs, Uighur separatists or other extremists that might flow through it. Tajikistan and Pakistan, to the north and south, respectively, also provide a physical buffer between Afghanistan and China.

Beijing provided modest military and economic support for the now-collapsed Kabul government for the past several years — including training some of the police who melted away in the face of the Taliban advance. Yet, it will have no compunction about pivoting to deal with the Taliban.

It has probably already used its influence in Pakistan to build connections with the new regime. It can offer security and economic assistance in return for protecting Chinese commercial interests and assurances that the Taliban will not support Uyghur militant forces or allow them to use the country as a base or transit route.

As a secondary objective, it will also seek the use of the Taliban’s influence in assuaging its growing security concerns for Chinese citizens and interests along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The ‘March West‘ policy since the mid-2010s has led Beijing to be increasingly involved in West Asia and the Middle East, not only deepening its relationships with Iran and Pakistan but expanding engagement with other regional powers such as Saudia Arabia.

However, what should have been a serious complication for China’s regional relationships — its treatment of the Uighurs — has been notably buttoned down by Beijing. Few Middle Eastern leaders have spoken out publicly on this — a sign of the importance of the growing ties in other areas plus Beijing’s ability to use its economic clout to dampen international criticism of its domestic policies.

The March West is, however, a journey of influence and transactional relationships, not empire. Beijing knows full well that Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires.

The issue that Beijing will eventually have to face in Afghanistan is the one that has confronted other outside powers before it: it is difficult to maintain a neutral position in a part of the world where there are so many overlapping and longstanding rivalries and conflicts.

It will be even more challenging when the time comes, as it surely will, for Beijing to step up its diplomatic and security engagement beyond the purely mercantilist.

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Djibouti Bound

Chinese warships leaving Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China on July 11, 2017 bound for China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Photo credit: Xinhua/Wu Dengfeng.

CHINESE MILITARY PERSONNEL are now en route for Djibouti where they will garrison China’s first overseas military base, which it started building last year at a cost of $590 million.

The photo above shows the departure from Zhanjiang in Guangdong province of the South Sea Fleet’s Jinggang Shan, a Yuzhao class Type 071 amphibious transport dock that had previously been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,  along with a second PLA-Navy ship, China’s sole semi-submersible Donghai Island class naval auxiliary ship.

The Horn of Africa country, only half as big again as municipal Beijing, is already home to US, French and Japanese military bases with a Saudi Arabian one, like China’s, under construction.

China’s base will be used for supporting peacekeeping (Beijing has deployed its first UN peacekeeping combat troops in South Sudan), international anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden (in which China has taken part since 2008) and humanitarian aid.

It will also provide advanced support, should it be needed, for the more than 250,000 Chinese now working in Africa — and the Chinese investments where they work. Evacuations of nationals have already been needed in Libya and Yemen.

China stresses that Djibouti will be a logistics or support, not military base. The question is, however it is described, whether it is the first of one, several or many such overseas beachheads.

The US defence department’s recent annual report to the US Congress on China’s military prowess took this definitive view:

As China’s global footprint and international interests have gown, its military modernization program and become more focused on supporting missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea land security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). In February 2016, China began constitution of a military base in Djibouti that could be complete within the next year. China likely will seek to establish additional military based in countries with which it has long-standing, friendly relationships.

The US defence department pinpoints Pakistan as best fitting that bill. Given the growing economic interests at stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through both some insecure but strategically important territory, and China’s extensive role in building a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, that seems a logical deduction.

However, many other countries will not be receptive to the notion of hosting PLA bases, and Chinese military doctrine sees prowess in cyber, space and information warfare as more potent than building a traditional network of military allies.

Indeed, current doctrine sees power projection assets as a vulnerability in modern warfare. That alone will be cause for China to move cautiously on establishing further bases.

At the same time, Beijing will use China’s economic linkages to cement support among those with similar security interests and to deter adversary power projection in third countries, particularly that by the United States.

For now, gaining access to foreign commercial ports for as a logistics base and for pre-positioning of support of “far seas” deployments by the PLA-Navy is likely to be the order of the day. That, anyway, is what would be needed for the HA/DR operations that Beijing is likely to concentrate on while its military learns to find its way around the world.

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The China-Aligned Movement

PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S will be arriving in Indonesia for the 60th Anniversary of the Bandung Conference by way of Pakistan. There could be no more apt metaphor for how China’s place in the world has changed.

At Bandung in 1955, Zhou Enlai and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru bestrode the emerging movement of African and Asian leaders summoned by Indonesia’s President Suharto to come together in ‘non-aligned’ anti-colonial solidarity — a “meeting of the rejected” as the American author Richard Wright who attended the conference described it.

Six decades on, Xi arrives having just announced $46 billion in Chinese investment in Pakistan, partly for energy but also to construct transport, energy and communications links between the western Chinese city of Kashgar and the blue-water port of Gwadar.

It is just one leg in the southern corridor of a grand Chinese scheme to create a new network of land and sea routes between East Asia and Europe. This New Silk Belt and Maritime Economic Road is such a central part of Xi’s foreign-policy initiative that the Politburo has set up a leading team to oversee its implementation .

As this Bystander has noted before,

to Beijing, Pakistan looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the blue water ports of the Arabian Sea and thus access to shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The distance is relatively short, less than 1,500 kilometers as the crow flies, but at the northern end the terrain is difficult, the weather harsh, borders unsettled and security uncertain.

Road and rail links are patchy, particularly north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and frequently disrupted. Nor is there yet a motorway connecting the capital to the southern port city of Karachi, let alone to Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base.

Xi described his trip to Pakistan, his first, as being like visiting his brother’s home. The two countries don’t seem familial allies, even if they have been discussing turning Pakistan into an energy pipeline for China since at least 2006. Not that they couch it in such terms: Xi calls it an “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation”.

In the meantime, Beijing has been dancing delicately with its regional rival, Delhi. Xi’s bounteous trip to Pakistan, though, will make Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China next month — a reciprocal visit for Xi’s trip to India last September — an uncomfortable one. It will be telling to see whether China is more a bestower or receiver of gifts on that occasion.

Modi has been taking a more assertive line with China than his predecessor, particularly in the Indian Ocean. He has also aligned India more closely with the U.S., signing a strategic agreement with Washington during President Barack Obama’s visit earlier this year.

Beijing blatantly cosying up to Pakistan will sit ill with India. Non-aligned no more — on either side. Bandung in 1955 seems not only a very different time, but a very different world.

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