Express Opinion: A Fragile Corridor between China and Pakistan

Over just one week, Pakistan has witnessed three major attacks on strategic sites. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle filled with explosives into a convoy near Besham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, carrying Chinese workers from a hydel power project in Dasu. Five Chinese nationals and a Pakistani driver were killed in the attack. On Monday night, Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) fighters attacked a naval airbase in Turbat in Balochistan, killing at least one soldier. And days before that, the BLA attacked Gwadar, where the port is a major part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is the lynchpin of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. It would be a mistake for Rawalpindi and Islamabad to view the attacks as merely a security issue. They point to the broader vulnerability of Pakistan’s political-economy.

China has reacted strongly to the attacks while reiterating its ties with Pakistan. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lin Jian exhorted Islamabad to “hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice” and said that “no attempt to sabotage China-Pakistan cooperation will ever succeed”. The rhetoric around the “iron-clad friendship” notwithstanding, the strategic and political costs of the CPEC are growing. The latest round of attacks is not the first, of course: In 2021, nine workers from the Dasu plant were killed in a suicide bombing, allegedly by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Outfits like the TTP and ISIS-K have long harboured anti-China sentiments and Baloch insurgents and the BLA see the CPEC as detrimental to their broader aspirations.

Pakistan’s security issues — ranging from its conflicts with Iran and Afghanistan on its western borders to the Baloch separatist insurgency — demand more than just a military response. The fact is that the country’s leadership has placed far too many eggs in the CPEC basket. The reliance on China, coupled with its prolonged economic crisis, has made Pakistan more vulnerable on multiple fronts. To address this vulnerability, the country needs a systemic overhaul. The first step should be to open up and diversify the economy. Opening up trade ties with India could send a much-needed signal: It would indicate a much-needed level of maturity on the part of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It would display to the global community that Pakistan’s leadership has the capacity to keep parochial political rhetoric in its place for the sake of the economy. A more broad-based economy is an end in itself. But it will also make Pakistan safer — as things stand, CPEC sites and personnel are prime targets as a disruption to the project has the potential to trigger a larger instability.

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