China’s daydream of imperialism faces challenge in its backyards

Thanks to the attempts by the leaders of the Communist Party of China to exploit two neighbours of China of their resources, natural as well as financial, Chinese citizens are on the receiving end in Beijing’s all-weather ally Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan which it has treated as its backyard since the exit of the United States from the scene. China’s “daydream of imperialism” seems to have received a jolt.

A measure of the insecurity is that all Chinese nationals working in China Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan have been asked to move in bullet-proof vehicles when outdoors; while on December 13, following a coordinated attack the previous day by Islamic State Khorasan Province militants on a Chinese-owned hotel in the heart of Kabul, Beijing advised Chinese citizens in Afghanistan to leave the country “as soon as possible.”

The decision on movement in bullet-proof vehicles was taken after Beijing expressed concern to Islamabad about the security of Chinese workers against terrorist attacks in Pakistan.  In the beginning of November 2022 when Prime Minister of Pakistan Shebaz Sharif travelled to Beijing to congratulate President of China Xi Jinping on his election to the post of President for a record third time, the latter gave him a mouthful on the incidents of attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan.

According to the draft minutes of the 11th Joint Cooperation Committee of the CPEC held on October 27, 2022, both sides agreed to strengthen the capabilities of the law-enforcing agencies and investigators, The Express Tribune reported, quoting from the draft of the minutes. “It has been decided that bullet-proof vehicles shall be used for all outdoor movements of the Chinese employed on projects.” The formal report of the meeting put up on the website of CPEC Authority said: “Pakistan also assured Chinese counterparts to continue to beef up the security of Chinese workers under CPEC projects and in this regard several initiatives have been taken.”

Beijing has, of course, demanded more; asking Islamabad to let Chinese security personnel protect Chinese nationals. Islamabad has so far resisted the pressure as it will make it too glaring that Pakistan has turned into a colony of China.

Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif met President of China Xi Jinping in Beijing in November 2022 to congratulate him on his election for a third term in power. In reply Xi expressed in no uncertain terms his “deep concern” over the security of Chinese nationals working in Pakistan. “I am deeply concerned about the security of Chinese people in Pakistan and hope that Pakistan will provide a reliable and safe environment for Chinese institutions and personnel going to Pakistan for cooperation,” Xi told Sharif, according to an official statement.

This was the second time in as many months that Xi had expressed concern to Sharif over the recurring attacks on Chinese nationals working in Pakistan by the Baloch Nationalist Army and other militant groups that opposed Chinese investments under China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Xi met Sharif in October on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit at Samarkand and called for providing solid protection for hundreds of Chinese working on the CPEC projects.

Among the two major attacks in Pakistan on Chinese nationals was the bomb attack on a bus belonging to a hydro power project in Dasu in 2021, killing nine Chinese engineers; and the killing of three Chinese teachers in the Confucius Institute in Karachi in April 2022. There have been a number of other smaller attacks and deaths of Chinese nationals.

People in Pakistan are unhappy over the CPEC projects as land has often been acquired forcibly and without adequate compensation and Chinese people have been employed in these projects, ignoring the claim of the locals. Thermal power plants set up under the CPEC are extremely polluting. The Baloch Nationalist Army has accused China of exploiting the resources of the Baloch province under the pretext of CPEC projects. At Gwadar Port, the flagship project of CPEC, there have been protests by local fishermen over the presence of Chinese fishing trawlers in the area. The Chinese people engaged in CPEC projects are accused of having an aggressive and dominant attitude.

CPEC had been projected as a game-changer, bringing job and prosperity to the poor province of Balochistan. The Baloch Liberation Army thinks that instead the Chinese are colluding with the non-Baloch administration in Balochistan to exploit the province. In Sindh province, too, there have been pro-freedom slogans in which China has been accused of exploiting the resources of the province. There have been protests against Chinese presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well. In Pak-Occupied Kashmir in Muzaffarabad, there was a big protest in July 2020 against the Neelum Jhelum and Kohala hydro power stations built by China because of their adverse environmental impact.

 Beijing too is unhappy over delays in execution of the CPEC projects. There are reports of clouds hanging over the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan. China is concerned over Pakistan warming up to the U.S.; with the report of use of Pakistani air bases by American drones to conduct attacks in Afghanistan.

There were conflicting reports about the number of deaths and injuries in the attack on Kabul Longan Hotel on the afternoon of December 12. According to one report, it left three assailants dead and at least two hotel guests injured as they tried to jump out of a window to escape. The ISKP said only two of its members had taken place in the attack. The Emergency Hospital in Kabul said it had received 21 casualties, including the bodies of three people.

There was no information on the identities of the injured Chinese guests or what they were doing in Afghanistan. The ISKP has left no one in doubt about the reason for the attack. The hotel was attacked because it was frequented by diplomats and owned by “communist China,” the ISKP statement said.

Following the Kabul attack, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry of China Wang Wenbin said China was “deeply shocked.” Beijing demanded a “thorough investigation” and asked the Taliban government in Afghanistan “to take resolute and strong measures to ensure safety of Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in Afghanistan.” The Chinese embassy in Kabul sent its team to the hotel to help with the rescue, treatment and accommodation for the victims of the attack. “In view of the current situation in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs one again advised Chinese citizens and institutions in Afghanistan to evacuate from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

The Kabul attack has rattled Beijing which has economic and mining interests in Afghanistan. Chinese firms, with strong government backing, have sought to pursue opportunities to exploit the vast, undeveloped resource deposits of Afghanistan, especially the Mes Aynak copper mine that is believed to hold the largest copper deposit of the world. The value of mineral deposits in Afghanistan is estimated to be between $1 trillion and $3 trillion, which China is keen to exploit with the help of the Taliban regime. China also wants to extend its exploitative Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan.

Even when NATO troops were present in Afghanistan, several Chinese companies had negotiated major contracts in Afghanistan for the exploration and exploitation of its hydro-carbon deposits. The Afghan people did not encourage these exploitative projects. Some local workers for the Chinese projects had been killed and kidnapped, rendering the projects non-starters.

 Beijing also demands that the Taliban government in Afghanistan handover to China the Uyghur militants who are sheltered in Afghanistan and from there carry out their movement in the Xinjiang region of China. Members of the Turkestan Islamic Party, these militants want to separate the region of Xinjiang from China and free the oppressed Uyghur people from the grasp of China. According to reports, the Taliban has so far resisted Chinese pressure to hand over the militants who are fellow Muslims to Beijing and has relocated them from the Badakhshan province in north- Afghanistan bordering China to the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Analysts say this relocation should be interpreted not as a sign of cooperation of Taliban with Beijing but maintaining a thin dividing line from China. During the rule of Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, too, the Uyghur militants were removed from border regions to interior parts of Afghanistan; but the Taliban rulers had stopped short of handing over these TIP fighters to the Chinese authorities.

Beijing is putting pressure on the Taliban to clamp down on the TIP militants. When China hosted Taliban leaders in July 2021 before the formation of the Taliban government in Kabul, Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi had asked his guests to deal firmly with the Uyghur population sheltered in Afghanistan.

This has provided an opportunity to the ISKP to attract TIP militants to join their forces and strengthen the anti-China movement in Afghanistan. Since its formation in 2014, IS has seldom been soft on China. ISKP is critical of China’s treatment of Uyghur and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. In September 2022, the ISKP published a critique of China, belittling the BRI and calling the communist leaders of China “red atheists whose hands are soaked with the blood of innocent Uyghur Muslims.” Their magazine, The Voice of Khorasan, called the Chinese “tyrants” with a “daydream of imperialism” and threatened that the BRI projects in Afghanistan could face losses because of lack of proper business environment.