This week’s suicide attack in Karachi that killed three Chinese nationals poses a challenge for Pakistan's new leaders at a time when they may be looking to improve ties with Beijing.
A separatist group, the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), claimed responsibility for the blast, saying a lone female suicide bomber had carried it out. Pakistan’s government quickly said it would find and punish those responsible.
“I strongly condemn this cowardly act of terrorism. The perpetrators will surely be brought to justice,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif wrote on Twitter.
But Pakistan has been trying for more than a decade to halt separatist militants' attacks on Chinese workers. The militants have targeted Pakistani and Chinese workers involved in development projects in Baluchistan, accusing them of extracting resources without compensating local people. In 2019, Washington designated the BLA as a terrorist organization.
As China’s investments in Pakistan have grown, particularly since the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) creating links from Pakistani ports to Chinese road networks, relations with Beijing have only grown more important.
Analysts expect the Sharif administration to strengthen economic and political relations with the Chinese government, noting that it was under Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister from 2013 to 2017 and the brother of the incumbent, that the CPEC was solidified.
“We can certainly expect to see a renewed focus and a center of attention on CPEC because it aligns so well with the core sort of goals of the PML [Pakistan Muslim League] and both Sharif brothers,” said Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington.
Other analysts such as former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, who served from 2008 to 2011 under then-Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani, said there is room to improve the China-Pakistan relationship following the ouster of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who lost a no-confidence motion in parliament this month.
“It is important to note that Mr. Imran Khan was a particularly inept leader, and he also was prone to a lot of erratic and whimsical decision-making,” said Haqqani, who is now director of South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, a research group in Washington.
"The Chinese did not like that, so there was a problem of style that affected certain aspects of the Sino-Pakistan relationship. A more experienced and more calm-demeanored political leadership will take away that part of that irritant out of the relationship,” Haqqani said.
Role of the military
Other analysts, including Christine Fair of Georgetown University in Washington, say regardless of who is in power, Pakistan’s army largely sets the country’s foreign and economic policies. And because the army prioritizes its relationship with China, so will the country’s civilian leaders.
“I don't think they have a choice, because you can't really rely upon [the] U.S. weapons supply," Fair said. "You just can't, because the United States is kind of fed up with Pakistan. Plus, the Pakistan army loves to use its relationship with China as a way of leveraging its importance vis-a-vis the United States.”
As evidence of the military’s influence, analyst Madiha Afzal pointed out that before Khan’s election in 2018, his party had called for scrutinizing or renegotiating the terms of Beijing’s loans for building the economic corridor.
"It never happened because Pakistan's military’s relationship with China was sort of a constant and remained strong, and Khan eventually sort of came around to that side of things as well,” Afzal said.
Now, both the military and the country’s civilian leaders have a common challenge in the separatist group responsible for this week’s attack. A spokesman for BLA warned of “harsher” attacks unless China halts its projects in the country.