WASHINGTON - Pakistan aims to tighten security for the thousands of Chinese nationals working in the country after a Chinese couple was abducted and later allegedly killed by Islamic State raising safety concerns about major economic projects that Beijing has undertaken to benefit both countries.
Pakistani officials said they will form thousands-strong police protection forces and keep a closer watch on the movements and whereabouts of Chinese nationals. The move comes after a kidnapped Chinese couple was allegedly murdered by suspected Islamic State (IS) loyalists in southwestern Balochistan.
“The air is heavy and there's a sense of fear and insecurity among the Chinese community living in Pakistan after the IS episode,” said Hasan Askari, a prominent security analyst.
Pakistan's government, which has firmly and repeatedly denied the presence of IS on its soil, strongly condemned the incident and vowed to boost security measures for its “Chinese brothers.”
Pakistan said last week that its counterterrorism forces had destroyed a major IS foothold in the province.
“This is an unfortunate event,” Sarfaraz Bugti, home minister for Balochistan, told VOA while disputing the presence of IS. “Yes, Islamic State is trying to establish a territorial presence through its terror allies such as Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, but these groups should not be mistaken for Islamic State.”
Protecting an investment
China has invested $50 million in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect China's Xinjiang region to Gwadar's deep-water seaport with a huge rail, road, communications and energy network designed to facilitate trade and generate economic opportunities and jobs.
The initial phase has brought an influx of Chinese workers, particularly in violence-hit Balochistan, which lays at the heart of the CPEC project but is dealing with separatist groups and extremists.
According to a recent Reuters report, about 4,000 Chinese citizens are in the country for CPEC and another 1,000 are involved in a variety of other businesses.
“I feel secure and have been running my salon business successfully,” Ching Liu, a Chinese businesswoman in Islamabad, told VOA. “But I cannot vouch the same for my community who live in different cities, especially in Balochistan and Sindh.”
Military analysts believe to prove security measures effective, government's biggest challenge would be how it overcomes militancy.
Despite a sharp decline in terrorist attacks in Pakistan recently, Islamic State seems to have picked up its pace, particularly in Balochistan.
Last month, a suicide bomber attacked the convoy of prominent politician Abdul Ghafoor Haideri in Mastung, killing 25. IS claimed responsibility.
Pakistan's government said it is vigilant and prepared to remove any security obstacles to safeguard the CPEC, Chinese citizens and the economic interests of both countries.
“The government is very well aware of the security challenges related to CPEC projects,” Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal told VOA. “A force of 9,000 security personnel under Pakistan's Army has been deployed in Balochistan to provide a security cover.”
Pakistan's Navy commissioned a special maritime security task force last year to protect Gwadar's port.
Balochistan, particularly Gwadar, has also seen a significant increase in military presence. Other provinces intend to beef up security for the same reasons.
Sindh, Pakistan's southeastern province, has announced plans to create 3,000 security posts to protect CPEC projects and foreigners, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab have similar plans.
The government also aims to stop the misuse of business visas. Pakistan said the slain Chinese couple had business visas but were preaching Christianity in the increasingly conservative Muslim country.
Better security system needed
Analysts suggest the government has to be extra vigilant and need to devise a better security and data-analyzing system.
“The government doesn't have a system to monitor and gather full data on those Chinese citizens who get visas in an independent capacity as compared to those who work in Pakistan on CPEC-related projects,” analyst Askari told VOA.
China has reiterated that the slayings will not affect relations between old allies and that cooperation to counter terrorism and safeguard economic interests will continue.
“China will further strengthen counterterrorism cooperation with the international community to ensure peace and stability of the region and beyond,” a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported by Pakistani media.