When the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) began in 2015, the primary concern was security. This remains an issue even today, almost a decade after China initiated CPEC, as the flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative. Over time, China has put pressure on Islamabad in various ways, to ensure the safety and security of its citizens living and working in Pakistan on CPEC-related projects. More recently, faced with the targeted killing of Chinese language teachers at the University of Karachi, China has told Pakistan that it wants its own Private Security Company (PSC) to protect its citizens and assets, in Pakistan. That CPEC security remains a priority for China is evident, but its latest request is also a sign of the spreading tentacles of Chinese PSCs overseas, which act as extensions of the Chinese state.
Nikkei Asia reports (28 June 2022) that the Shahbaz Sharif government has turned down a Chinese request for its PSCs to operate on Pakistani soil, but it is likely that China will continue pushing for such an arrangement. In early June, China’s Ministry of State Security had reportedly asked the Pakistani government to allow a Chinese PSC to operate inside the country. The Interior Ministry, however, objected and offered assurances that Pakistan’s security forces would protect Chinese nationals and assets. Pakistan Army has a Special Security Division (SSD, raised in 2016) whose sole task is to protect CPEC assets. There are two SSDs — the 34 and 44 Light Infantry Divisions — with 15,000 troops each. While the 34 Light Infantry Division was created in September 2016, the 44 Light Infantry Division was developed in 2020.
A private security consulting firm official in Pakistan working with the Chinese told Nikkei Asia that the killing of ten Chinese nationals last year in an attack on a bus in Dasu and this year’s attack on Chinese instructors at the Confucius Institute in Karachi led to China asking Pakistan to allow operations of Chinese PSCs. In the aftermath of the Dasu killings and the TTP’s increasing influence in Pakistan, Chinese workers had reportedly started arming to protect themselves, while carrying out maintenance works.
When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari visited China in May 2022, the two sides put out a statement saying that “China appreciated Pakistan’s commitment to the safety and security of Chinese nationals” and that they would “further enhance counter-terrorism and security cooperation,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In plain language this means that the Chinese are not satisfied with the security, provided by the Pakistani agencies and want to take matters in their hands. The suggestion that Chinese security personnel be allowed to operate on Pakistani soil came up before. In 2016, a leading Chinese think tank (20 December 2016) had proposed that Chinese companies working on projects in Pakistan should take the initiative and solve security issues on their own. The report, jointly released by the Chongyang Institute of Renmin University of China and Caijing Magazine apparently provides the basis for the subsequent spread of Chinese PSCs in Pakistan in collaboration with local partners.
Ahsan Iqbal, then Pakistan’s Planning Minister had told the local media in 2016 that tension could arise between Chinese security companies and the local population. He said that Pakistan was committed to providing full security to Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects. In addition to the protection from the Pakistani military and federal government, Pakistan has established the SSD to guard CPEC projects. That is why the Pakistani government felt that it was preferable to have Pakistani security personnel and agencies deal with local security problems.
There is no doubt that resentment against China will increase if Chinese security companies are allowed to guard Chinese interests in Pakistan. This is especially true in Baluchistan, where anti-Chinese sentiment is already very high. Baloch insurgents see China as agents of colonization of Baluchistan and primary exploiters of the province’s natural resources in the name of the CPEC. The basic Chinese idea is to replicate the model of using private security agencies, already active in Africa and Central Asia, in Pakistan. China, has, from time to time, put pressure on Pakistan to protect its assets. This led to the creation of the SSD, it also led to the Pakistan Army having a prominent role in monitoring CPEC progress. The very notion that China wants to bring in its own security to protect CPEC leads to the conclusion that it has completely lost trust in Pakistan’s capacity to protect its interests.
Significantly, China has more than 6,000 private security companies, twenty of which operate internationally, according to the report prepared by a German think tank, Mercator Institute for China Studies, titled “Guardians of the Belt and Road” (2018). Some Chinese Private Security Companies like Frontier Services Group (FSG) and China Overseas Security Group (COSG), claim to operate in Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s laws forbidding foreign security agencies from operating, it is likely that these companies work with local partners. One news report states that COSG cooperates with a local security company. “Regulation on the Administration of Security and Guarding Services”, issued in September 2009 by China legalizes PSCs and brings them under the control of the state, through the Ministry of Public Security.
China has been consistently asking CoAS General Bajwa and PM Shahbaz Sharif to tighten the screws to ensure the safety and security of Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan. However, the anti-China sentiment in Pakistan is quite high. The Chinese strategy of land grab and providing employment to its own people at the cost of the local population has created new set of challenges. The instance of Gwadar fishermen protesting the presence of Chinese trawlers and marching with the slogan “Gwadar ko hak do” towards the end of last year. It symbolises the anger of common people in Pakistan against China. Pakistan may well manage to avoid, at least for now, an invitation to Chinese PSCs to operate on their soil. In the long run, however, circumstances may well force Islamabad to change its stance.