China wants own security company to protect assets in Pakistan


Sources say Islamabad resisting pressure from Beijing after terrorist attacks

A security guard is seen after a blast near the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi in April.   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD — China wants its own security company to guard its citizens and assets in Pakistan, following recent attacks against its interests, Nikkei Asia has learned.

Islamabad has denied the request, sources say, but experts believe Beijing is likely to continue pushing for such an arrangement.

Pakistan is a key strategic outpost for China and a major recipient of funding under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a large international infrastructure program. But deadly unrest and anti-Chinese sentiment has worried the Chinese government.

Earlier this month, the Chinese Ministry of State Security asked Pakistan to allow a Chinese security company to operate inside the South Asian country, according to two people in the Pakistani government who were privy to the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity, since they are not authorized to comment publicly.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry, however, objected and offered assurances that Pakistan’s security forces are able to protect Chinese nationals and assets in Pakistan, the sources said.

A third source, an official from a local private security consulting company who works with the Chinese, told Nikkei that Beijing has sought to bring in its own security since 10 Chinese people were killed last year in an attack on a bus in the northern city of Dasu. This year’s attack on Chinese instructors at the Confucius Institute in Karachi “further pushed the Chinese to ask Pakistan to allow operations of Chinese security companies,” said another official, who also asked not to be named.

The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad did not respond to a request for comment. Pakistani government officials have not publicly commented on the matter, either. When Pakistan’s new Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari visited China in May, 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 Beijing’s Foreign Ministry.

The suggestion that Chinese security personnel be allowed to operate on Pakistani soil has come up before.

Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s planning minister and the man in charge of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure project, or CPEC, told local media in 2016: “There can be tension between Chinese security companies and the local population. It is preferable that Pakistani security personnel and agencies deal with local security problems, as it will not create conflicts between China and the local population.”

China has more than 5,000 private security companies, 20 of which operate internationally, according to a report titled “Guardians of the Belt and Road” published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank.

Experts say Islamabad has given Beijing a lot of leeway to operate in Pakistan. But the presence of Chinese security forces, even if they were ostensibly private contractors, appears to be a red line.

Ahsan Iqbal, left, Pakistan’s planning minister, attends a CPEC ceremony with China’s then-Ambassador Yao Jing in 2017. Iqbal has said that it is “preferable that Pakistani security personnel and agencies deal with local security problems.”   © Reuters

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said resentment against China would increase if Chinese security companies started guarding Chinese interests. This is especially true in Balochistan, where anti-Chinese sentiment is already very strong, he said. Baloch insurgents see China as colonizing Balochistan and exploiting its resources for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as the Pakistani section of the Belt and Road is called, fearing their people will eventually become a minority in their own region.

At the same time, Dorsey said he thinks China’s concerns about its people in Pakistan are genuine. “Chinese interests have been under attack by Baloch insurgents in [the] south and Pakistani Taliban in the north, and this has naturally led to no confidence in Pakistani security,” he said.

Dorsey added that Beijing “wants to avoid backlash at home if its nationals are killed abroad.” Noting that private Chinese security companies are already active in Central Asia and Africa, he suggested that China wants to replicate that model in Pakistan.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, observed that although Beijing has brought in various types of support for its investments in Pakistan, it has always deferred to Pakistan on security. “If Beijing is now prepared to bring in its own security, this suggests it has completely lost trust in Pakistan’s capacity to protect” it interests, he said.

Krzysztof Iwanek, head of the Asia Research Center at Warsaw’s War Studies University, believes it is understandable that Islamabad does not want to cede control over the security of projects within Pakistan. “It is a matter of sovereignty for Islamabad,” he told Nikkei.

One concern raised by the security consulting company official is that Beijing might at some point insist on having Chinese security companies present before offering more funding.

Pakistan is in an economic crisis and desperately needs Chinese investment and other assistance. It can ill afford to jeopardize ties with Beijing. Last Friday, Pakistan said it had received $2.3 billion from a consortium of Chinese lenders to help it top up its dwindling foreign reserves.

Others were not so sure Beijing would go as far as making control over security a precondition of further aid.

“As serious as the threat is to China in Pakistan, it doesn’t appear to be so serious that Beijing would risk a spat with Pakistan that could imperil its investments in a key country for its interests,” Kugelman told Nikkei. On the other hand, he said Beijing might conclude that if it applies enough pressure, Islamabad will eventually relent.

Iwanek said security concerns would not greatly disrupt Chinese economic interests in Pakistan anytime soon. “The security issues may hamper certain projects,” he said. “[But] I believe that, in general, Chinese economic projects in Pakistan will continue.”


The article appeared in the Nikkei Asia