The rumbling next door

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 May, 2004, 12:00am

The bomb attack that killed three Chinese engineers and injured nine others in Pakistan this week is a reminder that China's emergence as a mainstream global power and its support for the campaign against international terrorism makes it vulnerable to reprisals.

Police have arrested 13 people suspected of involvement in the attack when an explosives-laden car blew up as the engineers passed in a van on their way to work at a big port construction project in Gawadar, about 460km west of Karachi.

The first phase of the project to build a deep-water port complex on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, close to the border with Iran and the entrance to the Persian Gulf, is due to be completed by next March at a cost of US$248 million. Some analysts say it could give Beijing a strategically important foothold close to the Gulf, the source of most of China's vital oil imports.

The port, in Baluchistan, was planned to stimulate development in a remote area of Pakistan and provide a shipping outlet for Afghanistan and other landlocked Central Asian countries. Two years ago, the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan agreed to construct a 1,500km pipeline to bring natural gas from central Asia to Gawadar for export. But the pipeline cannot proceed until security in Afghanistan improves. The port project is a joint venture between the governments of China and Pakistan. It symbolises their close ties in the same way as the jointly constructed Karakoram Highway, which was opened in 1982 to provide a road through mountain terrain between northern Pakistan and China's Xinjiang region. Gawadar port could be used to transport goods to and from western China.

Some Pakistani officials believe that the attack could be linked to a campaign by nationalist groups in Baluchistan over alleged discrimination against locals in employment and the award of contracts. To build the berths for ships and deepen the approaches to the port, China has brought in about 450 Chinese and hired more than 500 Pakistanis.

However, the bombing is more likely to be the latest in a series in Pakistan carried out by Islamic groups opposed to the Pakistan government's crackdown on extremist violence. While the government of President Pervez Musharraf is working closely with the United States in the war on terror, it is also working closely with China.

China's Xinjiang autonomous region has long chafed under Chinese rule and nominal autonomy. Its indigenous Uygurs are Muslims of Turkic origin and many complain of increased Han Chinese settlement in Xinjiang and discrimination in jobs and education. In response to Beijing's concern about rising militancy of Muslim Uygur separatists in Xinjiang, Pakistan has become a key ally in Beijing's crackdown there.

In 1999, China protested to Pakistan after it arrested 16 Uygurs who reportedly said they had received guerilla warfare training in camps in Pakistan. China was also concerned that the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - a group associated with al-Qaeda - were recruiting Uygurs from the network of religious schools in Pakistan. In the past few years, Islamabad has closed Uygur settlements in Pakistan, forced Uygurs out of local religious schools and killed or captured suspected militants.

The Gawadar bombing could well be a reprisal for the counter-terrorist co-operation between China and Pakistan, including the extradition late last year of three Islamic militants from Pakistan to China, where they were executed early this year.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author