China has called on Pakistan to investigate the causes of a bus explosion that killed at least 13 people, including nine Chinese nationals, stoking Beijing’s fears of a militant threat in the region.
The blast took place on Wednesday on a vehicle carrying more than 40 people through a mountainous region of north-west Pakistan on the way to the Dasu dam, a $1.9bn hydropower project backed by China Gezhouba Group, a state-owned construction firm.
“If it is a terrorist attack, the perpetrators must be arrested immediately and severely punished,” Wang Yi, China’s top government diplomat, told Shah Mahmood Qureshi, his Pakistan counterpart, during a meeting held late on Wednesday evening in Tajikistan.
Wang also called for strengthened security co-operation to protect China’s investments in the country, according to a report from state-run Xinhua news agency published on Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, China’s embassy and foreign ministry initially labelled the incident an “attack” before Pakistan’s foreign ministry announced that the explosion was an accident.
Pakistan, an ally of China, said that the bus “plunged into a ravine after a mechanical failure resulting in leakage of gas that caused a blast”. It promised to carry out further investigation.
The bus explosion has underlined the security risks of operating in Pakistan, where the Pakistan Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has re-emerged as the US withdraws troops from Afghanistan.
In April, the TTP said it launched a suicide attack on a luxury hotel in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province in Pakistan, that was hosting the Chinese ambassador.
Beijing is adopting an increasingly active policy to confront instability in the region, which it says is being caused by the US pullout.
Chinese analysts said Beijing’s recent diplomatic activity, including three-way talks between Chinese, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers, were in part aimed at combating what Beijing claims are terrorist threats in the Xinjiang region. Since 2017, Beijing has interned 1m or more Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the name of “counter-terrorism”.
Qian Feng, a scholar at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the blast should remind Chinese enterprises involved in the Belt and Road Initiative — Chinese president Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure project — to be “mentally prepared” for the risk of casualties.
He added that China needed to “work together with local departments to stop the expansion of violent terrorist forces [in the region]”.
In recent years, a series of violent attacks targeting Chinese nationals has stoked Beijing‘s fears over the security of its regional investments.
Despite the Chinese military not having an official presence in Pakistan, Beijing has repeatedly pressed Islamabad to give its military additional powers to protect the $62bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The corridor is made up of a string of infrastructure projects that connect China’s western border to the strategically important Gwadar port.
Andrew Small, author of The China-Pakistan Axis, said the explosion could make China more cautious about the speed at which it develops CPEC.
“In principal the next phase of CPEC is supposed to involve more Chinese companies coming into Pakistan,” he said, “[but] this will obviously increase nervousness.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing, Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
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