The murderous attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi highlights the troubles that Beijing faces in selling its keystone international development programme. "One Belt, One Road" began with much scepticism, and 2018 has seen setback after setback. Friday morning's assault on Chinese interests killed two policemen guarding the consulate. The Pakistani separatist group behind the deaths said the Chinese are "exploiting our resources".
The attackers were identified as members of the Balochistan Liberation Army. The group seeks independence for the southern Pakistan area after which it is named. Balochistan plays a major role in the One Belt, One Road project. The Chinese plan to build a major port at Gwadar, which lies west of Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast. So far as the Baloch militants who sponsored the consulate attack are concerned, "We see the Chinese as an oppressor, along with Pakistani [military] forces."
Pakistan is under a civilian leadership headed by Imran Khan, the popular former star of the country's cricket team. The consulate attack puts him, in the words of one expert, "between a rock and a hard place". James M Dorsey, the inveterate Mideast and South Asia watcher and senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Singapore, says the militants' murders come at the worst possible time. That's because Mr Khan, like many other Asian leaders, is scrambling diplomatically to re-negotiate and possibly scrap at least some of the massive construction and infrastructure projects that Pakistan eagerly accepted and then has had second thoughts about.
That puts the Pakistan leader in good company. Many countries are re-thinking recent contracts and agreements with China. And not all are under the aegis of One Belt, One Road. Thailand, which has largely been shouldered aside for that programme, has made a number of agreements with China that looked better when initially made than they do at present.
Talks on new Thai railway lines from the Malaysian border to Nong Khai resumed last week for three days, without significant result. For China, a north-south Thai railway is the very heart of what it hopes will soon be a pan-Asian railway linking Singapore to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
The Prayut Chan-o-cha regime originally thought the Bangkok-Nong Khai railway project would be mutually advantageous, as the regime plans an entirely new national railway grid. But building such a railway through bilateral means has proved maddening and, up to now, unproductive. Bangkok and Beijing have never seen eye-to-eye on any major issue involved, ranging from financing to the workforce.
Critics of China needn't go as far as the murderous Balochistan Liberation Army to make the case of what they call a Chinese "debt trap". The Chinese seizure of a Sri Lankan port that couldn't pay its debts was legally righteous but morally reprehensible to many. Since then, many of the infrastructure plans pushed by China have been cancelled. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled several big Beijing-backed projects, including the east-coast railway that China had hoped would link Singapore to Songkhla.
To the Chinese planners of One Belt, One Road, Pakistan is even more vital than Thailand and Malaysia. Pakistan is threatened by a financial crisis even before the cost of the Chinese projects is factored in. Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan US$1 billion (33 billion baht) and promised twice that "soon". Mr Khan has applied to the IMF for a bailout, a plan that must go through Washington, where Pakistan's image is poor.
Pakistan already is beset by terrorism. The Balochistan militants not only add to the threat against central authority, but also challenge both the Chinese presence and Beijing's plans for infrastructural projects helping China's foreign push.
Beijing will need better diplomacy to deal with the threats to One Belt, One Road.