Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan

Posted: September 3, 2021 in Foreign Policy
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Finally on this past few week’s blast, a piece for Foreign Policy which was actually set up before events in Afghanistan came to a head, but had to get pushed back a bit. It is also my first piece with my excellent RSIS colleague Basit, with whom I have a few projects in the pipeline. Undoubtedly more on this topic and with Basit to come. Suspect the China and regional terrorism axis of topicality is only going to grow as we go further forwards.

Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan

As awareness of Uyghur persecution increases and anger about Beijing’s investment projects simmers, Chinese citizens and businesses are likely to suffer.

Pakistani rangers stand in front of the Chinese consulate after an attack in Karachi on November 23, 2018. – At least two policemen were killed when unidentified gunmen stormed the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on November 23, officials said. (Photo by ASIF HASSAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With great power comes great responsibility, as the old Marvel comics maxim goes. But great power also attracts envy, anger, and enemies.

This is something that China is learning belatedly—and much to its chagrin—in Pakistan, where its investment projects are facing complications and its citizens and facilities are increasingly being targeted by local terrorist organizations, from jihadi groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ethnoseparatists in Balochistan and Sindh.

China has long been in the crosshairs of Pakistani militants. But lately the pace of attacks appears to be picking up. Last Friday saw the latest attempt, this time by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) against Chinese transports in Gwadar. The group has repeatedly targeted high-profile Chinese targets in Pakistan, including the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in November 2018.

Reports diverge regarding the casualties of this latest attack, with the BLA claiming it killed six Chinese nationals and three security guards, while Chinese and Pakistani authorities claim one Chinese national was injured and two children were killed (the BLA claims the two children were killed by scattershot firing from Pakistani forces). Whatever the grim count, the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year, and it also confirms the worrying trend of using suicide bombers, an innovation for the Balochi group.

Pakistan has become a microcosm of a larger reality that Beijing is going to have to contend with globally. As it becomes a global power on the world stage, it is going to attract the anger of terrorist organizations. Beijing’s willingness to engage with the Taliban may be an attempt to try to preempt such problems in the new Afghanistan, but history has shown this to be a risky gamble for Beijing.

China tried to strike an earlier pre-9/11 deal with the Taliban to get them to do something about Uyghur groups the Chinese had noticed gathering in Afghanistan, but it is unclear that the Taliban did anything about those groups.

The new deal Beijing and the Taliban are reported to have struck is likely not dissimilar to the previous one in its concerns, but now there is the additional question of the large number of Chinese nationals who can be found around the region, including various intrepid entrepreneurs in Kabul who may not adhere to the various sharia laws the Taliban will impose. Who will guarantee their safety? And none of this will help Beijing overcome the larger problem of the inevitable enemies you attract once you have superpower status.

The Gwadar attack last Friday followed the killing of nine Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—an attack that remains formally unclaimed. Soon after that attack, two Chinese nationals were shot at and one wounded in Karachi by a different Baloch separatist group (the Baloch Liberation Front). In March, a Sindhi separatist group wounded a Chinese national in a gun assault, also in Karachi. This followed two similar incidents in December.

Most dramatically, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, narrowly escaped an attack by the TTP in April at the Serena Hotel in Quetta. Responsibility for this grim roster of incidents comes from a growing range of actors, highlighting the escalating nature of the problem that China is facing in Pakistan.

The most effective of these attacks was the assault in Dasu. Chinese sources have attributed it to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—a group whose existence is disputed and whose name is mostly used to refer to a group that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)—acting in unison with the TTP. Both Pakistan and China also used the opportunity to cast blame on India—a perennial accusation thrown around terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

More formally, Beijing seemed to widen the circle of blame during the Afghan Taliban’s two-day visit to China, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanding that the Taliban make a clean break from ETIM/TIP and take action against it in Afghanistan as ‘it was a direct threat to China’s national security.’

While not stated explicitly, the statement appeared to be a shot across the bow, suggesting a condition for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban government as the group takes power in Afghanistan. Beijing has continued to focus on ETIM as a preeminent concern that could attempt to take root, potentially emanating from the instability that is likely to follow the Taliban’s takeover, and it is not clear how confident Beijing is in Taliban assurances about managing ETIM threats.

But the abrupt increase in terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan underscores how anti-Chinese militancy is evolving against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China may be developing its relationship with the Taliban in part to mitigate these concerns, but the problem is much bigger than something Taliban leaders can control. Previously, the jihadi community was fairly ambivalent about China. Osama bin Laden was even quoted pre-9/11 saying that Beijing could be a strategic ally for the jihadi community given their collective antagonism toward the United States. But at the time, China was still seen as a developing country. Now it is the world’s second-largest economy and is increasingly becoming the most consequential actor in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. This changes the common perception of China and brings tension with it.

This tension is most clearly visible in Pakistan. Even though Beijing and Islamabad are close friends and strategic partners, Pakistan has consistently been the location of the highest number of terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in any country.

This situation has the potential to get worse for Beijing. For the last two decades, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan kept the terrorist threat from that country in check, meaning China did not need to preoccupy itself too much with security challenges. With the U.S. exit, that security buffer is gone, as is the distraction of the great American Satan being present on Afghan soil.

China has sought to strengthen its direct defenses with Afghanistan through building bases and providing support to Tajik and Pakistani forces on either side of the Wakhan Corridor, alongside building its own direct bases in Tajikistan and bases for the former national Afghan government forces in Badakhshan (bases whose current status is unknown but presumably now under Taliban control).

This somewhat limited effort was being carried out when the United States was still there and providing definitive assurances to keep militant groups in check and even helping target anti-Chinese groups. In February 2018, the U.S. military targeted a series of camps in Badakhshan that were reportedly being used by the Taliban and ETIM.

The problem for China could get even worse. While the United States was at the receiving end of jihadi attacks for intervening in Afghanistan and for what was perceived as a broader anti-Muslim crusade as a result of the global war on terror, China is confronted with the ire of both the jihadi and the ethno-separatist groups in the region.

Sindhi and Baloch ethno-separatist groups perceive China as a neocolonial power usurping their resources and partnering with their primary adversary, the Pakistani state, to worsen their already abysmal socioeconomic condition. This was clearly articulated in the Baloch Liberation Front’s claim of responsibility for shooting at the Chinese nationals in Karachi: ‘In the garb of development projects, China is not only colluding with the Pakistani state in plundering the Baloch resources but assisting in the Baloch community’s persecution as well.’

Jihadi groups have been less focused in their anger toward China, continuing to see the United States and the West as their primary external adversaries. But at the same time, there is a palpable uptick in propaganda narratives directed toward China. This is often linked to Beijing’s persecution of the beleaguered Uyghur Muslim community in China’s Xinjiang region.

Rising ideologues like the mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi—originally from Myanmar—tie these narratives together. Since 2015, the firebrand orator Burmi has been framing China as the next neocolonial power after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Burmi, for instance, told his followers in a statement, ‘Mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.’ In another video, titled ‘Let’s Disturb China,’ he argues that after the ‘Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan our next target will be China.’

His anti-Chinese rhetoric, combining narratives of Chinese colonialism (in his native Myanmar as well as Xinjiang) with accounts of Muslim persecution, has drawn jihadi attention to Beijing. Echoes of these sentiments are also found among some Indonesian jihadi groups and among ultranationalists in Central Asia.

Xinjiang has long been a discussion point for the global jihadi community, but the community has never dedicated resources toward doing anything about it. While it is still unclear that this has changed, what is noticeable is that the narrative is sharpening and the Uyghur cause is no longer the marginal issue that it used to be. Uyghur fighters are regularly praised by other jihadi factions for their bravery in battle.

For a country like Pakistan, which shares a direct border with Xinjiang, it has been a political hot potato, with Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly championing and defending China’s treatment of its Muslim minority. This has extended to not offering protections to the Uyghur community that is resident in Pakistan and has fallen into China’s suspicious crosshairs. This merely adds to the anger against the Pakistani state that is felt from within the jihadi community. Nevertheless, attacking China in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the mainland is a tall order for these groups.

By contrast, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a network of highways, railways, power projects, and other projects that will enter Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region from Xinjiang and culminate at Gwadar port—presents these groups with numerous opportunities to hurt Beijing as well as the Pakistani government. Chinese investment in Pakistan has become a sort of soft underbelly for Beijing.

In its next planned phase, CPEC will spread further across Pakistan. And beyond formal CPEC projects, there is a growing number of potential Chinese targets in the country through the thousands of individual travelers and entrepreneurs who take advantage of the smooth visa access into Pakistan to seek opportunities. This will vastly expand Pakistani terrorist groups’ potential Chinese targets and complicate Pakistani government efforts to provide protection. More Chinese and Pakistanis are likely to suffer.

The problem for Beijing is that Chinese targets in Pakistan (and Afghanistan and further afield) will become increasingly attractive. This is in part a product of China’s growing presence and alliance with an Islamabad government that has a plethora of enemies on the ground, but it’s also because of the growing prominence of China at the global level.

Terrorist groups ultimately seek to deliver a political message to draw attention their cause; spectacular acts of violence are the tool they use to accomplish this. Each attack helps with promoting their message, recruiting, fundraising, and more. By targeting China—now the world’s second-largest economy—jihadi, ethno-separatist, and other terrorist groups are all increasingly guaranteed this attention. China is discovering that becoming a great power also comes with great risks.

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