Posts Tagged ‘Baluchi separatists’

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.

A longer piece for my current local newspaper the Straits Times on a topic that have been doing a lot of work on of late, China in Afghanistan. It has been something of a running theme for some time and this tries to focus the analysis specifically through the lens of the pending US withdrawal. When I started to first really dig into this topic in the early 2010s, the discussion was Obama’s potential withdrawal which seemed to accelerate Chinese thinking. This time, it does not seem to be having the same effect.

In addition, a quick media catch up. Spoke to the Financial Times in the wake of the Austria and France terror incidents (which was picked up in Croatian), to RFE/RL about Central Asian decisions to repatriate more of their people from the Syrian camps, and on the other side of the coin spoke to David Wertime for his excellent Politico China Watcher column.

Will China be better off as the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A US Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul in 2017. Beijing may now be enjoying America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions, says the writer.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China is enjoying the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective, America’s abrupt dash for the exit as the conflict continues to rage reinforces the argument that the US is an erratic and unreliable player on the world stage.

This glee, however, should be tempered by the fact that the trouble that is likely to follow America’s withdrawal is going to cause Beijing more trouble than the seemingly never-ending conflict which it has been able to observe from the sidelines.

In the short term, China has comfortably hedged itself against all direct threats from Afghanistan.

In the wake of declarations under the Obama administration that the US was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, China started a programme of investment into the military and border capabilities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, countries with which it shares the Wahkan Corridor, China’s direct border with Afghanistan.

It established a forward base for the People’s Armed Police in Tajikistan, as well as built a base for Afghan forces in Badakhshan, where in the first few years Chinese forces would also patrol. The Chinese also inaugurated a new regional multilateral structure, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, that brought together the chiefs of army staff of the countries with which it shared the Wakhan Corridor.

China also started to more openly cultivate its relations with all of the factions on the Afghan battlefield. Previously Beijing would rely on its “iron brother” Pakistan to facilitate contacts with the Taleban. This included visits to Kabul pre-2001 to meet Taleban leader Mullah Omar and offers by companies like Huawei to help build infrastructure in the country. But while this outreach was initially done behind the scenes, from 2014 onwards China started to openly host Taleban delegations in Urumqi and Beijing, while its special envoy for Afghanistan Sun Yuxi would help organise meetings involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US and China.

In addition, every senior visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan was accompanied by photo calls with all of the major political leaders in the city. The result of all this engagement was statements by the Taleban that they would help protect Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, as well as regular support for Chinese perspectives by all factions in the Afghan government.

Neither side – Taleban or the Afghan government – said they would provide support for Uighur militant groups using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in China. In fact, both said they would actively eject such groups from their territory.

All of this has given Beijing the sense of having effectively shielded itself from the Afghan conflict. It has hardened its direct and indirect borders and has won friends across the board. Theoretically, China is well-placed no matter what happens in a post-America Afghanistan.

INDIA, U.S. AND THE UIGHURS

Yet this happy situation for China is now vulnerable to the broader tensions it has engendered through its recent aggressive foreign policy. Afghanistan used to shine for China as a place where it could cooperate with even its most difficult partners. During the Obama years, China and the US had developed a series of cooperative projects in Afghanistan, including a diplomat training programme which involved courses in Beijing and Washington. When President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met first in Wuhan in April 2018 and then later near Chennai in October last year, they discussed Afghanistan as a place for cooperation, with infrastructure as a possible area of particular focus.

But the souring of ties with the US and India has largely put paid to these efforts. The Sino-US joint programme was suspended earlier in the year purportedly because of Covid-19 restrictions, but seems unlikely to start again. And anyway, any cooperative activity between the US and China in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the fact that the US government made a decision in October this year to remove the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from its list of terrorist organisations.

An organisation whose specific existence has long been disputed, ETIM is the catch-all term used by the Chinese authorities to describe Uighur militants. For years the US had acceded to the group’s inclusion on its list of banned terrorist groups, in part to ensure China’s support for Washington’s broader war against terrorism. But what Uighur militants do exist tend to use a different name, fighting in Afghanistan and Syria under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party. They talk about attacking China in their videos, and have historically claimed links to incidents in China (though the evidence of actual responsibility is limited).

Washington’s decision to remove ETIM from its list of proscribed groups hardens the rupture between China and Washington in Afghanistan. One of Beijing’s biggest stated concerns about Afghanistan is the possibility of Uighur militants operating as ETIM using the country as a staging point from which to attack China.

Yet now Washington does not even acknowledge that the organisation exists, meaning it formally disputes one of the fundamental reasons for Chinese engagement in Afghanistan. For the US to reverse this decision would require the State Department to push through legislation targeting Uighur militants at the same time as the entire US government is attacking China’s broader policy towards Uighurs through an escalating sanctions regime.

India’s position is less complicated, though it is unlikely that the government in Delhi will be very interested in engaging China over Afghanistan given current broader tensions as a result of the border clashes earlier this year.

The Taleban’s continued hostility towards India as well as Pakistan’s long shadow and close ties to China suggest it is unlikely that we will see cooperation between Delhi and Beijing soon. In fact, there are indications that we might even see the opposite.

BALUCHISTAN SEPARATISTS

One of the irritants that China has noticed over the past few years is the growing instances of violence by Baluchi separatist groups in Pakistan targeting Chinese projects in the country. These groups loudly tout their anger against Islamabad and Beijing, accusing them both of raping their land in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province while launching attacks on prominent targets linked to China such as a busload of Chinese engineers, or a hotel in Gwadar (the Pakistani port that is spoken of as the “jewel” of the wider China Pakistan Economic Corridor). They do this from bases in Afghanistan, particularly in Kandahar.

Pakistani, and increasingly Chinese, experts blame much of this Baluchi violence on Indians and their Afghan proxies. From their perspective, Delhi is playing an old game of manipulating militants based in Afghanistan against them. Place this activity alongside the American decision about ETIM, and it can look to Beijing like Afghanistan is becoming a place where two of its biggest adversaries are lining up to support anti-Chinese militant groups.

Whatever the merits of the accusations, the fact remains that Afghanistan’s geography and porous borders make it an inviting base from which militant fighters can strike at Pakistan and Xinjiang province.

TALEBAN PROMISES

China may draw comfort from Taleban statements about not supporting foreign militants in using their territory, but the Taleban’s history of reliability about such statements is quite thin.

Chinese officials and experts alike love to chuckle about how Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. They point to the futility of previous British, Russian and now American efforts to assert their might over the country. They would never be so silly as to get caught in that trap, they say.

Yet simply standing back is not going to make Afghanistan’s problems go away. China’s large mineral extraction projects in Afghanistan (a copper mine in Mes Aynak and an oilfield in the north) have not brought the Afghans the benefits hoped for. Beijing cannot but be on the watchout for its adversaries latching on to local disgruntlement against failed projects to stoke a bigger backlash.

China may not want to get dragged into Afghanistan’s troubles, but it may find itself unable to avoid them. Whether America completely withdraws or not, China will still be Afghanistan’s wealthiest neighbour with growing economic interests in every country that Afghanistan borders. Its concerns about domestic and regional threats from terrorism and instability have links into the country.

Beijing may now be enjoying America’s embarrassing withdrawal, but it is the one that is most likely to feel the longer-term repercussions.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia that draws on almost a decade’s worth of travel and research across the region.