Posts Tagged ‘TIP’

New piece for an outlet to which I haven’t contributed for some time, The National Interest. This time looking at trying to explain China’s enhanced engagement and interest in Syria with Michael Clarke of Australian National University. We are hopefully working on a longer writing related project along these lines in the future, and the topic is undoubtedle one there will more on.

China Is Supporting Syria’s Regime. What Changed?

Michael Clarke | Raffaello Pantucci
Beijing’s motivations are close to home.

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On August 14, Guan Youfei, a rear admiral in China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, escorted around the city under heavy guard. Guan’s visit reportedly included meetings with senior military officials and Russian officers, as well as pledges that the Chinese military would provide medical training for Syrian medical staff. The question is why China is increasing this engagement now.

Admiral Guan’s engagement contrasts with previous Chinese behavior during the Syrian crisis. While China has been one of the few powers to maintain an embassy in Damascus throughout the current crisis, Beijing’s engagements have been fairly limited, and mostly focused on attempts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to insert itself into peace negotiations and occasional expressions of concern around individual nationals who appear on the battlefield (either as hostages or fighters). The approach has been driven by a mix of motives, including Beijing’s long-standing principle of “non-interference,” aversion to what China sees as largely Western-led regime change in the guise of humanitarian intervention and a Chinese desire to insulate its growing economic interests in the Middle East from the continuing consequences of the Arab Spring.

That dynamic may now be about to change. China has started to become a participant in the many international discussions around countering terrorism, and ISIS in particular. China has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and hosted sessions about terrorists’ use of the internet, while engaging in discussions at home about contributing more to the fight against ISIS. Last year, a decision was made to alter national legislation to allow Chinese security forces to deploy abroad as part of a counterterrorism effort, and China has sought to establish overseas bases in Djibouti. In neighboring Afghanistan, it has established a new sub-regional alliance between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China to discuss and coordinate the fight against militancy and terrorist groups in the area. All these actions highlight the degree to which China is slowly pushing its security apparatus out into the world in a more aggressive posture than before. Seen within this light, Admiral Guan’s visit to Damascus is another piece in this puzzle, and the most ambitious yet in many ways for a power that has historically preferred to play a more standoffish role in addressing hard military questions.

Looking to the Syrian context in particular, there are two major reasons for China’s apparent decision to begin playing a more forward role in engaging in Syria. One is China’s concern at the numbers and links of Uighur militants from its restive province of Xinjiang participating in the Syrian conflict. The other is its desire for geostrategic stability in the Middle East as it seeks to consummate its “One Belt, One Road” strategy.

Of particular importance on the first count is the presence of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) on the Syrian battlefield. TIP is a successor organization of sorts to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group that Beijing has blamed for violence linked to Xinjiang after 9/11. Beijing has claimed that Al Qaeda directly “funded and supported” ETIM, and while the scale of Al Qaeda’s direct support of ETIM has been widely disputed, the relationship between TIP and Al Qaeda has only grown closer since, with TIP garnering more Uighur recruits from 2009 onward and Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising Uighur contributions to the global jihad in a recent message.

Chinese suppression in Xinjiang, especially after the interethnic riots and violence in the capital, Urumqi, in July 2009, has resulted in the development of what Chinese state media has dubbed an “underground railway” of Uighurs seeking to flee the region. Some of those have ultimately found their way to Turkey and onward to Syria to fight with TIP and other jihadist groups. By 2015, TIP had established a well-documented presence on the battlefield in Syria, with the group releasing a number of videos detailing its combat role fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (TIP does not fight alongside ISIS; its leadership has released statements in which it condemns ISIS’s activities.) TIP is increasingly showing itself to be an effective force, participating in many major fights (including the breaking of the Aleppo siege) and showing off its skill, manpower and equipment.

Historically, China has not had much economic interest in Syria, a country that prior to the civil war was more closely linked economically to its region, Iran and Russia. And more recently, China has continued to play a second-tier role. While it has had numbers of nationals join ISIS, others kidnapped and killed by the group, and the group has threatened it in some of its rhetoric, it does not appear to be much of a focus for the group. On the non-ISIS side fighting the regime, the numbers fighting alongside TIP seem to be quite substantial, whilst the group’s leadership and a core of the group continues to fight in Afghanistan. And, according to Kyrgyz authorities, this connection may have now matured into the attack that took place in late August against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.

This threat from TIP in particular is one that is therefore becoming of much greater concern for Beijing. Yet it is not clear who is focused on fighting TIP on the ground in Syria. Western powers fighting in Syria are for the most part focused on ISIS and less focused on the groups fighting against the Assad regime, like TIP. Turkey’s historical proximity to the Uighur cause has raised concerns with Beijing; Uighurs are a people whose culture and language are very close to Turkey’s, and Uighur flags and symbols are regular features during AKP rallies. Erdogan himself has expressed support for the Uighur cause, and back in 2009, in the wake of rioting in Xinjiang that led to some two hundred deaths, he referred to Chinese activity on the ground as “a sort of genocide.” Since 2012, Uighurs have been found traveling on forged Turkish passports in transit countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, raising questions of Turkish complicity. Leaked ISIS documents show a consistent flow of individuals through Kuala Lumpur, as well as other Southeast Asian routes to Turkey.

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On the second count, Beijing faces multiple challenges in the current Middle East for its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In brief, OBOR is Beijing’s attempt to facilitate Eurasian economic connectivity through the development of a web of infrastructure and trade routes linking China with South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Key parts of this project, such as the $45 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the proposed Yiwu-Tehran high-speed rail link, according to James M. Dorsey, “illustrate the politics of its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Xi Jinping believes that he can achieve Chinese dominance through investment and interconnected infrastructure.”

The current fracturing of the Middle East as a result of the Syrian crisis, however, poses a central roadblock to China’s ability to make this vision a reality. In this context, Beijing views the United States’ approach to Syria as driven by Washington’s desire to use the civil war as a pretext to overthrow the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East. In contrast, Russia has been firm in its commitment to root out what it calls the “terrorist” threat there in support of the regime in Damascus, and Beijing has been impressed by the manner in which Russia’s decisive moves have had an effect that years of attrition on the battlefield failed to achieve.

So Beijing may now have arrived at the conclusion that supporting Assad and taking sides with Russia is the most viable option to effectively combat the growth of TIP. Increasing its involvement in Syria via military-to-military cooperation can also be seen in the wider context of a PLA keen to develop its overseas experience, in areas from peacekeeping to antipiracy missions to counterterrorism.

David Shambaugh eloquently argued in 2013 that China remained a “partial power” whose diplomacy “often makes it known what it is against, but rarely what it is for” and that this made its foreign policy in many regions of the world “hesitant, risk averse and narrowly self-interested.” This calculus is now changing under pressure from developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan that directly threaten core Chinese interests and are metastasizing into the very terrorist threat that China has long said it is concerned about. The response from China is relatively predictable—an outward security push. The question that remains, however, is how deeply China wishes to plunge into troubled waters to defend these interests.

Dr. Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College at Australian National University. Raffaello Pantucci is Director of the International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Image: Chinese tanks in formation at Shenyang training base in China. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

Another piece of holiday writing, this time looking at China’s new counter-terrorism legislation and some of the preventative aspects that still may need to be worked on. It was published by the BBC both in Chinese and English and I have posted both below. Another topic that there will undoubtedly be more work on in the next year.

Will China’s new law tackle terror?

  • 2 January 2016
  • From the section China
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China’s paramilitary police on recent operations in the Xinjiang autonomous region

China’s long-discussed counter-terrorism legislation, passed this week, frames the way the country will counter terrorist threats at home and abroad. But it is capable of getting to the root of the problem?

China faces a dual problem from terrorism; abroad, the picture is very similar to that faced by most Western countries, with Chinese nationals and interests increasingly threatened by groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State group or al-Qaeda; at home, China has a problem with individuals angry at the state, who sometimes resort to violence against citizens and the state apparatus to express their anger.

Some domestic terrorism appears to be motivated by personal gripes, while some stems from a more general sense of disenfranchisement and alienation.

The latter can be found particularly in the westernmost region of China’s Xinjiang province, where the minority Uighur population resent the perceived encroachment by Beijing into their culture and identity.

There has also been some evidence that some Chinese nationals have gone abroad to fight alongside IS or al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while others have turned up in training camps in South-east Asia.

Underlying Anger

The new legislation attempts to deal with these dual problems but it does not appear to offer a clear framework for how to prevent people from being drawn to terrorist networks and ideologies in the first place. It does offer a formal framework for countering terrorism abroad, through sending Chinese security forces abroad to deal with the threat.

That is in itself a significant shift – offering Beijing an option to deploy forces abroad, in contrast to China’s longstanding principle of non-interference in foreign policy.

But then Chinese security forces are already increasingly going out into the world – be it as peacekeepers with more forward leaning mandates or to set up forward operating bases in places like Djibouti – and the new legislation merely strengthens this broader push.

chinacops tianshan
Chinese state media have publicised images of counter-terror troops searching Xinjiang

Where China’s problem becomes really complicated is in incidents such as the bombing in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year, when a cell linked to a Turkish-Uighur network left an explosive device outside a shrine popular with Chinese tourists. Twenty were killed, the majority ethnic Chinese.

The exact reason for the attack remains unclear, although it appeared to be part of a larger wave of anger against China and Thailand for the forced deportation of a large number of Uighurs who had fled China for South-east Asia.

In many ways, the attack was an extension of China’s domestic terrorist problem. The Uighur anger that initially mostly prompted attacks against the state in Xinjiang slowly spread around China (including prominent incidents in Beijing and Kunming) and now could be found abroad.

The problem is that, while it is clear the new legislation tries to deal with the mechanics of these issues – by establishing frameworks through which people can be detained and pursued abroad – it is not clear that it deals with the underlying anger behind the terror.

Lessons from the UK

Much has been done in the UK to address the problem of radicalisation, which is often as much a personal as political process. The state-sponsored Prevent programme aims to catch people before they are radicalised. Its focus is on developing strong ties to minority communities and trying to connect with individuals that feel alienated from the state.

Controversially, various bits of state apparatus from healthcare to education have been drafted into the effort, but the overall thrust of the government agenda has been to find ways to steer people away from violence before they start down the path towards it.

This is the key element missing from China’s new approach. While there is some discussion in China of involving other parts of the state beyond security officials, there is seemingly no discussion about how to tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation.

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Xi Jinping visited David Cameron earlier this year

There is some evidence that the Chinese state is at least thinking about the issue. Leader Xi Jinping has discussed non-security approaches to countering terrorism, and Security Minister Meng Jianzhu has talked about expanding the country’s de-radicalisation efforts, but that thinking does not appear to be reflected in the legislation.

Instead, the legislation appears instead to be very focused on the practical side of countering terrorism – the use of blunt force to simply stop networks and the spread of ideas; some tools potentially so blunt that they may in fact cause collateral damage.

China is not alone in this – the UK approach faced accusations that it risks alienating young Muslims – but in the UK at least public debate and discussion about the problem is a key component of shaping public policy and the programme of work is one that is constantly evolving to respond to the threat and public reaction to it.

If China wants to be able to properly and effectively tackle its terrorism problems at home and abroad, it needs to start to think in this way too. It needs to find a way to not only disrupt terror networks but to understand why people are drawn to terror in the first place and how it can address the issue.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

分析:中国新《反恐怖主义法》能起效吗?

潘睿凡
英国皇家联合军种国防研究所国际安全项目总监
2015年 12月 31日

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一如外国的反恐法,中国的《反恐法》能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

本周,中国全国人大通过《反恐怖主义法》,为中国面对来自海内外的恐怖主义威胁定下应对之术。但是一如外国的反恐法,这些做法能否应对中国面对的问题实在是疑问?它能在干扰活跃的恐怖主义网络之外,还防止未来的问题出现吗?

中国在恐怖主义问题上面对两个难题。在海外,与大部分西方国家所面临的一样,中国人与中国的利益越来越受到“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织等支派组织的威胁。作为日益强大的国际超级力量,中国越发明白,作为主要外来投资者,中国国民和公司将会遭遇麻烦。

在国内,中国面对越来越大的问题,是个人对于国家的愤怒。因此常常一个人发动炸弹袭击或一大帮人刀伤其他个人与国家机构。一些可能是个人出于对国家的怨愤,其他似乎出于一般的恼怒或感到被国家疏离。

后一种原因尤其出现在新疆维吾尔人口中。他们中的一些怨恨北京侵蚀维族文化和身份。此外,还有证据显示,一些中国人到海外协助“伊斯兰国”组织或基地组织在叙利 亚和伊拉克战斗,另一些则出现在东南亚的训练营。

最尖锐的问题

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中国最新的这部反恐法试图解决这些问题,但是似乎没有提供明确的框架,表明如何应付最尖锐的问题:如何防止人们被恐怖主义网络及思想吸引。

立法确实应付了应对海外恐怖主义的问题,但是却是通过允许中国保安部队到海外处理恐怖主义者的威胁。这个转变颇为重要,它让北京可以摆出有可能向海外派出安保部队的姿态,而不单单似乎长期以来中国所行使以不干预为原则的外交政策。

中国安保部队已经越来越多在全世界执行任务,无论是参与和平部队,或者在世界各地参与安保合作和训练。新的反恐法不过是加强这些,并提供特定方式在中国的海外利益受影响时,让部队出外应对。

但让问题变得复杂的,是诸如8月份的曼谷四面神爆炸案。虽然原因不明,但这似乎与中国和泰国遣返维吾尔人的事件有关。某种程度上,这一所为是中国本土恐怖主义问题在海外的延伸。维吾尔人的愤怒从袭击新疆目标,慢慢扩散到中国各地,现在更远至海外。

现在的问题是,这一新立法试图解决这些问题,但并不清楚它究竟是否能处理背后推动这些行为的愤怒。

英国经验

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在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

极端化是很一个复杂的过程,因人而异。但是根源是个人的身份认同。人们感到被疏离或对国家愤怒,会从外来的思想中寻找认同和联系,进而认为自己与国家作战。原因 很可能是个人问题,也可能是政治问题。

在英国,当局试图与社区建立联系,设法劝阻人们被恐怖主义网络吸引,尝试与个人联系,了解他们为何感到疏离,并介绍 以其他方法消解愤怒,而非诉诸暴力。

中国的新立法似乎缺乏这些元素,也没有讨论如何应对极端化问题,或人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的背后原因。新立法似乎非常集中于对付恐怖主义的实际操作,粗暴封杀网络和和思想的散播。但这些方法很可能适得其反。

在英国,这也是人们经常讨论的问题,是英国在国内阻止恐怖袭击努力的核心考量。不过,英国已经采取措施去防止其发生。另外,公众辩论与讨论也是英国公共政策成形前的重要一环。

如果中国希望适当而有效地应对海内外的恐怖主义问题,就应该也开始思考这些方法。不单封杀恐怖主义网络,还要明白人们被恐怖主义网络吸引的原因。

I have been rather delinquent in posting here, so am going to now briefly catch up on a few things. First up is a piece written for the UK Embassy Beijing’s ‘Strategic Communications Initiative’ that aims to advance a discussion between China and the UK on strategic questions. I have contributed a piece with a Chinese friend who is very active on the ground in Afghanistan working with business there offering some ideas for China’s possible role in the country. This is not my first piece for the Initiative, and I hope not the last! As ever, much more on the topic of China-Afghanistan (and more broadly China-Central and South Asia) to come.

Understanding the Cultural Fabric: The Missing Piece in China’s Outreach to Bring Peace to Afghanistan

Kane Luo, Vice President of Wakhan Abresham Consulting Service and Raffaello Pantucci, Director, International Security Studies, the Royal United Services Institute

A head of state’s first visit abroad is usually a strong indicator of that country’s future foreign policy. So when Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected President of Afghanistan chose China as the destination of his first state visit, the message from the new President of Afghanistan was clear: as we enter the year of NATO withdrawal, Afghanistan is increasingly looking East.

President Ghani certainly received a warm welcome in Beijing; President Xi Jinping showed China’s generosity promising a $330 million aid package over the next 3 years, a figure that exceeds China’s combined aid to Afghanistan for the last 14 years. China also announced a plan to help to train 3,000 Afghans in various fields, something that builds on previous promises of training, including an earlier program announced during former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Kabul in 2012 of 300 Afghan police. The discussion of re-opening the Wakhan Corridor, the slim mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and China that has long been a request of the Afghan government, has been restarted. Visa requirements for government officials of both countries are said to possibly be about to be scrapped. But in many ways, the most interesting outcome of Ghani’s visit to China was the revelation that China would offer itself as a host for peace discussions between the Taliban and the government in Kabul – bringing all relevant sides to the table to help broker peace in the country. Whether this approach will bear fruit is unclear, but its seeming admission and confirmation by officials highlights the fact that China is proving itself increasingly willing to accept it has an important role to play in Afghanistan’s future.

China’s motives behind her rapidly increasing efforts in Afghanistan are multiple, but the factor most often cited by Chinese experts and officials is domestic security. Violent, disenfranchised individuals from Xinjiang are becoming an increasingly deadly threat, something that has been increasing since 2008 and reached something of a crescendo in the past year. It is unclear how much manpower, resources and organizational capability Uyghur militants actually have; but their increased use of explosives, suicidal tactics and rising frequency of attacks are proof of a problem that is increasing. Angry denizens from Xinjiang have also shown a growing desire to launch attacks in not only remote areas of Xinjiang, but also in major political and population centers in eastern China as well, as the attack in October 2013 in Tiananmen Square, the March 2014 attack in Kunming and other incidents have demonstrated.

The link to these groups and Afghanistan come through Beijing’s claims that they possess evidence to prove that Uyghur militant groups are trained, financed and organized by ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’, which is further linked with Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) in Afghan-Pakistani border area. There is some historical precedent to this link dating back to before September 11, 2001. A number sources verify the presence of Uyghurs in substantial numbers in Taliban Afghanistan with some pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar. These days it may not be the case that every terrorist attack in China is launched from caves of Waziristan (something increasingly recognized by Chinese experts); but Uyghur militants’ recent tactics indicate that they are certainly getting ideas from the global Jihadist movement, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Beijing’s concern is that if these Islamic militants are left unchecked and Afghanistan is allowed to become a source of regional instability once again, a sophisticated enough terrorist attack may finally emerge or instigate some larger incident in Xinjiang that would expand the current instability in Xinjiang further around the nation.

Another important reason behind China’s evolving Afghan policy is Beijing’s concern over her ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. The so called ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative consists principally of the ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (with side projects stretching from Kashgar to Gwadar in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (BCIM) corridor), an extremely ambitious grand strategic design of President Xi Jinping’s administration. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is meant to drastically increase the movement of capital, humans, goods, speed up cultural exchanges and even start to harmonize governmental policies across Eurasia; by constructing two separate but complementary routes that both start from China and then stretch westward. The ‘New Silk Road Economic Belt’ goes through Central Asia, Russia, Iran, and Arabia before finally reaching Europe; the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ passes through Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and ultimately reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative includes thousands of miles of proposed high-speed railway and highway, seaports and airports, oil and gas pipelines, even nuclear power stations that will cost trillions of U.S. dollars and decades to build. It would conclude with the development of massive trade and economic corridors bringing Chinese products to the world, and opening China even further. It would also have the ancillary effect of redeveloping a large swathe of China’s immediate periphery, something that has led to some prominent Chinese commentators, like Dingding Cheng, to describe it as ‘China’s Marshall Plan,’ a reference to the post-Second World War America’s massive effort to rebuild Europe. Afghanistan plays a very dangerous potential spoiler role within this, sitting adjacent to China and in the midst of a number of these land corridors emanating from China’s western provinces. Should the country collapse into chaos and become an exporter or incubator of instability, it would likely upset this key part of this plan.

But beyond just seeing the importance of Afghanistan to China’s domestic health, Beijing policymakers also see the importance of regional relationships to ensure a stable future. However, in contrast to the United States, China has the advantage of having far less contentious relationships with a key partner for Afghanistan, Pakistan. China is well aware of its influence over Islamabad, and has long nurtured a strong bilateral relationship with the country that both cherish publicly and loudly. China has already used its influence to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the table, as well as initiate a number of other regional discussions involving Pakistan (or about Pakistan), the recent admission of contact with the Taliban and a willingness to use this relationship to advance reconciliation all highlight the degree to which China is showing it is willing to use its relationships in advance of greater regional stability.

This approach to bringing the Taliban to the table is not, however, without its difficulties. Taliban are likely to play some role in Afghanistan’s future; but the trouble is, the Afghan government and Taliban today are both highly fragmented entities that lack centralised authority for Beijing to effectively engage with. The Taliban’s addition into this mix will only further complicate Afghanistan’s already difficult political situation. Finally, for China to be taking such a forward role in such a sensitive aspect of Afghan affairs will make it harder for China to maintain its position of detachment from events in Afghanistan – something that has in the past given the country a certain neutral image within Afghanistan.

There are further problems with taking the role of reconciler with a group that is reviled by many Afghans (the Taliban) and country (Pakistan) that many Afghans blame for some of their security problems. Anti-Pakistani feeling is very high amongst Afghans who see their neighbours as meddlers who have supported groups that have led to many deaths. Being seen as a close ally to both the Taliban and Pakistan might not play well amongst the Afghan public. Others within Afghanistan continue to feel that the Taliban have no role to play in their country’s future, highlighting with anger the fact that the government in Kabul is being forced to reconcile with a group that has shown no remorse in butchering civilians, officials, and soldiers alike. Finally, it is not entirely clear the degree to which outside stakeholders will all welcome this mediating role – for western powers, any support in bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan is welcome, but for players like India, Iran or the Central Asian powers, they have their own regional dynamics to consider. These are all issues that Beijing needs to consider.  Beijing must have a 360 degree of vision and be mindful of a basic reality in international affairs: when a button is pressed, there will be a series of chain-reactions. Some of these reactions can be predicted, but others will require rapid appropriate policy responses, something Beijing has historically had some issues with undertaking.

This diplomatic approach aside, China has also placed significant emphasis on developing Afghanistan’s economy, something highlighted again during President Ghani’s visit to Beijing. However, bringing economic and social progress to Afghanistan often requires an acceptable level of security as a pre-condition, something highlighted by the particular problems experienced by the two biggest Chinese investors in the country: the China Metallurgical Company (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper’s investment at Mes Aynak and China National Petroleum Corp’s (CNPC) project in the Amu Darya basin near the border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both projects have faced numerous difficulties hindering progress, with security ranking fairly high amongst concerns. Talking to officials at both companies, they will report security as a major factor, though it is likely that it is only one of a number of problems encountered. Others include difficulties with local authorities, lack of access to raw materials and infrastructure.

For the Afghan Taliban there is a natural desire to want to try to prevent any national economic progress from taking place, as a strategy to prevent the government in Kabul gathering public support. In another words, people will not always welcome progress with open arms, and in Afghanistan there is some question of whether major projects can proceed without the support of superior firepower. Despite China’s recently increased efforts in Afghanistan’s economic sphere, if Beijing really wants to see positive results, Beijing still needs to greatly expand the security-related cooperation it is looking to undertake in Afghanistan, as well as seek out bolstering cooperative relationships with powers like India and the remaining western forces.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly, as world’s biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, China has the material resources to achieve her objectives in Afghanistan. However, the lack of human expertise on Afghanistan in particular is a substantial invisible problem that China urgently needs to overcome. Because material resources cannot correctly allocate themselves, they need people to manage them and these people need a deep understanding of their surrounding environment. In other words, China has a need to grow a pool of people who understand Afghanistan’s complex social realities, ethnic mosaics, cultural customs and fragmented history. There is a need for China to support its push into Afghanistan with people who speak fluent Farsi and Pashtun, people who understand the Islamic world, or even, are Muslims themselves. Currently, such knowledge and skills are only the privilege of a few of China’s intelligence officers, diplomats and scholars; but they should also be extended to executive managers and chief engineers in China’s state-owned corporations and the general Chinese population too. This sort of deep cultural knowledge and understanding is the only way to make sure the multi-billion dollar investments are being effective implemented, as these individuals will be able to better understand and interact with the fabric of Afghan society. This will help avoid unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings, and is as essential as the multi-billion dollar aid packages as it guarantees they will actually have impact.

Unlike Britain, the United States or other western or regional powers who have been actively engaging Afghanistan for decades, either through peaceful means or through wars; China has had little intensive engagement with Afghanistan throughout its history. China has never fought a war with Afghanistan (though it played a supporting role in the anti-Soviet jihad); many of the few Chinese intellectuals who understood Afghan Central Asia were purged during early, and at the time the role of ambassadors to the Muslim world were not seen in a positive light. Although China opened up in 1970s, letting the world gradually in again and exposing itself to the world, China was almost exclusively focused on the West and China’s Eastern Asian neighbours, a preference that has continued to this day. It is only very recently that China found itself needing to engage to a greater extent with Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. China needs more of everything that stimulates China’s knowledge of Afghanistan, otherwise the push towards Afghanistan will find it lacks the crucial internal building blocs to ensure it has a solid foundation for the future.

Another piece for my institutional home’s analytical publication, Newsbrief, this time looking at the relationship between Pakistan and China. While this is not exactly Central Asia, it still forms a component of my bigger research project looking at China in Central Asia with Alex. More on this broader theme on the way.

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014
By Raffaello Pantucci

Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

China’s Pakistan policy has three principal pillars – political, economic and security – which, together, leaders in Pakistan see as their main bulwark against international abandonment. Elites in both countries have publicly signalled the importance of the Sino–Pakistani relationship. For example, Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in June 2013, while Sharif made China his first international destination as prime minister. Meanwhile, speaking about the region more broadly, China’s Ambassador to Islamabad Sun Weidong told Pakistan’s National Defence University in October that ‘the Chinese government attaches great importance to developing relations with South Asia, and takes South Asia as a key direction of China’s opening up to the west and a prominent position in China’s neighbouring diplomacy’.

However, the decision to refer to Pakistan in the regional context reflects a divergence of views between the two countries on the importance of the relationship. While China clearly cherishes its links with Pakistan – indeed, Ambassador Sun closed his speech with the rallying call: ‘May the China–Pakistan friendship last forever!’ – the relationship between the two is imbalanced, with China the big brother and Pakistan the supplicant.

Indeed, for China, Pakistan is significant particularly within the broader regional context of relations with the countries along its western borderlands – stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to India in the south. Ties with Pakistan are seen by Beijing as part of this wider picture, rather than constituting a bilateral relationship in its own right.

This has been evident, most recently, in the relatively slow progress on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a 2,000 km route connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Kashgar in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China – which was formally mentioned during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2013 visit to Pakistan. Always an ambitious project, at a Sino–Pakistani track-two meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. A month later, Ambassador Sun more pointedly stressed the expectation of Pakistani support in ‘safeguarding the security of Chinese institutions and citizens in Pakistan’ as they developed the CPEC.

Other Chinese firms with investments in Pakistan have previously expressed similar concern for the safety of staff based there. In September 2011, China Kingho Group, one of the country’s largest private coal-mining firms, backed out of a $19 billion deal in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, telling the Wall Street Journal that this was out of security concerns for its staff. In 2004, the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, which had won a contract to build the Gomal Zam Dam in Pakistan’s restive southern Waziristan province, suspended work when Chinese engineers were kidnapped near the site. One died during a rescue attempt, and the project was delayed for a further three years while Sinohydro aggressively renegotiated the contract (more than doubling its price). While this dam has now been completed, other Sinohydro projects, like the Duber Khwar hydropower project, have encountered similar problems.

These examples highlight the difficulties – even for Chinese companies – of doing business in Pakistan, belying the overly positive vision of the relationship often portrayed by the media. It also casts some doubt on the feasibility of the CPEC. With the state-owned China Overseas Holdings Limited responsible for managing the Gwadar port since February, focus has turned to the attendant ambitious plans for the Chinese-led re-development of Pakistan’s roads, railways and pipelines, with the aim of transforming the country into a giant highway conveying Chinese goods to the open seas. So far, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made on rendering the port usable. In July, it was revealed in the Pakistani media that an investigation would be initiated into why a Chinese ship had been unable to reach the port due to heavy silt, despite ‘billions of rupees’ having apparently been spent on dredging work.

Yet China’s security concerns with regard to Pakistan extend beyond apprehension about the safety of its nationals. In October 2013, a BBC Urdu report indicated that, at the behest of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities had added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – known within the group itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party) as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. This announcement came amidst a period of turbulence in China, which saw attacks in Xinjiang and one in central Beijing in Tiananmen Square in late October. Although Chinese authorities did not specifically mention a Pakistani link in relation to these attacks, they have previously referred repeatedly to Pakistan or South Asia (which is usually read as Pakistan) as the source of such plots. They also reported, in the aftermath of a number of the attacks in Xinjiang and the Beijing incident, that radical material produced by ETIM had been found at the homes of those involved.

The nature of this connection with ETIM is unclear. While there are radical elements in Xinjiang who might use the ideological inspiration of the group as cover for their actions, it is not clear that there is a command-and-control connection. Certainly, those elements of ETIM that do exist outside of China mostly reside in Pakistan’s badlands, under the protection of those close to the most fervently anti-state members of the militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There, they produce a constant flow of radical videos, magazines and audio messages, calling for the overthrow of the Chinese state and for funding and support. In two messages in 2013, ETIM leader Abdullah Mansour praised those behind recent acts of violence in China: one message was released following an incident in Bachu County in April in which twenty-one were killed after a confrontation with authorities, and the other in the wake of the Beijing attack. However, Mansour did not claim responsibility for these two attacks, instead appearing more eager to give the impression that such acts are not the product of mindless anger, but of a global jihad.

Indeed, domestic messaging about international links to recent incidents in China tends not to refer specifically to Pakistan, but – increasingly – to Syria. For example, Chinese officials have suggested that individuals involved in attacks in Xinjiang also intended to go to Syria while reports in the Chinese media in July 2013 suggested that ETIM members were already fighting there. Subsequent reporting indicated that one member of the group had confessed that he had been dispatched from the battlefield in Syria with orders to conduct some sort of attack in China. Whilst the specifics of these reports are unconfirmed, videos have emerged showing Chinese-speaking individuals and Uighurs on the battlefield there – although whether they hail from China originally or from the large diaspora community in Turkey is unclear.

Despite this, for Beijing, the decision to push for Pakistan to list these groups as terrorist organisations seems more closely linked to concerns that ETIM is increasingly seeking and receiving support from other Central Asian groups based in Pakistan’s badlands. Indeed, the increasingly broad fusion of jihadi groups in the region is likely to be appealing to ETIM, which has historically had difficulty sustaining itself and gaining traction among its counterparts internationally. Furthermore, Central Asian groups like IMU and IJU would be natural partners given their linguistic and ethnic proximity, and recent reports indicate that IMU in particular has been moving northward through Afghanistan, possibly heading back towards its primary ideological target – Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. As such, Chinese analysts speak with growing concern about the ‘re-networking’ of extremist groups across the broader Central Asian region.

This is where the importance of Pakistan to China, due to its role and position in the region, becomes clear. Although China has invested substantially in Pakistan itself, it has also invested heavily in the broader region. Afghanistan, Central Asia and India are all potential trade partners and sources of the natural resources needed by China to bolster national growth and, more specifically, to enhance development in Xinjiang. Instability in Pakistan – perhaps through the presence of terrorist organisations – has the potential to undermine such efforts. Thus the prosperity and, indeed, the survival of the Pakistani state is essential to China.

Yet Western policy-makers must remain cautious in their interpretation of this relationship. While China may have a great deal invested in Pakistan, the way in which it pursues its interests there is not likely to further those of the West. Indeed, China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritised, and in cases where bribes are required to expedite a process, it is unlikely that Chinese firms will hesitate to oblige.

The positive side of all of this is that China will provide Pakistan with useful infrastructure, be it roads, ports, railways or alternative sources of electricity. China has also demonstrated a willingness to lean on Pakistan when the mutual hostility with India becomes too tense: in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, Chinese shuttle diplomacy was important in soothing tensions. Following a visit by then-President Zardari of Pakistan to India in 2012, former Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told the press that it was ‘our best friend China … [which] advised us to promote trade relations with India’.

The end result is a situation in which China will increasingly find itself as the responsible partner to Pakistan, drawn more closely into Pakistani affairs. However, Beijing is unlikely to push for reforms within the Pakistani system or to try to influence affairs beyond its own specific interests. Any Western–Pakistani spats or discussions will be left to one side, with China more eager to nurture a stable country than one that is friendly with the West.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
Twitter: @raffpantucci

Another piece on Xinjiang for the new year, this one for Jamestown’s China Brief providing a bit of an overview of what has been happening in violent terms in the past year. Some editorial choices I would not have made, but it is something I am going to be writing more about going forwards. Around New Year’s day, I was quoted for a piece for the South China Morning Post about one of the violent incidents to close the year.

Tiananmen Attack: Islamist Terror or Chinese Protest?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 1
January 9, 2014 05:21 PM
By: Raffaello Pantucci

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2013 was a violent year for China and Xinjiang. On December 30, at 6:30 in the morning, a group of individuals believed to be Uighur attacked a police station in Shache County (or Yarkand) near Kashgar with “explosive devices” (Xinhua, December 30). According to official reports, no security officials were killed in the incident, in which eight were killed and a ninth arrested. The official government report stated that the group was led by Wusiman Balati and Abuduaini Abudukadi (also written as Usman Barat and Abdugheni Abdukhadir), a pair who “held successive gatherings” since August in which they watched “violent terrorist videos” discussed “religious extremist thought” and formed a group that raised money, made explosives, tested these explosives out and planned violent activities (Xinhua, December 30, 2013).

The high point came on October 28, when a jeep crashed into railings in front of the iconic statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The incident was attributed to a Uighur named Usmen Hasan (Xinhua, November 26). Usmen, as well as two passengers reported to be his wife and mother, were killed, along with a Filipino tourist and a domestic Chinese tourist from Guangdong. Several more Filipino and Japanese tourists were also injured in the incident (Xinhua, November 3, 2013). The incident was praised in mid-November by Abdullah Mansour, believed to be the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Reuters, November 23, 2013).

While these incidents were both connected to Xinjiang in some way, a double bombing outside government offices in Taiyuan in the first week of November demonstrated that terrorist-like violence in China is not always linked to the province. The Taiyuan bombing was ultimately attributed to a taxi driver “angry at society” for unspecified reasons (China Daily, November 9, 2013).

Context in Xinjiang

Subsequent to the incident a series of five arrests were made of individuals from Hotan, Xinjiang. The group was alleged to have gathered some 40,000 RMB in advance of the incident and had conducted three reconnaissance trips to the Square. They had established their group in September and came to Beijing by SUV and train on October 7 (Xinhua, November 1, 2013). Xinjiang military commander, Peng Yong, was also fired from the province’s Communist Party Standing Committee (Caixin, November 4, 2013). The sacking, while not officially linked to the incident in Tiananmen Square follows a pattern of dismissals in the wake of major security lapses. In the wake of the Urumqi riots in July 2009, Party Secretary Li Zhi and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (PSB) head Liu Yaohua were dismissed in September, while under a year later province governor and long-time boss Wang Lequan was shunted sideways to be Deputy Head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee in Beijing. Explicit links to the trouble in province were not made, though the intent was clear.

The incident came in the wake of a long, brutal summer in Xinjiang that was marked by flare-ups involving multiple deaths and casualties. An unofficial tally by the author places the total number of deaths in the triple digits, though it is unclear whether this is a total accounting of what had taken place. [1] Videos have emerged showing Uighurs or Chinese-speaking individuals on battlefields in Syria. [2] In July 2013, the Global Times reported the case of Memeti Aili, a 23-year-old Uighur who claimed to have been studying in Istanbul, Turkey when he was approached by radical groups and recruited to fight in Syria. Memeti Aili was arrested as he tried to return to Xinjiang to complete his assigned mission to “carry out violent attack and improve fighting skills,” a task he had reportedly been given by ETIM (Global Times, July 1, 2013). The exact nature of his plot was not revealed, but it was held up as a specific instance of how the fight in Syria was becoming a direct problem for China.

It is clear from magazines, statements and videos showing people training and fighting somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s badlands that a group exists outside Xinjiang that threatens Chinese authorities—calling itself the Hizb al Islami al Turkestani (Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP). Occasional reports surface of individuals dying in drone strikes or of plots linked to networks around the group internationally (Dubai, July 2008 and Oslo, July 2010), and al-Qaeda leaders will mention the plight of the Uighurs in some of their speeches. [3] Most recently, their plight was highlighted in a video released by the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab, with the group contrasting the Uighurs’ plight and the international focus on Tibet as evidence of the West’s not caring about Muslim suffering. But there is little direct evidence that outside groups have much direct connection with the incidents that take place in the province. In one incident from 2011, an individual identified as being involved in an incident by the Chinese authorities was shown in a video released by Islam Awazi (TIP’s media wing), while more recently the group praised as jihad an incident in which 15 security officials were killed in the province though they stopped short of claiming the incident.

The government has not stopped linking the group to the threat, offering as evidence videos or other radical material in the possession of individuals involved in incidents. In the most recent case, authorities claimed the group had been watching extremist videos—presumably ones linked to the group or other al-Qaeda affiliates. But the directional link has been somewhat limited in its evidence, with incidents often seeming to have some local spark, though it is certainly notable that the manner in which these incidents break out is often similar.

The specifics around the group who ended up in Tiananmen remain equally unclear. According to government accounts, they were linked to ETIM and were in possession of radical material (Xinhua, November 26, 2013). Highlighting the degree to which the government continues to see ETIM and other Central Asian groups as a threat, news emerged shortly before the incident that China had pushed the Pakistani government to proscribe ETIM, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) (BBC Urdu, October 23, 2013). The concern for China is that these groups may be drawing on their common Central Asian heritage and language to plot together—efforts so far mostly felt in Afghanistan, but that might be redirected towards China in the wake of NATO withdrawal. No released evidence about the Tiananmen incident demonstrated any specific link or direction from outside groups, but the proximity of the statements in the Pakistani press and Meng Jianzhu’s categoric declarations about ETIM’s links to the Tiananmen incident illustrate a willingness by China to draw links between instability at home and anti-state groups in China’s near neighborhood.

Violent Petitioners

A divergent account of the causes behind the incident emerged from an account in Radio Free Asia (RFA), that drew primarily on an interview with a former village chief from Yengi Aymaq village in Akto County, who claimed that the attack had taken place exactly a year from the time when Chinese authorities had torn down a mosque in the village. According to former village chief Hamut Turdi, the attack was revenge for the local authorities destruction of a mosque that the community had raised money to build, which was torn down when the government claimed it was an “illegal extension” to an existing prayer room (Radio Free Asia, November 6, 2013). Others cited in the RFA report claiming to know Usmen Hasan said that he had lost a family member during the bloody July 2009 riots and another that his younger brother had died in a “mysterious traffic accident” that had been “blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities” (RFA, November 6, 2013). None of the accounts were independently corroborated.

In the account supplied by RFA, the logic is that Usman was drawing on a Chinese tradition of petitioning the Emperor as a result of injustice at the hands of local authorities. This longstanding tradition is one that countless others have called upon through setting themselves on fire. To give only examples from the majority Han ethnicity: a group of five believed to be linked to Falun Gong set themselves alight in January 2001, a man from Anhui complaining about forced relocation did so in September 2003, and, most recently, in November 2011 a man from Hubei set fire to himself in anger “over the outcome of civil litigation” (Xinhua, September 15, 2003; Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2011). Tiananmen Square is also a draw for angry or deranged individuals of other sorts too. Two days prior to the jeep incident in Tiananmen Square, an argument in a staff canteen in the Forbidden City adjacent to the Square led to one man stabbing two colleagues before trying to kill himself (South China Morning Post, October 25, 2013). This followed a summer in Beijing in which a man went on a stabbing rampage in Carrefour killing one and injuring four (Xinhua, July 22, 2013) as well as another who had killed an American and a Chinese national in another shopping mall in the city (Agence France Press, July 18, 2013).

High profile incidents that might elsewhere be described as terrorism, in China are instead seen as forms of petitioning. In July, Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair-bound man, detonated an explosive outside the arrivals gate in Beijing International Airport’s third terminal. Injuring only himself and a police officer, Ji claimed to be angry at the fact that he had not been adequately compensated for a beating by Guangdong authorities that had left him paralyzed in a wheelchair. He was later jailed for six years (Xinhua, October 15, 2013; BBC, October 15, 2013). In July 2011, disgruntled farmer Qian Mingqi detonated three large devices outside official buildings in Fuzhou, Jiangxi leading to four deaths (including Mr. Qian’s) (Xinhua, May 31, 2011, 2013). This is the context in which Chinese media and the public viewed the attack in Taiyuan, in which a coordinated set of bombs armed with ball bearings were detonated outside an official building in the heart of the city.

China’s Response

Random individuals with the ability to build and effectively detonate multiple explosives in a coordinated and lethal manner might seem to be more menacing than an attempt to drive a car into a crowd. But from the perspective of the Chinese state, such “lone wolf” terrorism is less dangerous than Uighurs’ attempts to speak for a community. Even without clear ties to an organized group, they offer a potential alternative source of legitimacy and an alternative power base.

For Beijing, the problem is clearly a complicated one. On the one hand, it is undeniable that some Uighur extremists exist and are connecting to global al-Qaeda-affiliated or -inspired networks. But it is not clear that these groups and networks are able to launch large-scale attacks within China. The incident in Tiananmen Square may have been substantial in its impact, but no evidence of external direction has been provided. But external direction or not, the growing tempo of violence emanating from the province in the past year highlights a domestic problem that seems to be growing worse rather than better.

In parallel to this, China faces a problem of petitioners angry at the state who are using increasingly violent means to express their rage—from random acts of self-immolation, to random stabbings, to massive explosions that have so far killed mercifully few. In some ways these seem similar to the Xinjiang-related incidents, but the background context is fundamentally more alarming to authorities given the potential for a single incident related to Xinjiang to be seen as part of a broader separatist movement. Thus, the Chinese government seeks to distinguish between violent protest and terrorism, and ensure that the response is one that is moderated in ways that do not simply inflame tensions in Xinjiang further.

Notes

  1. The author has been maintaining an unofficial tally based on official reports that can be provided on request.
  2. One video showed a possibly Uighur individual: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjrUhb7Lx1o >. Another highlighted ethnically-Han Bo Wang talking directly to the Chinese people in Mandarin: < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maccGe9MSMY >
  3. On the Dubai and Oslo plots, see Terrorism Monitor, July 22, 2010; and “Manchester, New York and Oslo: Three Centrally Directed Al-Qa’ida Plots,” CTC Sentinel, August 1, 2010.

A new piece for Jamestown’s Militant Leadership Monitor that unfortunately lives behind a paywall so I cannot simply post it here. However, they did send it out with their daily email update about the journal, so drop me a note if you are interested and I can try to forward you that. A very difficult piece to pull together given lack of data and confusion over who is who. I would also like to thank Jake for taking the time to read a draft and giving me some thoughts, he also pointed out that apparently local analysts have stated that Yakuf was also known as Abdul Shakoor Turkistani – something that confuses matters a great deal. It is also odd to note how there has been no mention of any of these losses in the spate of recent TIP publications (that can be found at the excellent Jihadology)

A Post-Mortem Analysis of Turkestani Emir Emeti Yakuf: A Death that Sparked More Questions than Answers

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor
Volume: 3 Issue: 10
October 31, 2012 06:04 PM Age: 1 hrs

Emeti Yakuf (Ministry of Public Security, People’s Republic of China)

In late August, a series of drone strikes in Northern Waziristan were reported to have killed a number of jihadist leaders. Most media attention focused on the possible demise of Badruddin Haqqani, son of the fabled mujahedeen leader, with conflicting reports about whether he had died or not. Almost as an afterthought, some of the stories highlighted that the strikes were believed to have also killed Emeti Yakuf, the current leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (Dawn, August 24). This overshadowed death reflected the generally low profile that TIP is often given amongst jihadist groups, and highlighted once again the difficulties in obtaining information about the mysterious China-focused terrorist organization.

More

After a short hiatus, a new piece for Jamestown, looking at recent unrest in Xinjiang through the lens of its Pakistan connections. Interesting subject, I am going to be doing an increasing amount of work on. Have been focusing on some longer pieces hence the silence, should have some things landing soon.

Uyghur Unrest in Xinjiang Shakes Sino-Pakistani Relations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 33
August 19, 2011 10:19 AM Age: 4 hrs

Pakistani President Zardari and Chinese President Hu Jintao in negotiations

It has been a difficult summer for China’s restive western province Xinjiang. A series of incidents characterized as terrorism have struck two of the province’s cities, causing death, destruction and ethnic tension. This picture was further complicated when the government of the city of Kashgar published a statement online that claimed at least one of the perpetrators had been trained in Pakistan (Xinhua, August 1). The allegation by Chinese officials cast a shadow over Sino-Pakistani relations, a bilateral relationship that had been characterized in Kashgar jut the month before by Pakistani Ambassador to China Masood Khan as “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey, and dearer than eyesight” (Associated Press of Pakistan, July 1).

Death in Hotan and Kashgar

The most recent troubles in Xinjiang took place in a series of incidents in the western cities of Hotan and Kashgar. The first was an incident in Hotan on July 18 when a gang of some 18 men, described as being between 20 to 40 years old, stormed a local police station after launching an attack on a local tax office (Shanghai Daily, July 21). Armed with a variety of axes, knives and firebombing material, the group attacked those they found within the Naerbage police station, killing four people and seriously wounding at least four more. In response, police killed 14 of the assailants and arrested the remaining four (Xinhua, July 20).

This violence was repeated just over a week later in Kashgar when, as described by a local Han Chinese man, “I saw a blue truck speed through the crossing and plough into the crowd” (Xinhua, July 31). The drivers then leapt from the cab of the van and started hacking at the crowd with knives of some sort. China’s official English-language news service indicated that immediately prior to the attack a pair of explosions was heard, but this was apparently omitted in Chinese language reports (Xinhua, July 31; AFP, July 31). In the end, the men killed eight people and injured a further 27 before the crowd turned on them and beat one of them to death while the second was apprehended (Xinhua, August 1). One report from a Hong Kong newspaper suggested that initially there had been three attackers with a vehicle bomb that had blown up prematurely, leading the other two to resort to the tactic of hijacking a truck and ramming it into a crowd (Ming Pao, August 3). This was not mentioned in other reports, though one person injured in the attack reported hearing “a big bang like a blast” before passing out (China Daily, August 2).

This was not the end of the violence – the next day another group of assailants armed with knives stormed a restaurant in Kashgar and killed the owner and a waiter before starting a fire in the building and racing outside to slash wildly at passersby (Xinhua, August 4). In the melee that ensued six civilians were killed and a further 12 civilians and three police officers injured before five assailants were shot dead (Xinhua, August 1). An unclear number of assailants escaped, though rewards were offered for the capture of two men, identified as 29-year-old Memtieli Tiliwaldi and 34-year-old Turson Hasan. The two were subsequently shot by security forces in cornfields outside Kashgar (Xinhua, August 1)

What Was Behind the Violence?

Broadly speaking the Chinese media and officialdom concur on the point that the violence was stirred by outside forces.However, with regards to the apportioning of blame there seems to be some divergence between the events in Hotan and Kashgar.

In Hotan, locals described the group that stormed the police station as a group of “ruffians” aged about “20 to 40 years old and all male” speaking with out of town accents. They were apparently wearing “convenient shoes” to aid them in “running away easily” (Xinhua, July 20, 2011). Another report characterized the men as “gangsters” from out of town (Zhongguo Xinwen She [Beijing], July 20). Police reported that the men had brought with them flags of “radical religion” that they were planning on flying over the police station. One banner was reported as saying, “Allah is the only God. In the name of Allah” (Xinhua July 20; Zhongguo Xinwen She, July 20). Officials claimed the attackers confessed they hoped their actions would “stir up ethnic tension” (Xinhua, August 4).

This backdrop was seemingly confirmed by a report in a Hong Kong daily, in which locals said that the spark for the incident was a local attempt to crack down on the wearing of the veil by Muslim Uyghur girls. According to Hotan resident, the government had been using slogans telling girls to “show off their pretty looks and let their beautiful long hair fly.” After this approach failed, the government had started to reach out to local religious leaders (South China Morning Post [Hong Kong], July 22). Within this context, it is worth highlighting that this all took place shortly before the beginning of Ramadan, a period of fasting and religious observances for Muslims.

At the same time, the importance of an attack on a local Hotan tax office that preceded the assault on the police station was played down in the official press. One report stated that the group had accidentally attacked the office mistaking it for a police station, while another said that two uniformed taxation officers who had been stabbed before the attack on the police station were mistaken for the police officers since their uniforms were similar (Shanghai Daily, July 21; Xinhua, July 22).

On the other hand, events in Kashgar came with a simpler explanation. Pointing the finger directly at the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Kashgar government published a statement in which it said that one of the men had confessed that some of leaders of the group had trained in Pakistan in bomb-making and weapons handling and had returned to carry out terrorist attacks (Xinhua, August 1; China Daily, August 2; The News [Islamabad], August 6; People’s Daily, August 5).

This was not the first time that China has found links between domestic Uyghur-linked terrorism and individuals with links to Pakistan: Guzalinur Turdi, the 19-year-old Uyghur girl who tried to bring down a China Southern Airlines plane on March 7, 2008 en route from Urumqi was using a Pakistani passport and was part of a group directed by Pakistan. [1] This rather blunt apportioning of blame towards Pakistan was somewhat surprising, especially given the close relations that are clearly visible at almost every level of the Sino-Pakistani relationship.

Pakistan was quick to respond to the charges, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publishing a statement that condemned events in Kashgar. Using Chinese-style terminology, the statement spoke of the “patriotic people of Xinjiang” and the Chinese government succeeding in “frustrating evil designs of the terrorists, extremists and separatists.” [2] According to the Pakistani press, the statement was published after President Hu Jintao called his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, to “express concern” about ETIM’s growing activities in the region (News Online, August 6). Soon after this, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha headed to Beijing. Whether this trip was linked to events in Xinjiang was unclear, with some reports indicating it was part of ongoing regional discussions about Afghanistan (The Nation[Lahore], August 2). Nevertheless, Xinjiang is likely to have been featured during discussions.

Maybe to prove herself to her main ally, Pakistan seems to have responded with a mini-crackdown of sorts on Chinese Muslims in the country. A Chinese individual identified as Muhammad Yusuf was arrested sometime in July with around $50,000, some Chinese Yuan, and Islamic literature (Dawn [Karachi], August 7). A few days after this was reported, Pakistan deported a group of five Chinese nationals in handcuffs and blindfolds – two men, two children and a woman. Another man was apparently refused boarding permission by the China Southern Airlines pilot, and the Pakistani press hinted that the group may be involved in ETIM plotting (Dawn, August 10).

Conclusions

The full picture of what took place in Hotan and Kashgar remains somewhat obscure, however, some details are clear.People did die, but the methods of attack seemed surprisingly low tech for terrorists who had supposedly undergone terrorist training in Waziristan. However, this was not the first time such attacks had been undertaken using such methods – in August 2008 a pair of Uyghur men ran a truck into a column of policemen on their morning run, before leaping out of the vehicle, using knives and lobbing homemade grenades. Sixteen officers were killed and another 16 injured (Xinhua, August 4, 2008). This was followed a year later by violent rioting in Urumqi that claimed almost 200 lives in clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

All this suggests that something deeper is afoot than just individual and random incidents of violence. The fact that we have seen similar instances of serious violence in Xinjiang on a relatively regular basis over the last few years suggests some deep-seated anger is bubbling just below the surface. Whether this is directed by external parties is unclear, however. The indications are that some Uyghurs in Pakistan are connecting with extremist groups there. There is evidence from videos released by Uyghur groups that there is a desire to strike within China (see Terrorism Monitor, June 23). However, the random and low-tech nature of this recent spate of attacks suggest that, while it may have in part emanated from the community of Uyghurs who are transiting back and forth between China and Pakistan, it does not seem to fit the mold of an al-Qaeda directed plot.  What is clear, however, is that the Sino-Pakistani relationship will endure – official statements from both sides indicate a high level of bilateral support and recent reports of Pakistan allowing Chinese access to parts of the advanced helicopter abandoned by the Navy SEAL team sent in to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad suggest that Islamabad cherishes its relationship with Beijing over its relationship with Washington (Financial Times, August 14).  Though both Beijing and Islamabad have denied this report, it is apparent that China requires action against fugitive Uyghur dissidents in Pakistan as a condition of maintaining a bilateral relationship “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans.

 

Notes:

1. Elizabeth Van Wie Davis, “Terrorism and the Beijing Olympics,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, April 16, 2008.

2. “Pakistan extends full support to China against ETIM,” Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Release, August 1

http://www.mofa.gov.pk/mfa/pages/article.aspx?id=787&type=1