Can China trust Pakistan to keep it safe?

Just last month, a Chinese national was shot and wounded in Karachi, when two men opened fire on the car that was carrying them. This attack comes just two weeks after the horrific bombing of a bus transporting Chinese engineers who were working at the Dasu hydropower project in the Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which led to the loss of nine Chinese lives. And in April this year a suicide bombing was carried out at a luxury hotel in Quetta, which was hosting the Chinese ambassador. 

There has been a growing number of such attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan in recent months, mostly linked to Islamist terrorism. And these attacks are not restricted to a specific region but spread across Pakistan.  

Despite consistent pressure from China to investigate and hold the culprits responsible, Pakistan has repeatedly faltered, blaming foreign forces behind these attacks, even though they are clearly the result of Pakistan’s own collusion with Islamist militancy.

Although China is Pakistan’s “great economic hope and its most trusted military partner”, Pakistan also has become a crucial partner for the Chinese. Pakistan is the epicentre of China’s power projection and its link to West Asia and beyond. It is hard to imagine either of them backing out of this relationship at this point of time, no matter how complex it may be. But the crucial question remains, can China really trust Pakistan to protect its interest in the region? 

Soon after the most recent attack where a Chinese national was shot at in Karachi, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong paid a visit to the Pakistani president, Arif Alvi to discuss the matter. Much like the meeting that took place after the bus bombing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, China urged Pakistan to take appropriate actions. An enraged China even sent its own team to investigate this attack. 

This week, the Pakistani Foreign Office blamed Afghan and Indian agencies for these attacks, but will China believe such propaganda? It appears not. Since China has now reached out to the Afghan Taliban in a bid to perhaps deal with the Islamist threat it faces in the region directly.

Last month, China hosted a delegation of Taliban representatives to discuss their intentions. A meeting from which Pakistan was excluded despite being known to have connections with Taliban and despite having facilitated previous meetings between the two parties. 

Although the Taliban and China seem to have come to an agreement to peacefully coexist, one can never discount them for the future, given their closeness to groups that are anti-China, and which are gaining stronghold as the Afghan Taliban gain control of Afghanistan. 

If we were to take a closer look at the threats China faces in Pakistan from growing Islamist violence, we see several groups ranging from the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM) . And all of them are closely connected with each other. 

Pakistan claims to have neutralized the TTP on its soil but several ground reports point to its resurgence in the country. The TTP’s recent attacks on the bus should be a wake up call for Beijing. The same group’s attack on a hotel in Quetta aimed at the Chinese ambassador, was already too close for comfort. There are several reports of the TTP affiliated Islamist groups gaining a stronghold in Gilgit Baltistan region, next to the Pakistan-China border.

But the biggest threat China will face in the coming days will be from ETIM, which may also regroup and resurge, given the rise of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in the region.

The ETIM or simply known as the Uighur militancy is especially close to home for the Chinese as all of this began in the Xinjiang province of China, where Beijing has intensified its persecution of the Uighur Muslims, and that can serve as a rallying call for the jihadists based in the region to unite and fight against China. In the past, Uighur militants have been using the Afghan-Pak border as its base. 

The ETIM is also being supported by the TTP which has issued statements against China condemning the persecution faced by Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

When the ETIM was first raised in 1993, China requested Pakistan to put an end to their activities. It took Islamabad nearly a decade (2003) to kill its leader Hasan Mahsum, while receiving economic assistance from China all along. 

Is a cash-strapped Pakistan doing the same once again? Is the threat against China growing so that Pakistan can get more aid and financial assistance from China and fill its coffers?

China has already invested money into creating and training a new Pakistani security force called the Special Security Divisions (SSDs). Two such outfits have been created with 15,000 troops each from the Pakistani Army.

But can China rely on Pakistan and trust it to provide the safety and security it seeks when operating in Pakistan? The case of the United States for one, tells us that Pakistan has betrayed its partners in the past. 

In the 1980s, the Americans got involved in the proxy war against the Soviet Union through Pakistan. The US supplied Pakistan with arms and ammunition and even with large sums of money to be used against the Soviets by training and arming jihadists in Pakistan and sending them to Afghanistan. But it later emerged that Pakistan inflated the costs of the Afghan war and used these resources in funding their jihadist agenda in Kashmir against India

Later, when the American and Western allies bombed Afghanistan to end the Taliban rule following 9/11, orchestrated by Al Qaeda that the Taliban were protecting, most of the Afghan militant leadership and its allies fled to Pakistani tribal area and Balochistan. Pakistan has been long accused of looking the other way, allowing the Afghan Taliban and their affiliates refuge in the country. But this is no longer just an accusation as it was even acknowledged by Pakistan’s current interior minister in an interview recently.

Beyond the threat from Islamic militancy that has linkages to the Pakistani state, the Chinese must also face the brunt of various rebel groups originating from the Balochistan province where China is heavily invested especially in the port city of Gwadar. The Gwadar port is an essential part of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR), an initiative through which Beijing seeks to dominate the crucial Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

But operating in Balochistan has had its risks. There has been growing discontent among the local population in the province as it remains severely under developed, despite being rich in natural resources.

Owing to this, the province has seen an insurgency that recently unified itself under the Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS). BRAS is an umbrella organization working towards the independence of Balochistan. Under this organization, there are various armed groups that operate, who view China and Pakistan as threats. While the groups typically work separately to achieve their aims, they have been known to band together to execute attacks. Of the multiple groups under BRAS, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) seems to be the biggest threat that China faces. In the last few years, the BLA has attacked Chinese interests several times. These include an attack on the Pearl continental Hotel in Gwadar, which is a destination for various Chinese delegations, the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and the attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange.

With threats from the Baloch and the Islamists, China will face a difficult and tough time in the coming years achieving its strategic and economic objectives in Pakistan and beyond, given the rising violence in the region, especially with the imminent fall of Kabul, being predicted in the coming weeks.

The spillover effects of this violence are already being felt in Pakistan with Chinese interests coming under renewed terror attacks. Is mainland China next?

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