Pakistan Moves to Assuage China’s Security Concerns As Threats Grow

Publication Date: 10 June 2014
Edition: Volume I, Issue 5


As China pushes forward with an ambitious investment plan in Pakistan, with a potential of up to $40 billion worth of projects, the bilateral relationship is being tested by a rise in terrorist attacks by ethnic Uighur militants who seek independence. At the same time, ethnic Baloch separatists in Pakistan as well as anti-state jihadists such as the Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have indicated a greater desire to attack Chinese interests and personnel inside Pakistan.

  • Both Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership are taking active measures to address existing and potential threats to Chinese interests and personnel in Pakistan.
  • China’s investment profile in Balochistan and other parts of Pakistan is set to grow significantly, raising threats to China from both ethnic and Islamist insurgents.
  • There is risk that Pakistan may opt for an excessive military response to address Chinese security concerns, increasing the anger and alienation of Baloch and possibly even Sindhi insurgent groups.

Despite the ongoing tensions between the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship with China is a point of convergence for the two main power brokers. The police services in Punjab, run by the same party that governs at the center, and the military are stepping up security measures for Chinese nationals currently working in Pakistan. The Pakistani military is also targeting Chinese separatist groups operating in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

  • On 21 May, the Pakistani military conducted punitive airstrikes in areas of the Miram Shah and Mir Ali areas of North Waziristan home to anti-state insurgents. The next day, the Pakistan Army conducted its heaviest ground operations in years in North Waziristan, targeting an area that had been a stronghold of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Uighur militants affiliated with either the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The attacks occurred perhaps hours after a terrorist attack by suspected Uighur militants killed at least thirty one people in western China.
  • From 3-5 June, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif visited Beijing, meeting with a wide range of officials, indicating that the  discussions involved both expanding bilateral defense cooperation and addressing threats to internal Chinese security. Gen. Raheel met with defense and political leaders, Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the National People’s Congress; the top internal security official, Guo Shengku; and Xu Dazhe, the head of SASTIND, China’s chief military technology research organization. Changlong expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s support against the ETIM.
  • The Pakistan Army has revived plans to set up a military cantonment in Gwadar, the deep-sea port whose management Beijing assumed control over in 2013. The Pakistani military has also intensified military operations in Balochistan, with heavy bombardment of outposts belonging to the separatist groups, the Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army.
  • In late May, the police force of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, launched a Specialized Projection Unit tasked with guarding foreigners. It recently placed an advertisement seeking to fill four newly-created posts of Chinese interpreters, indicating that Chinese personnel are a priority for the new force.

A wide array of militant groups based in Pakistan seek to attack Chinese interests and nationals in Pakistan. These include al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, TIP, and Baloch separatists. Ethnic Sindhi separatists opposed to Beijing’s investment in collaboration with the Pakistani state could also begin attacks against Chinese targets.

  • On 2 May, Pakistan’s premier English-language daily DAWN newspaper reported that the Pakistani intelligence services discovered an al-Qaeda and TTP plot to kidnap Chinese workers at a Pakistani nuclear facility in the Mianwali district of Punjab. Later in the month, a TTP splinter group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a Chinese tourist in the Dera Ismail Khan region of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
  • In early April, Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi (also known as Abu Zar Azzam and Abu Zar Khanjari), a North Waziristan-based militant who has been associated with the TTP, IMU, and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, issued the latest of a series of anti-China video statements. In September 2013, al-Burmi called on jihadists in Pakistan to kill Chinese nationals and attack Chinese entities. Al-Burmi, an ethnic Rohingya who was educated at a Karachi madrasah, has been the most strident advocate of jihad to destroy the Pakistani state. Targeting China, which he recognizes as a critical ally for Pakistan, would facilitate that goal and also address his grievances as a Rohingya toward the Burmese state. But al-Burmi is perhaps the most radical jihadist preacher in FATA and tends to move from one jihadist group to another.
  • In early January, Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, a commander of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Front, expressed his opposition to the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan, describing Beijing and Islamabad as “partners-in-crime” in the so-called colonization of Balochistan.
  • Ethnic Sindhi separatists groups, whose protest and militant activity has risen in the past 2-3 years, could open up a new front by beginning attacks against development Chinese projects and personnel in the Sindh province.

The bilateral relationship with Beijing marks a rare point of convergence between the Pakistani civilian and military leadership. Both see their respective futures as dependent on deepening ties with the Chinese as the U.S. withdraws from the region and pursues an indifferent or even hostile approach toward Pakistan. Even if tensions between the civilian and military leadership continue to grow, the partnership with the Chinese will be insulated from the domestic turmoil unless the instability metastasizes to a level at which it completely paralyses the civilian and/or military leadership.

Even without expansive ground operations in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military is likely to conduct heavy air and limited ground operations against militants affiliated with the TIP and related movements. At the same time, the Pakistani Army, in conduction with the paramilitary Frontier Corps and Home Ministry run by Sarfaraz Bugti, will continue to strike Baloch separatists hard. But the Pakistani government risks further alienating Baloch civilians through the excessive use of force, militarization of public space throughout the establishment of cantonments (a sensitive issue in the province), and the rapid transfer of projects, such as the Reko Diq mine, to the Chinese.

As the Chinese presence grows in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, the bigger targets they will become for Baloch separatists and anti-state jihadists. The Pakistani civilian and military leadership are of one mind when it comes to addressing Chinese security concerns — and so they are likely to be able to meet these growing challenges, barring the intervention of neighbors Afghanistan or India. Should one or both countries decide to enhance support for Pakistan-based militants targeting Chinese interests, including the TTP, the threats could reach a level that would cause Beijing to scale down its investments in Pakistan. This potential threat is perhaps why the Pakistani military in particular has decided to take aggressive action in Balochistan and North Waziristan prior to the conclusion of the Afghan elections and before India’s new prime minister, a hawk, gets settled in.

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