India and China, the flag bearers of the Asian century in international relations share a complicated relationship. Beyond the thorny issue of the historical boundary dispute and the ever widening trade deficit, newer issues have cropped up recently. Terrorism, which is a significant challenge as a source of non traditional threat in international relations, has also dug its ugly way into Sino-Indian relations, with China blocking India’s moves at the United Nations to blacklist JEM leader Masood Azhar. While reasons for the move provided by the Chinese side are “technical issues”, the fact that the organisation in question operates from Pakistan- which is China’s all weather friend cannot be ignored.
China has had its own share of woes due to terrorism. In fact it has been argued that the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through disputed territory is Beijing’s attempts to better secure its own territory from terrorism. Uyghur militant groups which Beijing seeks to clamp down on have sought refuge in the Pakistan- Afghanistan border areas, where they have established links with the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is one such militant group which has repeatedly targeted and attacked Chinese interests in Pakistan. Therefore, to reduce the anti state sentiment and generate public resources for additional improvements in law and order, Chinese investments in Pakistan are meant to create jobs,. By tackling the threat of jihadi organisations in neighbouring Pakistan, China hopes to somehow secure its own territory better. Therefore, the “friendship” with Pakistan needs to be stronger than ever before, and a blocking of public maligning of the “friend” at the international level when China has the power to block any such move is but natural. The point to remember is that all of this is actually in China’s self interests. It needs Pakistan to secure its own territory, as a result of which it is willing to further alienate a country like India.
Amidst the politics behind such moves at the international level, what becomes pertinent is to understand China’s own stand on terrorism and how it has dealt with it. Between 2013 and 2014, Beijing, Kunming, Urumqi were the targets of major and extremely violent terrorist attacks. In less than eight months, 72 people died and 356 people were injured in different attacks using suicide car bombs, bladed weapons, and/or explosives. Additionally, Chinese officials have said in recent months that at least 300 ethnic Uyghurs have joined Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The main terrorism threats in China emanate from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country. For roughly three decades, the region has been rocked by social unrest involving the indigenous populations — consisting mainly of Uyghurs and Han Chinese, the ethnic majority of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but also of Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Hui. Among the local groups opposing Beijing’s authority some more radical factions have surfaced.
Xinjiang today is one of the five minority autonomous regions of China, occupying a sixth of China’s landmass, bordering eight countries of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrghizstan and Tajikistan and an arena for an ethno-national conflict of the Uyghurs who constitute 47 per cent of the Xinjiang population.
Xinjiang is a reflection of a complex minority issue for its links with the wider issues of Islamic identity in Central and West Asia. This Islamic factor plus ethnic consciousness have been fused together to produce an ethno-religious conflict in Xinjiang. This problem is further exacerbated in the post- 9/11 phase, where the war against international terrorism has impacted the region, and has effectively allowed the Chinese government to haze the difference between separatism and terrorism. Xinjiang represents a case of a match between an ethnic minority and majority Han Chinese nationalism- something that is perceived by Beijing as a distinctive security threat to the very basis of the Chinese state.
In 2014, the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research labelled the situation in Xinjiang as “limited war”. Acts of social insurgency, state repression, and terrorism within the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region combine to form a complicated picture. The current terrorist threat seems to be caused by dispersed local unconnected groups rather than a single well-organized network with a clear chain of command. Yet the PRC government constantly blames the ETIM as being behind most terrorist attacks and insurgencies. This organisation, however, seems to have been replaced by the Turkestan Islamic Party, or partly absorbed into the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Turkestan Islamic Party claimed the attacks against buses in Shanghai and Kunming in 2008, as well as the Urumqi railway station attack in April 2014. The vast majority of the attacks, though, remain unclaimed by any organisation.
The geographical expansion of Chinese terrorism can also be seen beyond China’s borders and examples include in Central Asia and in the Hindu Kush region. Militant Uyghurs fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the Soviets in the 1980s and then against the international coalition (ISAF) in the early 2000s. However, more recently, in May 2014 the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan advocated that all Taliban groups should target Chinese interests in the region, especially embassies, companies, and Chinese nationals. The separatists hide mainly in the troubled North Waziristan region, where they are treated by their Pakistani Taliban hosts as guests of honour, militant and Pakistani intelligence sources say.
According to Chinese officials, several Muslim militants returning from ISIS war zones were arrested in Xinjiang in March 2015. At the same time, the Xinjiang party chief officially stated that China had become an ISIS target after several appeals from ISIS leaders for Chinese Muslims to pledge allegiance to the organisation.
After the terrorist attacks in Beijing and Kunming, surveillance, alertness and troop deployments have increased both inside and outside of the province of Xinjiang. In May 2014, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region party secretary Zhang Chunxian called for a “people’s war on terror” (反恐维稳的人民战争). Shortly after, Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun announced a so-called “strike hard” campaign (严打) to crack down on “terrorist elements.” Xi Jinping declared that in order to stabilise Xinjiang, the state’s surveillance nets needed to “spread from the earth to the sky.”
Additionally, in its effort to combat separatist Uyghur groups, China is reportedly seeking to institute military bases in the part of Pakistan that borders the province of Xinjiang. China has pressed Islamabad to crack down on Pakistan-based Uighur terrorist groups. It was under pressure from Beijing that Pakistan banned the ETIM, the IMU and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU); extradited ETIM leaders to China and carried out military operations to dismantle ETIM’s bases in Pakistan. In fact, the operation launched by Pakistan’s military in North Waziristan in June 2014 that reportedly focused on the ETIM and the IMU was at Beijing’s behest.
Therefore, it is clear that China on its own cannot handle the issue of terrorism. The region from where the threat for China emerges is bordering Pakistan, as a result of which Pakistan is the only “friend” that it needs to counter the ever challenging threat of terrorism, and not India. India does not have grounds ripe for hardening of terrorists which would target China, Pakistan does. Thus it makes perfect sense to deepen relationships with Pakistan, even if it would be at the cost of India. However, what needs to be kept in mind is that in an era of complex interdependence, wherein terrorism is spreading its tentacles far and wide, an approach such as the Chinese one will have limited results and will eventually be ineffective in the longer run.
*Dr. Sriparna Pathak is a Consultant in the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.