China, Pakistan, and Terrorism
Tarique Niazi July 16, 2007
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus
Sino-Pakistani relations, which are unparalleled in closeness and warmth, have come under severe strain lately from growing militancy in Pakistan. The Pakistani military’s storming of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) has been an important indicator of the changing tenor of the relationship between the two countries.
The most recent source of stress is the July 8 execution-style killing of three Chinese nationals who owned a small business in a town near Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan. The killings were widely seen as revenge for the government’s crackdown on religious militants holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the national capital. Earlier on June 23, these militants abducted seven Chinese nationals, six of them women, who worked at a massage parlor in Islamabad. Militants believed the parlor was a front for prostitution, which they vowed to shut down as part of their anti-vice campaign. Outraged by the kidnapping, the Chinese government made a visible departure from its past diplomatic courtesies to publicly demand that Pakistan ensure the safety of its citizens. Hours after the demand, all abductees were freed unharmed.
After the latest slaying, Beijing again went public with its condemnation of the “violent attack.” Its ambassador to Islamabad, Luo Zhaohui, told Pakistan in a public statement to investigate the attack, “round up the culprits, properly handle the follow-up issues, and take effective measures to protect the Chinese in Pakistan.” In a show of further concern, Ambassador Zhaohui rushed his deputy chief of mission to lead a team of diplomats to Peshawar to “deal with the issue.” Musharraf’s order to storm the mosque was in part Pakistan’s response to China’s pressure.
Chinese diplomats in Pakistan do not characteristically voice their concern in public, even for their own citizens’ safety. In the past, they would rather limit their public utterances to the expression of “full confidence” in Pakistani authorities and reserve plain talking for private sessions. It is, therefore, ironic for observers to see Beijing get tough with Pakistan, given a relationship that in Chinese President Hu Jintao’s words is “sweeter than honey.” The recent shift in Chinese posture is, nevertheless, the result of gathering threats to Chinese nationals, who are often employed in remote and troubled parts of the country, especially in Baluchistan and northwestern Pakistan.
Pervez Musharraf is often characterized as Washington’s “man in Pakistan.” But Islamabad’s recent actions reveal more of a Chinese hand behind the scenes.
China in Pakistan
There are about 8,500 Chinese working in Pakistan, almost three times the size of Americans in the country. Of these, 3,500 are engineers and technicians assigned to a variety of Sino-Pakistani projects. The remaining 5,000 are engaged in private businesses. China’s investment in Pakistan has jumped to an all-time high of $4 billion. Its companies make up 12% -- 60 of 500 – of all the foreign firms operating in Pakistan. Chinese presence in Pakistan has grown dramatically since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which brought Beijing and Islamabad together to build a naval-cum-commercial port at Gwader, a coastal town in Baluchistan. The Gwadar port alone, where construction began in 2002, employs 500 Chinese engineers and technicians. This growing Chinese presence forces Beijing to go beyond diplomatic niceties to protect its human and non-human interests in Pakistan.
Pakistani authorities never spare any effort to safeguard China’s interests. Soon after the abduction of seven Chinese on June 23, Islamabad decided to lay siege to the Red Mosque, whose radical clerics were behind the sordid affair. On July 2, barely a week after the abduction, the government ordered 15,000 troops around the mosque compound to flush out the militants. On July 4, it arrested the leader of the militants, Maulana Abdul Aziz who, in an ironic twist, is believed to have close relations with Pakistani intelligence agencies. After apprehending the leader, government troops moved to choking off the militants’ supplies of food, water, and power. But as soon as word of the revenge killing of three Chinese on July 8 reached Islamabad, it created a “perfect storm” for Gen. Musharraf. Embarrassed and enraged, he reversed the troops’ strategy and ordered them, on July 10, to mount an all-out assault at the mosque, in which Aziz’s brother and his deputy, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, together with as many as 1,000 people, was killed.
This is not the first time that Musharraf did Beijing’s bidding. Earlier, he hunted down China’s foes, especially members of the China’s Uighur minority and their sympathizers among Uzbeks and Tajiks. On October 2, 2004, his troops killed Beijing’s Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of Xinjiang, Hasan Mahsum. Xinjiang is China’s only Muslim-majority autonomous region. Mahsum had taken refuge in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s six Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), where the Taliban has established the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.” Pakistan has, however, economic and strategic interests in securing Xinjiang, which borders its northwestern edge, including the northernmost tip of the FATA. Xinjiang is linked with Pakistan through the legendary Karakoram Highway (KKH), which runs along the old Silk Road. China is investing roughly $88 billion in the development of western China, including the immense untapped natural gas and oil resources of Xinjiang. Pakistan is expanding the Karakoram Highway with a huge sum of about $1.66 billion to make it traffic-worthy for heavy freight of energy and trade goods.
Seven days after Mahsum was killed, militants kidnapped two Chinese engineers on October 9, 2004 in South Waziristan, which is endowed with the rare natural wealth of uranium that serves as fuel for nuclear power generation. One of them was killed in a botched rescue attempt and the other seriously wounded. Pakistan has since ordered 80,000 troops into its tribal belt and along the 14,000-mile long Durand Line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan. Early this year, Musharraf ordered a deadly military attack against 300 Uzbek and Uighur militants in South Waziristan, who were suspected of carrying out subversion in Xinjiang. Only a handful of them survived the attack by relocating to neighboring North Waziristan, where they have allied themselves with the Taliban to fight NATO troops across the border into Afghanistan.
The United States, meanwhile, paid the Musharraf government $1 billion a year for military operations against the Taliban, especially in North and South Waziristan, and Bajaur Agency, where Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri are suspected to be hiding. Musharraf kept the money and practically ceded the area to the Taliban after a string of agreements.
Like northwestern Pakistan, southwestern Pakistan also is becoming inhospitable for the Chinese. On May 3, 2004, three Chinese engineers were killed in Gwadar, where China and Pakistan are jointly investing $1.16 billion in building their port. Pakistan blamed the killing on a shadowy armed group, Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), which is fighting for autonomy and control over the region’s natural resources and strategic coast. Musharraf has since ordered almost one-third of Pakistan’s army to put down the resistance. Three years into the military operation, Baluchistan is still far from being safe for Chinese nationals. As recently as February 15, 2006, unidentified gunmen killed three Chinese workers in Hub, an industrial town in Baluchistan.
Despite Pakistan’s best efforts, militants continue to target the Chinese. Yet Sino-Pakistani friendship is too solid for militants’ attacks, however regrettable, to bruise it. Instead, Sino-Pakistani relations have rapidly grown from the monolithic defense sector into broad-based economic, energy, trade, and investment cooperation. Since September 11, a major thrust has been made toward promoting educational, cultural, language, travel and tourism cooperation between two countries. After an unprecedented Free Trade Agreement that went into effect this year, Sino-Pakistani trade is projected to grow to $15 billion a year, which would put it just behind the current Indo-U.S. trade of $20 billion. In the changing regional situation since September 11, China needs Pakistan as much as Pakistan previously needed it.
Although the United States is concerned about the resurgent militancy in the region, its key focus remains on defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and dismantling their operational bases in northwestern and southwestern Pakistan. Islamabad, however, has a different view of the Taliban, which it views as a potential government-in-waiting for Afghanistan. Such a Taliban government could help balance the Indian influence in Afghanistan, which has grown since the U.S. invasion. To further confound the situation, India has built its first-ever foreign military base in Tajikistan, which makes both Beijing and Islamabad uneasy. Nor does China welcome the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and its key military base at Bagram near Kabul. Sino-U.S. interests may converge around counter-terrorism, but their strategic objectives in the region do not significantly overlap.
Pakistan is more watchful of the strategic aims of regional powers than counter-terrorism. A recent assessment prepared by Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) foresees the imminent collapse of the Northern Alliance government as soon as the United States withdraws from Iraq. The Lal Masjid incident, however, has increased the threat of reactive terror in northwestern Pakistan, where an overwhelming majority of students are Pashtuns, the Taliban's ethnic community, and hail from troubled northwestern Pakistan. On July 14, 40 people were killed, including 14 soldiers, in suicide bombings in the northwestern region of Swat and Dera Ismail Khan. Moreover, the crackdown on the Red Mosque, despite widespread public support, is being widely seen as spectacular failure because of massive casualties that were neither necessary nor justified.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan to clear the region of the Taliban and al-Qaeda has forced Pakistan into an ever-tighter embrace of China. Musharraf's crackdown on the Lal Masjid, a potent symbol of this strategic Sino-Pakistani alignment, also sent a blood-soaked message to religious militants that Chinese interests will remain off-limits. Musharraf is not apologetic about defending Chinese interests in Pakistan and punishing those who dared to harm them.
Tarique Niazi is an environmental sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).