China Power

Terror Looms Over Pakistan Ties

Attacks claimed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement raise the prospect of tension between China and Pakistan.

As Jason Miks noted earlier this month, July and August saw a number of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang that the Chinese government pinned on Islamist group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The group eventually also claimed responsibility for the attacks, and vowed that more are to come over what it describes as China’s ‘occupation’ of the region. But aside from the attacks themselves, the existence of the Pakistan-based group raises another question – will the East Turkestan Islamic Movement prompt China to try to crack down on militants in the border region of Pakistan?

Chinese officials say the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has ties with other terror organizations, which it hopes will bolster its quest for independence for Xinjiang. The group also resists the US presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the US State Department and the European Union for its activities.

In late July in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, officials said two men had hijacked a truck, killed the driver and rammed the truck into a crowd. They are then said to have fled the truck and to have started slashing at random passers-by with knives, killing eight people in the process. The next day, explosions were reported at a restaurant, where a group of men are alleged to have then run into the street where they killed four people.

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These attacks took place around the time of a visit by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, whose itinerary included Xinjiang. It seems likely the terrorists were trying to strain bilateral relations by striking during the trip.

Certainly, China isn’t happy that Pakistan has been unable to snuff out the movement, a frustration reminiscent of that of the United States over militants operating in Afghanistan. Still, Pakistan is considered an ‘all weather’ ally by the Chinese government, a designation that’s rare in Chinese foreign policy.

With India rising, Pakistan for its part relies heavily on China. But it also receives billions of dollars in assistance from the United States, leaving it caught between these two giant nations politically. China’s call for Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups was particularly embarrassing for Islamabad, coming as it has after similar US demands.

Speculation has been rife in the Chinese media over just how far Beijing’s frustration stretches – including whether the close relationship between the Chinese and Pakistani militaries may have prompted China to secretly dispatch anti-terror forces to Pakistan to tackle the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Personally, I doubt this last suggestion. Military ties may have evolved to the point where China is providing advanced technology and equipment, but on the ground assistance in anti-terrorism operations seems a stretch, not least because of the enormous political risks that Pakistan would be running for allowing this.

Regardless, for the foreseeable future, Xinjiang will be China’s main battleground against terrorist groups, which can be expected to continue attacks on Xinjiang. This in turn will continue to challenge China-Pakistan relations. If Islamist groups continue their activities, China will increasingly doubt Pakistan’s ability to handle the terrorists, and will likely increase pressure on the Pakistani government to do more about the problem.