On December 16, 141 people (including 132 children) were killed in a brutal attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. The world reacted in horror and shock. Already, discussion is turning toward preventing future terrorist attacks – and Pakistan’s “all weather friend,” China, could contribute in a major way.
China reacted swiftly to new of the Peshawar attack. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both expressed their condolences to their Pakistani counterparts. In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said China was “deeply shocked and saddened” by the attack and condemned the attack “in the strongest terms.” He added that China “will stand firmly with the Pakistani government and people in their unremitting efforts to fight against terrorism and safeguard stability of the country and security of the people.”
In Wednesday’s press conference, Qin expanded on those points. He stressed that China and Pakistan support each other’s efforts at counter-terrorism. “Counter-terrorism and law-enforcement cooperation makes up an important part of China-Pakistan cooperation,” Qin said. “China will stand firmly behind Pakistan in its campaign against terrorism. We will further deepen our cooperation with the Pakistani side in this area.”
Both Pakistan and China have suffered major terrorist attacks this year, with the horrific attack on a military-run school in Peshawar being just the latest example of violence targeting civilians. Earlier this year, an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi left 18 civilians dead. In China, meanwhile, knife-wielding assailants at a Kunming railway station killed 29 people and injured over 140 in March. In May, a car bomb attack on a market in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) killed 31 and injured almost 100. With each high-profile terrorist attack, pressure has grown on both Beijing and Islamabad to do more to ensure the safety of their citizens.
Accordingly, after these attacks it’s become common for China and Pakistan pledge to increase their counter-terrorism cooperation. They did so after the Urumqi bombing and China repeated the promise this week in its response to the Peshawar tragedy, as noted above. For China, such cooperation is particularly crucial as terrorist groups targeting China, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), are known to be based in Pakistan.
It’s no surprise, then, that China publicly applauded Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which targets militant groups in the North Waziristan tribal region. That includes groups affiliated with Uyghur separatist movements that have carried out attacks on Chinese soil. A June press release from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations said that “many ETIM terrorists and their affiliates have also been killed” under Operation Zarb-e-azb.
Yet despite China’s vocal support for counter-terrorism in Pakistan, tangible assistance has been limited. According to the Pakistan-China Institute, China has given Pakistan over $500 million in the past 10 years to assist with counter-terrorism (not counting Chinese assistance for infrastructure development that is aimed to decrease unrest in hotspot areas). By comparison, the U.S. has contributed $28 billion in total aid to Pakistan since the September 11 attacks – including $11 billion specifically for counter-terrorism. Clearly, there’s room for far more counter-terrorism cooperation between China and Pakistan, especially given their uniquely close relationship.
Counter-terrorism cooperation is becoming even more important as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. Earlier this year, while on a visit to the U.S., Pakistani National Security and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz predicted that “Pakistan will have to face the brunt of any instability that may engulf Afghanistan after 2014.” That includes an increased threat from terrorist attacks – a possibility that is also deeply concerning to China.
With national outrage and grief over the Peshawar attack, the timing is right for a concerted anti-terrorism push in Pakistan. China could win goodwill — and help secure its own national interests — by becoming more deeply involved, just as its officials have promised in the last few days.