From Pakistan to Afghanistan, China grappling with rising terrorist threats

Academic Alessandro Arduino observes that the spike in violence along the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is reviving concerns about the "three evils" — terrorism, separatism and extremism — which China, Russia and the Central Asian republics have feared since the inception of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Volunteers transport the coffins of Chinese nationals from a hospital following a suicide attack in Besham city in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, on 26 March 2024. (Omar Bacha/AFP)
Volunteers transport the coffins of Chinese nationals from a hospital following a suicide attack in Besham city in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, on 26 March 2024. (Omar Bacha/AFP)

While the world's attention remains fixated on the recent terrorist atrocities in Moscow, the relentless death toll on Chinese workers continues unabated along the estimated US$65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), considered one of the most ambitious projects in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On 26 March, tragedy struck again as a suicide bomber targeted a Chinese convoy near Besham city in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, claiming the lives of five Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver. The attack demonstrated how violent spillovers from Afghanistan could derail Chinese investments in the region.

Security concerns and casting doubt on China’s BRI

Although no militant group has officially claimed responsibility for this heinous act, in 2021, nine Chinese workers were killed in the same area located in proximity to the construction of the Dasu hydropower dam. At that time Pakistan’s government pointed fingers at the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) a militant group based in Afghanistan.

A few days before the Besham attack, Pakistan’s Air Force bombed a TTP stronghold in Afghanistan in retaliation for the killing of seven Pakistani soldiers during a TTP attack in northern Pakistan, showcasing how Islamabad-Taliban ties are rapidly deteriorating.

The surge in violence targeting Chinese personnel and interests in Pakistan happens at a critical juncture when Islamabad's newly elected government seeks Beijing's support to boost investment.

At the same time as the attack on the Chinese convoy, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist movement operating in the southwestern part of Pakistan, attacked Chinese investments in the port city of Gwadar, another pillar of the CPEC. In this case, Pakistani security forces repelled the BLA fighters who had ambushed a Chinese convoy near the strategic port.

Since 2018, the BLA has targeted Chinese personnel and investments across Balochistan and key port cities like Karachi and Gwadar, aiming to sow discord between Islamabad and Beijing, and put forth the Baloch nationalist view that Beijing is exploiting the province's natural resources.

Security personnel inspect the site of a suicide attack near Besham city in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan on 26 March 2024. (AFP)
Security personnel inspect the site of a suicide attack near Besham city in the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, on 26 March 2024. (AFP)

The surge in violence targeting Chinese personnel and interests in Pakistan happens at a critical juncture when Islamabad's newly elected government seeks Beijing's support to boost investment. During his visit to Dasu after the Besham attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif reassured the Chinese workers that the Pakistani government would leave no stone unturned in ensuring that they receive the best possible security.

Simultaneously, the spike in violence is reviving concerns about the "three evils" — terrorism, separatism and extremism — which China, Russia and the Central Asian republics have feared since the inception of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

... ISKP anti-China rhetoric online has been on the rise as the group opposes China's policies in Xinjiang and Beijing's support of the Taliban. 

Renewed fears of terrorism

In this respect, China’s pragmatic approach to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a reflection of its concerns over Afghanistan’s continuing instability and the possible spillover effects. China shares the fears of Afghanistan’s other neighbours: the rise of Islamist terrorism, a new wave of refugees and increased narcotics and weapons trafficking.

Therefore, Beijing’s approach to the return of the Taliban differs substantially from its approach when the Islamist group first came to power in 1996. At that time China not only refused to recognise the Taliban but also closed the Chinese embassy in the Afghan capital. Despite not formally recognising the Taliban government, last January Beijing accepted the credentials presented by the new Taliban ambassador. 

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has evolved from a little-known ISIS affiliate located in a remote mountainous area of Afghanistan to an extremist organisation with global reach being able to expand its attacks into Iran, Pakistan and most recently Russia. These attacks are reportedly carried out by ISIS militants from Central Asia, particularly the Tajiks. Since the 2022 suicide bombing at a Chinese-owned hotel in Kabul, ISKP anti-China rhetoric online has been on the rise as the group opposes China's policies in Xinjiang and Beijing's support of the Taliban. 

The recent terrorist attacks are likely to shift focus away from economic talks.

Taliban security personnel sit along a street in Faryab province, Afghanistan on 10 March 2024. (Atif Aryan/AFP)
Taliban security personnel sit along a street in Faryab province, Afghanistan, on 10 March 2024. (Atif Aryan/AFP)

Therefore, the escalation of violence from ISKP and other transnational militant groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Baloch separatists, is casting a dark cloud over Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's possible upcoming visit to China aimed to bolster CPEC.

The recent terrorist attacks are likely to shift focus away from economic talks. Beijing is already urging Islamabad to address security concerns and prioritise the safety of Chinese personnel, institutions and projects in Pakistan. 

Navigating a tough neighbourhood

Moreover, the increasing tension between Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran, has intensified. This was demonstrated by several exchanges of fire between Iranian and Afghan border guards, with Iran firing missiles into Pakistan to target extremist militants and the recent Pakistan aerial attack on Afghanistan to suppress a militant base.

These incidents illustrate the rapid decline in security within the region, which is concerning for Beijing. Each country's intensified counter-terrorism measures risk fuelling turmoil, while also destabilising the delicate balance among refugees within their borders. This has profound geopolitical implications, altering power dynamics in proximity to China’s near abroad: South and Central Asia.

Since the overall BRI has been under attack from South Asia to Africa, Beijing is looking at an expanded footprint of its private security sector as a security gap filler.

Amidst global uncertainty, the possible upcoming visit of the Pakistan prime minister to China raises questions about whether the issue of permitting Chinese private security companies (PSCs) to establish a legal presence in Pakistan will be addressed.

Since the overall BRI has been under attack from South Asia to Africa, Beijing is looking at an expanded footprint of its private security sector as a security gap filler. The trend is already there from Africa to the Red Sea, with a rising number of Chinese PSCs operating abroad. Also, the recent attack has amplified the clamour of Chinese security pundits on social media urging for a direct Chinese role in counter terrorism operations.

The recent upsurge in violence may reignite Beijing's previous call to Islamabad to authorise Chinese PSCs to safeguard Chinese workers and projects in Pakistan. Previously, Islamabad opposed granting licenses for independent operation to Chinese PSCs in the country. However, given the rapid decline in security conditions and the urgent requirement for Chinese economic assistance, a compromise may now be on the horizon.

Related: Terrorist attack in Iran sends shockwaves closer to China’s borders | China's urgent need to safeguard lives and investments along BRI