Written by Rizwan Zeb.

Xinjiang holds immense strategic significance for Beijing. It is also increasingly vulnerable as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) continues its armed resistance against Beijing and seeks the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in East Turkistan as they call it. Some people believe that ETIM was responsible for a series of bomb blasts and knife attacks in Hotan, Xinjiang last year in which reportedly more than 20 people were killed and many more were injured. Chinese officials pointed out that these militants were trained in the Pakistani tribal areas and hence for the first time publicly blamed Pakistan for the troubles in Xinjiang. While Pakistan-China relations continue to stand firm, if ETIM continues its militant activities and its links with groups such as TTP it could emerge as a spoiler and irritant in Sino-Pak relations which needs to be dealt with.

A lot has been written and said about Pakistan-China relations. The leaderships of China and Pakistan have described this friendship as higher than mountains, deeper than the oceans, and of late, sweeter than honey. Since the early 1950s when the bilateral relationship was established, both countries have been supporting and helping each other at various regional and global forums. While China ended Pakistan’s search for a balancer in its relations with India and provided Pakistan with economic, military and technical aid and assistance, Pakistan continue to support China on issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, etc. the bilateral collaboration has been particularly significant in  defense, trade and developmental and energy sectors. In the military sector, since the 1960s, China has been the most important supplier of military goods to Pakistan. The JF-17 Thunder fighter aircraft is the hallmark of this defense cooperation. They also cooperate in the nuclear energy sector and have organized joint military exercises and officers from both countries attend courses at military institutions. The bilateral trade between Pakistan and China is increasing. China is currently investing in a number of economic and developmental projects such as power plants, roads, gold and copper mines, electricity and power and nuclear plants. The most significant of all these is the deep-sea port of Gwadar in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

Although observers of the strategic dynamics of South Asian politics and Sino-Pakistan relations believe the latter will remain solid, there are at least four areas that can have adverse implications on the bilateral relationship: lack of people-to-people contact, improvement in China-India relations especially in the economic sector, safety and security of Chinese personnel working in Pakistan and terrorism, especially Xinjiang-based ETIM, which reportedly has links with TTP and AlQaeda.

Xinjiang borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is of immense strategic importance for China for a number of reasons. Populated by Turkic-speaking and Muslim ethnic Uyghurs which constitute almost 40 percent of the area’s total population, Xinjiang is also home to a number of militant groups or factions struggling for independence from China. According to Beijing, a number of players are involved in the region and the religious extremists there are supported by several transnational terrorist networks, prime amongst them Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). The most effective of the groups active in the area is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). ETIM was founded in 1997 and its stated aim is to liberate Xinjiang from China and restore its past glory by installing an Islamic caliphate there. There is strong evidence that ETIM is linked with other groups in the region, especially Al Qaeda. Its members are active in other countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to various media reports, ETIM’s leader Abdul Shakoor Turkistani was one of the contenders to succeed Osama bin Laden after he was killed in the May 2011 U.S. operation.

Two factions exist within the ETIM: one wants to concentrate solely on its struggle for independence from China, while the other wants to participate in and support the globalized jihadist network. ETIM is reported to have secured sanctuaries in the lawless areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri stated in an interview: “We have certainly discovered that East Turkistan Islamic Movement activists and terrorists in our neighboring states have a thousand and one links.” In an official statement, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security issued a list of six terrorists including their profiles. The statement claimed that these terrorists were operating from a South Asian country and that one of them, the known ETIM commander Nurmemet Memetmin, was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in a South Asian country but managed to escape in 2006.

This practice of avoiding direct mention of Pakistan changed after the attacks on July 18, 2011, in Hotan, Xinjiang, involving a series of bomb blasts and knife attacks. Chinese officials pointed out that these militants were trained in the Pakistani tribal areas. The state run Xinhua news agency reported that the terrorist behind the attacks received training in camps located in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The timing of this report is important because the then director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, General Ahmed Shujja Pasha was in China on an official visit at the time.

Another piece of evidence of ETIM’s Pakistani connections is the martyrdom video of Memtieli Tiliwaldi who was killed by Chinese security forces, training in what was claimed to be the tribal areas of Pakistan. During his recent visit to Islamabad, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi asked the Pakistani government to take action against ethnic Uygur Islamic militants present in its lawless tribal areas. In February 2012, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) took responsibility of killing a Chinese woman claiming that it was done to take revenge for the atrocities committed against Muslims” in Xinjiang.

While it can be argued that there are no chances of any problems emerging for the bilateral relationship in the foreseeable future yet Islamabad policy makers need to understand the Chinese strategic culture, mindset and the motivation that is currently driving Beijing’s regional and global policies. At present, the most important thing for Beijing is to meet the goal of emerging as a major power by 2050. While there is a convergence of interest between Beijing and Islamabad especially when it comes to India, USA and their emerging strategic alliance yet currently an open confrontation with any of them would not be in the interest of China. Beijing would not let this come in the way of its emergence as a major power by 2050, if not earlier. And any thing that creates hurdles in the achievement of this objective would not be acceptable to Beijing. Hence, the problem of terrorism in the shape of Muslim militant groups such as ETIM would not be tolerated by Beijing.

Currently Pakistan and China are actively cooperating on terrorism and have an institutionalized antiterrorism dialogue and intelligence sharing mechanism. On August 6, 2004, China and Pakistan conducted their first joint antiterrorism military exercise named Friendship 2004 in Xinjiang. In a military operation near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2003, the Pakistani Army killed the ETIM’s leader Hasan Mahsum and arrested quite a few members of the organization, later extradited to China.

Yet, despite these joint efforts and the fact that ETIM has been weakened as a number of its cadre have been killed in drone attacks and arrested or killed by Pakistani forces – it continues to be active and operational in the Xinjiang area. In keeping with the significance of the bilateral relation, it is high time that both countries further intensify and accelerate their efforts to address and eliminate the terror problem is the shape of militant groups such as ETIM before it can impact the bilateral relations negatively.

Rizwan Zeb is a professor in the department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia. He is also a senior research analyst at the Institute for Regional Studies in Islamabad.