From Teaching to Learning a Lesson: China’s Nightmare in Pakistan
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Issue Vol. 34.1 Jan-Mar 2019 | Date : 16 Apr , 2019

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, a sub-set of its China Dream and centered on its flagship project – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is likely to help China learn a hard lesson contrary to its strategic culture inclined to teaching its adversary a lesson.1 The failed suicide attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) on November 23, 2018, is yet another chapter of the syllabi that Chinese policy makers need to learn about terrorism and its role in Pakistan.

The attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi is part of a series of terrorist attacks on China’s policy in Pakistan and is likely to intensify further.2 In an immediate reaction, Pakistan cried out quite as a victim of terrorism and cited its growing strategic partnership with China as the main target of this attack. Pakistan’s Prime Minister cited the special confidential agreements signed between Pakistan and China during his recent visit to China (02 to 05 November 2018) as the cause of these attacks which according to him were expected and further stated, “…Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that we will crush the terrorists, whatever it takes.”3 China, on the other hand, reacted by stating that any attempt to sabotage the China-Pakistan friendship will not succeed as this attack was inconsequential and believes Pakistan has the ability to guarantee internal stability.4 However, Chinese academia believe this attack was an indicator of a worsening situation and outside the domain of China’s control.5 Previously on August 11, 2018, a bus carrying Chinese engineers working on mineral project – (Saindak project)6 – was attacked7 and on December 8, 2017, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned its nationals of possible terrorist attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organisations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan.8

It is naive on the part of both Pakistan and China to categorise this attack as aimed at sabotaging the China-Pakistan friendship given that such attacks are not of recent origin and hence, not a brand new phenomenon. A simple search of terrorist attacks in Pakistan on RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (DWTI) begins with bomb explosion at a bus station in Quetta that killed three and injured five others on February 05, 1989.9 Furthermore, contrary to Pakistan Prime Minister’s claim, attacks against Chinese citizens have been an ongoing trend at least since as early as May 2004.10 The objective of this attack is perhaps not the Sino-Pak friendship, but the negative impact that this friendship is having on different parts of Punjab-dominated Pakistan. Statements released following the attacks indicate a growing rage against the collusion between China and the Punjabi establishment in looting resources from Sindh11 and Baluchistan.12

China’s Counter-Productive Approach

If China believes that strengthening the military potential of Pakistan to deter terrorism within Pakistan will solve the security and stability related problem, then it has grossly misunderstood the role of terrorism and its relationship with the state of Pakistan. This is evident in China’s rationale to sell and transfer technology related to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) – Wing Loong II – based on the premise that such armaments can effectively deal with terror outfits in Pakistan. This approach to use kinetic force against terrorists has failed in Pakistan and on the contrary, fueled its prospects even further. In lieu of ineptness in dealing with terrorism with drone strikes in Pakistan, its frequency had decreased since 2012, and hitting an all-time low in 2015, following the first deadliest terrorist attack which killed 132 school children in Peshawar on December 16, 2014,13 and another attack on July 13, 2018, killing 149 people at a campaign rally in Baluchistan.14

Both Pakistan and China have already factored in the security related problem in Pakistan and have created forces to protect CPEC projects. The Special Security Division (SSD) will provide security to 34 CPEC related projects and the Maritime Security Force (MSF) safeguard the Gwadar port and other coastal areas.15 China, on the other hand, has plans to more than double the strength of its marine corps to around one lakh with brigades to be stationed at overseas ports. China is operating in Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.16 However, this approach allows Pakistan and China to secure its physical interests and does not contribute towards peace-building and assumes the continuation and existence of terrorism in Pakistan. In other words, for China, the prevailing status of internal security in Pakistan is acceptable based on the premise that it can be controlled through application of military force.

Unfortunately for China, its brand new status as the “target of terrorism” is only about to be further enhanced. The day is not far when terrorists in Pakistan will mount a terror strike on mainland China as they did in case of the United States in September, 2001. The charge against the US was of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereigns in the Middle East and supporting leadership that was not in line with the general welfare of the Islamic world. China’s situation is even worse given the ongoing tensions in Xinjiang province where a major crackdown against the Uighur Muslim minority is currently underway.17 Apart from BLA, there are a number of terror outfits in Pakistan who realise that the modern hi-tech armament used against them is being supplied to the Pakistan military by China and will soon choose to address the issue at its source – the Chinese mainland.

The general logic that China follows as a cover up to its geo-political ambitions is that an influx of investment in key sectors of economy will empower and improve the lives of people by redirecting them from poverty to development and hence act as a panacea against terrorism in the neighborhood – a win-win solution model. While in theory, the logic seems sound, in practice, the questions of development for whom and at what cost remains unclear. Second, the logic of BRI as an economic initiative does not hold any longer as its geo-political implications are loud and clear. The BRI is the strategic outcome following the rise of a continental power within a world order dominated by maritime powers. Pakistan, through the CPEC project, has facilitated China’s need for a redundant supply route should it face an embargo during a military conflict with maritime powers such as the US.18 According to UNHRC Balochistan representative Mehran Marri – “The Gwadar project is for the Chinese military” (August 13, 2016).19 This sentiment has now caught the gaze of the Pakistan government which is looking to re-negotiate its CPEC-related trade agreements with China.20

Given this grand strategic objective, China invests in the state of Pakistan and expects it to take charge of its internal security forgetting the fact that the state itself is abetting terrorism for decades as a force multiplier.21According to Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, Director, Defence Intelligence Agency in his disposition to the State Armed Service Committee in May 2017, stated that Pakistan desires peace and stability in Afghanistan, minus any heavy Indian influence given its threat perception regarding India towards the state of Pakistan. Hence Pakistan holds in reserve, terror outfits and in case of any tilt in Afghanistan’s policy towards India, unleashes these terror networks to disrupt stability in Afghanistan. India, on the other hand, believes that given the conventional inferiority of Pakistan military vis-a-vis India, the former is forced to adopt a military strategy of employing terrorists to conduct asymmetric warfare against it.

Both in the US (2017) and in India (2016), lawmakers have initiated private members bills to recognise Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism.22 While the Indian Home Ministry rejected this idea citing India’s need to maintain its diplomatic relations, in the US as of November 24, 2018, no related bill information has been received for H.R.1449 – Pakistan State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act of 2017.23 However, the US passed a bill to slash Pakistan’s defence aid to $150 million and suspend its security assistance over differences in Afghanistan.24 The importance of a terrorist network in Pakistan’s national security strategy is so stark that despite evidence against conspirators of 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack that killed 165 people (including six US citizens), the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) of Pakistan charged 27 accused of which 20 were declared proclaimed offenders while allowing LeT chief Hafiz Saeed and Lakhvi freedom of action.25 Furthermore, Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) are no longer mentioned in the list of banned outfits after a presidential ordinance that prohibited them under a UN resolution lapsed.26

Maximising the military potential of Pakistan against terrorism is by itself a counter-productive strategy – a lesson learnt by the US. Terrorism is now deep rooted in Pakistan’s military and society and associated with its existence as an Islamic state. The case of F-22P Zulfiquar-class frigate27 PNS Zulfiqar is a case in point where five young naval officers allegedly tried to hijack the warship with the intent to attack the US refueling ship in the Arabian Sea on September 06, 2014.28 It will be no surprise that China’s most cherished gift to Pakistan – its nuclear arsenal – is eyed by terrorists in Pakistan. Unlike other forms of terrorism, Islamic terrorism is difficult to eliminate by hard power alone as it is sanctioned by religious doctrine and likely to manifest itself in a variety of forms and evolve continuously with time. Furthermore, it is not limited by a short term political objective, but breeds global ambitions. China’s approach to deal with an idea (Islamic) through influx in armaments (offensive) is destined to fail.

From Teaching India a Lesson To Learning a Lesson From India

Apart from its soaring economy, status as an emerging space power and established nuclear weapons state, India has yet another distinction of being most affected by terrorism.29 India’s thumb rule in dealing with terrorism is the practice of utmost patience and non-reaction or delayed reaction. According to S Gurumurthy, Co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, the rule number one in a fight with terrorists is “not to react”, a stand taken by India immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist strike in 2008, amidst mounting domestic pressure to counter-attack.30 According to former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, any immediate application of military force would have played into the terrorist hands thereby achieving the grand objectives of their attack. The consequence of violating this thumb rule is evident in the US’ behavior following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in the US. By retaliating with massive use of military force, the US policy of dismantling sovereign structures in the Middle East led to the creation of ISIS and further intensification of radical Islamic forces worldwide.

Even while India is aware of the support provided to the stone pelters from across the border in Pakistan with the tactical intent to disrupt counter-terrorist operations undertaken by the Indian Army and other security agencies in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Indian security forces have limited their choice of weapons and tactics to be employed. According to the Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, the Indian Army had liquidated the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) while applying in it disturbed areas such as Jammu and Kashmir.31 Furthermore, according to Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff, “As a democracy we don’t use kinetic air power against our own people.”32Such an approach to deal with a violence-based methodology is an inherent part of India’s strategic culture.

On the eve of successful completion of “deterrence patrol” by India’s indigenously-built nuclear submarine INS Arihant (SSBN), the Indian Prime Minister stated that India’s penchant for peace was not India’s weakness, but its strength and an integral part of its culture and tradition.33 For example, the third century BC Indian emperor Ashoka, whose life was transformed by the Buddhist ideology after having learnt the limitations of hard power in securing political objectives, sought to employ soft power by way of exporting Buddhism to specifically counter-attack the rise of Zoroastrianism along the Indian periphery.34 The idea was to inflict the mind of the opponent vis-a-vis his body and thus straying away from the option to use violence as a means of conflict resolution.

India too has committed mistakes in the past by way of providing moral support to insurgents in Sri Lanka and has paid a price in return. Supporting terrorism is a double-edged sword as it changes the direction of assault with time. According to Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister, the genesis of the terrorist networks in Pakistan was its creation at the hands of the US and Pakistan in the late 1980s to deal with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a faulty narrative.35 Having successfully completed its task, these terrorist networks took on independent charge of executing the radical Islamic ideology in pursuit of the creation of a Caliphate that was dismantled during the great wars – the Ottoman Empire. Inflicted by state-sponsored terrorism at least since 1989, India’s appeal to the international community fell on deaf years until the September 11 terrorist strike in the US homeland took place. As a long term ally of Pakistan, the US learned it the hard way the relationship between terrorism in Pakistan and the state of Pakistan.

Conclusion: The Road Through Pakistan

For both the US and China, the importance of Pakistan in their respective schema stems from the strategic requirement of the road that goes through Pakistan to Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean respectively. Pakistan has previously been explicit about its geo-strategic relevance to world powers and considers itself to be providing strategic service. It is this logistical requirement of transportation for the US that ended in a strategic nightmare for its planners.36 China seems to have studied this and instead of a basic plan to use the logistic services through Pakistan has attempted to create stakeholders within Pakistan for its grand objectives. Unfortunately China is dealing with not Pakistan, but the dominant class in Pakistan’s polity – the Punjabi Muslims. This situation creates lack of empathy for other minor stakeholders within Pakistan – the Baluchis, Sindhis, and the tribals in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

In any case, the geo-strategic attributes of Pakistan are likely to be exploited fully by the state of Pakistan as it was the case with the US. Pakistan can regulate the intensity of the instability all along the road from Gwadar to Xinjiang while extracting strategic mileage by playing the victim of terrorism to China. In this situation, China will increase its efforts to strengthen Pakistan’s security infrastructure just as the US did during the decade-long war in Afghanistan resulting in a more volatile situation. China does have the option to expand the benefits of CPEC to other stakeholders in Pakistan; but such a policy will not be easy to execute.

Bent towards a strategy of using excessive firepower against terrorism, Pakistan is likely to further alienate minority ethnic groups in Baluchistan, Sindh and NWFP and end up in a situation where the state of Pakistan will require extensive military support from other nations as it is the case with Syria. The need for a naval base in the Mediterranean for Russia is similar to that of China’s in the Indian Ocean. However, can China commit its advanced military hardware and personnel in Pakistan as Russia is doing with the deployment of the S-300 air defence system and the SU-57 in defence of Pakistani state which is likely to be targeted by its neighbourhood for supporting and exporting terrorism as a state policy?


  1. China’s strategic objective behind use of force against India (1962) and Vietnam (1979) was in its official pronouncement aimed at teaching a lesson and enforcing the hierarchical equation between itself and sovereigns on its periphery.

2. Abdul Basit (2018), “Attacks on Chinese Nationals and Interests in Pakistan are Likely to Continue. Here’s Why” SCMP, 27 November. Available at [Accessed on 29 November, 2018].

3. Ali Akbar (2018), “32 killed, 31 injured in explosion in lower Orakzai district: health official” The Dawn, 23 November.

4. Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2018), cited in Xie Wenting, “China condemns Karachi attack, attempts to derail ties ‘will not succeed’” Global Times, 24 November, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018]. Khalid Azim Choudary (2018), “China says Karachi Consulate Attack Will not Affect Pak-China Relations” Samma, 28 November. Available at [Accessed on 30 November, 2018].

5. Zhao Gancheng, Director of the South Asia Studies Department at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (Refer Note 2).

6. A joint venture between Pakistan and China to extract gold, copper and silver from an area close to the Iranian border in Dalbandin region, around 340km (211 miles) from Quetta, the capital of Southwestern Balochistan province.

7. Wendy Wu (2018), “Beijing condemns suicide attack on bus carrying Chinese engineers in Pakistan” South China Morning Post, 11 August, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018]

8. Cited in Sudha Ramchandran (2018), “Chinese Projects in Pakistan Prove Tempting Targets for Terrorist Groups” The Jamestown Foundation, 08 February. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

9. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

10. K. Iqbal (2015), “Balochistan Needs Careful Handling” The Nation, 20 April. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

11. Staff Report (2016), “Chinese Citizen Targeted in Karachi Blast” Daily Times, 31 May. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

12. “A gunfight in Karachi shakes up Pakistan and China’s all-weather alliance” Economic Times, 23 November, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

13. Rachel Roberts (2017),“Pakistan: Three years after 140 died in the Peshawar school massacre, what has changed?”Independent, 16 December. Available at [Accessed on 26 November, 2018].

14. This included nine children and injuring more than 180 at a campaign rally in Mastung, in south-western province of Balochistan. The Islamic State claimed responsibility and intended to target Balochistan provincial assembly candidate Siraj Raisani.

15. Syed Raza (2017), “‘15,000 military personnel protecting CPEC’” The Dawn, 21 February. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

16. Ananth Krishnan (2017), “China may station Marines in Gwadar, say PLA insiders”India Today, 13 March. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

17. James Palmer (2016), “There are more than 20 million Muslims in China. For some, piety is a dangerous political act” Vox, 15 July. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

18. Andrew Small cited in C Christine Fair (2017), “Pakistan Can’t Afford China’s ‘Friendship’”Foreign Policy, 03 July. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

19. SATP (2018), “Pakistan: Festering Wound In Balochistan – Analysis” Eurasia Review, 06 November, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 26 November, 2018].

20. “Pakistan: New Government Intends to Renegotiate CPEC” Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation, 11 September, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

21. Ashley J. Tellis (2008), “Pakistan’s Record on Terrorism: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance”The Washington Quarterly, 31:2 pp. 7–32.

22. “US lawmaker introduces bill to declare Pakistan ‘state sponsor of terrorism” Gulf News, 10 March, 2017. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

23. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018]. “Govt not to Support Bill to Declare Pakistan a ‘Terror State’ Economic Times, 11 July, 2018.[Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

24. “US Congressman wants Donald Trump administration to declare Pakistan state sponsor of terrorism”Indian Express, 18 October, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

25. Vijaita Singh (2018), “FBI help proved crucial in tracing 26/11 attackers’ boat to Pak” The Hindu, 25 November. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

26. “Pakistan: Hafiz Saeed’s JuD, FIF no longer in banned terror outfits’ list”Economic Times, 26 October, 2018. Available at [Accessed on 25 November, 2018].

27. Built by Pakistan under license from China and an adaptation of the Type 053H3 frigates of China. Available at WknFiJnKLwHCnL72 vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/F-22P_Zulfiquar_class_frigate.html [Accessed on 04 December, 2018].

28. Franz Stefan Gady (2016), “5 Navy Officers Sentenced to Death in Pakistan for Trying to Attack US Warship” The Diplomat, 25 May, 2016. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018]. Ankit Panda (2014), “Al Qaeda’s Worrying Ability to Infiltrate the Pakistani Military” The Diplomat, 18 September. Available at [Accessed on 24 November, 2018].

29. Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Ted Robert Gurr (2011), Peace and Conflict 2012, paradigm Publishers.

30. Sandeep Unnithan (2015), “Why India didn’t strike Pakistan after 26/11” India Today, 14 October. Available at [Accessed on 28 November, 2018].

31. PTI (2018), “Time hasn’t come for any rethink on AFSPA, says Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat”India Today, 28 January. Available at [Accessed on 26 November, 2018].

32.  “Indian Air Force capable of striking nuke, other targets in Pakistan: IAF Chief”Economic Times, 14 July, 2018. Available at [Available at 26 November, 2018].

33. Refer [Accessed on 26 November, 2018].

34. Peter Frankopan (2015), The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Bloomsbury: London.

35. Lukman Saeed (2016), “A Socioeconomic Profile of Terrorism in Pakistan (Part I: Areas of Origin)” The Mackenzie Institute, 17 October. Available at [Accessed on 29 November, 2018].

36. Rod Nordland (2012), “U.S.-Pakistan Freeze Chokes Fallback Route in Afghanistan” The New York Times, 02 June, 2012. Available at [Accessed on 04 December, 2018].

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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