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China In Eurasia

Locals from Gwadar attend the funeral for a victim of the August 20 attack claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

Less than a week after the Taliban took Kabul and toppled the government in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked a Chinese transport in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.

While the two events were separated by more than 1,600 kilometers, they point to what many analysts say is a new era of security threats emerging for China across the wider region that could be compounded by growing instability in Afghanistan.

The August 20 attack in Gwadar was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and marked the third attack against Chinese in Pakistan in two months.

Reports vary about the scope of the most recent bombing -- the BLA claimed it killed six Chinese workers and three security guards, while Chinese and Pakistani officials say one Chinese citizen was injured and two children killed -- but the attack highlights an escalation with Chinese personnel increasingly in the crosshairs of Pakistani militants.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo in Tianjin on July 28.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo in Tianjin on July 28.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, China’s state media and officials have been triumphant in relishing the blow to Washington’s credibility after the chaotic evacuation in Kabul and the quick dissolution of the U.S.-backed government.

China has forged a pragmatic working relationship with the Taliban, with Beijing promising economic and development support to the militant group in exchange for attention to Chinese security concerns, especially monitoring and denying sanctuary to any Uyghur militant groups in Afghanistan.

“Beijing has few qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and is ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in an Afghanistan now all but abandoned by the United States,” Zhou Bo, a former senior colonel in China's People’s Liberation Army, wrote in a New York Times op-ed on August 20.

But despite the public confidence voiced by Beijing, many analysts see a growing worry over a wave of uncertainty taking hold in the region -- from increased terrorism to protests against Chinese projects -- that could potentially undermine China’s strategic interests in Pakistan, where the $60 China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive bundle of infrastructure and investment deals, has taken hold.

A security guard stands outside a ship at the port of Gwadar, which has been leased to a Chinese corporation by the Pakistani government.
A security guard stands outside a ship at the port of Gwadar, which has been leased to a Chinese corporation by the Pakistani government.

“China is now seeing all of this as intertwined and part of a more adverse shift in the Pakistan and Afghanistan context,” Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis, told RFE/RL.

New Pushback

Central to these worries are the stepped-up attacks against Chinese in Pakistan recently.

A bus carrying Chinese workers in northern Pakistan was bombed on July 14, killing 13 people, nine of whom were Chinese, and has since been attributed to Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by Pakistani authorities. They said the attack was planned inside Afghanistan.

This was followed by another attack on Chinese workers in Karachi on July 28 and, in April, China’s ambassador to Pakistan narrowly avoided a terrorist attack at a hotel in Quetta where his delegation was staying.

China has been targeted by Pakistani militants before, with the BLA launching a high-profile attack against the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in 2018. But the recent spate of incidents marks a new trend, says Abdul Basit, an expert on South Asian insurgent groups at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“China’s future is in South Asia, but there is tons of volatility at the moment,” Basit told RFE/RL. “The main motivation in going after Chinese targets is that it is an effective way to cause problems for Pakistan, but the increased attacks point to a more permissive environment for groups to operate in.”

While Beijing remains fixated on the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) -- a Uyghur group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western Xinjiang Province and refers to it by its predecessor's name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) could also pose threats to China in the future.

“The attacks are a problem, but they’re small scale when we look at the big picture,” said Basit. “The main question is how China decides to react to all of this.”

Beijing has pressed the authorities in Pakistan for improved protection for Chinese following the series of attacks that it blamed on lax security.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul on September 6.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul on September 6.

China’s engagement with the Taliban has in large part been motivated by trying to prevent and contain similar threats in Afghanistan, although it remains to be seen whether the Taliban can and want to do so.

“It is a multifaceted threat posed to China from this region,” said Basit. “The security vacuum in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is benefiting China, but that can only last for so long.”

Flagship Problems

Beyond increased militancy in Pakistan, the CPEC -- Beijing’s flagship project within its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- is also facing complications and a backlash in Pakistan.

In late August, protests erupted in Gwadar against severe water and electricity shortages as protesters blocked roads in the city and burned tires. This was followed by demonstrations by local fisherman and other local workers who said their livelihoods were being threatened by Chinese trawlers illegally fishing in the nearby waters, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.

The port in Gwadar is a strategic element of the CPEC, with Islamabad leasing the port to a Chinese-backed multinational corporation for 40 years.

In July, Pakistan detained five Chinese trawlers on suspicion of illegal fishing not far from the Gwadar port. Chinese authorities denied that the detained Chinese trawlers were fishing illegally and claimed instead that they were sheltering from a storm.

In late July and early August, Chinese officials sent 26 containers of seafood and 12 containers of rice back to Pakistan, officially because they were contaminated with the coronavirus. But several Pakistani exporters told Radio Mashaal the action was a reciprocal move against Islamabad for the detention of the trawlers.

Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi holds an online meeting with Moeed Yusuf, national security adviser to the prime minister of Pakistan, on August 24 about security threats in the country.
Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi holds an online meeting with Moeed Yusuf, national security adviser to the prime minister of Pakistan, on August 24 about security threats in the country.

Balochistan, the region where Gwadar is located, is Pakistan’s most undeveloped area and is home to a long-running violent insurgency against Islamabad led by the BLA. Gwadar is not on the national power grid and issues with a nearby dam have fueled the water shortage.

But even though China is not to blame for Balochistan's water and energy problems, its large presence in Pakistan and the region has managed to trigger unrest and breed growing anti-Chinese sentiment.

While these developments highlight growing discontent toward China on the ground in some areas, Beijing’s attention continues to be fixated on Afghanistan and the risks posed by increased militancy in the region.

“Beijing needs to be careful not to be sucked into Afghanistan and the wider region, which are viewed as a strategic trap,” said Small. “For now, China’s aim is to minimize the risks, not solve the problems.”

Taliban special forces fighters at the airport in Kabul on August 31

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

A New Reality For Beijing In South And Central Asia

The Taliban has taken over Afghanistan and for the first time in 20 years, there are no U.S. forces in the country. But is this dramatic change in the region a big win for Beijing?

Finding Perspective: It’s not so straightforward, as I explained here in this article about how China views the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has signaled that it is willing to play ball with Beijing, especially when it comes to monitoring and denying sanctuary to any Uyghur militant groups.

Afghanistan In Turmoil: Full Coverage On Gandhara

Read RFE/RL's Gandhara website for complete coverage of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Gandhara is the go-to source for English-language reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi and its network of journalists, and by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, which offers extensive coverage of Pakistan's remote tribal regions.

But beyond that, China is treading cautiously. Multiple experts that I’ve spoken with from China, South Asia, and the West all see Beijing focused on limiting risks rather than chasing opportunities in Afghanistan.

This is partly because of the wave of uncertainty that has been released across the region. The Taliban toppled a fragile government in Kabul, but it too now faces the difficult task of governing Afghanistan.

A major question is also how events in Afghanistan will ripple out elsewhere, especially when it comes to emboldening and providing a home base for militant and terrorist groups that also operate in Pakistan and Central Asia.

On August 20, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a Pakistani militant group, launched an attack on Chinese transports in Gwadar. Reports diverge on the casualties figures, but the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Why It Matters: All this shows that Beijing is now preparing for a reshaped geopolitical map and a new era of security risks in South and Central Asia.

The pace of attacks against Chinese ventures in Pakistan has accelerated, pointing to how as China rises on the global stage, it attracts the focus of terrorist organizations.

How Beijing will navigate this new reality is an open question and one that Chinese policymakers are currently grappling with. China wants to project power, but there is an underlying fear of becoming sucked into the conflicts that Beijing watched the United States wrestle with for decades.

Read more

● Here’s a fascinating piece from SupChina about how the fall of Kabul is viewed within China, looking at how the Taliban takeover “reminded some nationalistic Chinese commenters of the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in 1949.”

● For another interesting insight into the Chinese perspective on events in Afghanistan, read this interview from Bloomberg with Jalal Bazwan, an Afghan who blogs in Chinese on Weibo, and has recently been attacked by nationalist trolls in China for his criticism of the Taliban.

● As always, check out RFE/RL’s Gandhara website for the latest reporting on what’s happening in Afghanistan.

Expert Corner: Can China Bring The BRI To Afghanistan?

Readers asked: "Will Beijing connect the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan?”

To find out more, I asked Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Emperor’s New Road: China And The Project Of The Century.

“China's Belt and Road faces major obstacles that will limit large transport and energy projects, but its tech dimension, the Digital Silk Road, is likely to be pulled and pushed into Afghanistan.”

“The Taliban needs assistance to assert control over largely unfamiliar and vastly expanded networks, Chinese firms have expertise and experience operating in the country, and the Chinese government may see an opportunity to increase security and build leverage.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Beyond Moscow And Beijing

A Russian-Chinese company has been charged with violating environmental safety regulations in Russia's Republic of Chuvashia, sparking protests over alleged corruption, RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.

The Case: The most recent episode involved charges against the Sichuan-Chuvashia Chinese-Russian agricultural joint venture for neglecting agricultural lands leased to it, which could lead to wildfires like those already sweeping parts of Russia.

Prior to that, Aleksandr Andreyev at Chuvashia's State Council accused local top officials of involvement in illegally allocating land plots to the company.

Earlier in August, another local official was handed a suspended prison sentence of more than three years after a court convicted him of forging documents pertaining to land rights for the joint Russian-Chinese venture.

The Big Picture: The incident highlights the tensions between Beijing and Moscow’s close political relationship and the realities on the ground.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping enjoy a strong working relationship and have been talking recently about how to coordinate on the situation in Afghanistan.

But beyond the geopolitics, China-Russia ties tell a different story. A bridge linking the Chinese and Russian rail system across the Amur River in the Far East was completed on August 17, seven years after ground was broken.

Elsewhere in Russia’s Far East, Chinese investment has fallen far below forecasts for the resource-rich region, resulting from a mix of logistical and political problems at the local levels, as this report from the South China Morning Post details.

2. Not So Great Games

My colleague Bruce Pannier took a look at how great-power politics will affect Central Asia and the region’s relationships with China, Russia, and the United States.

Regional Fallout?: The recent events in Afghanistan are already shifting the wider region and many analysts are expecting big disruptions. But as Pannier explains, it’s “more likely that little about Central Asia's relationships with the big powers, as they currently stand, will change at all.”

The United States’ engagement in Central Asia remains confined mostly to Washington’s narrow interests around Afghanistan, which are coming to a close. Looking ahead, it will continue to play a somewhat influential, but peripheral role.

Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement, especially in the military sphere, where it has conducted exercises with its Central Asian partners in recent weeks and stepped up activity through the Moscow-led military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

China continues to see its influence rise in Central Asia. Beijing is already a top investor and is seeing a growing shift into political and military affairs in the region.

Afghanistan is unlikely to alter any of these trends. Perhaps the biggest fallout, as Pannier puts it, could be that it leads to the Central Asian countries cooperating more together and relying less on the big outside powers.

3. The Latest On Fudan University In Budapest

Hungary's election authority has approved a bid to hold a referendum over the planned construction of a satellite campus for Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University in Budapest, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.

What’s Next: Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony announced on Facebook that the National Election Committee had approved his referendum question and said that in September a drive to collect 200,000 signatures in order to trigger the referendum process will begin.

Hungarian voters will be asked if they wish to repeal the law adopted earlier this year by parliament, which is dominated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party, which gave a green light to the university project.

The project became a lightning rod for controversy this spring in Hungary after it was revealed that the government planned to take out a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank to build the campus, raising concerns about corruption and the impact on Hungary’s education system.

Across The Supercontinent

A Geopolitical Update: In a sign of the times, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has updated its official website for foreigners and tourists to now include information in Chinese, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service reported.

High Alert: China’s embassy in Tajikistan has warned its citizens and companies in the country to take extreme caution due to the shifting security situation in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Mine: A Chinese-owned mine near the Serbian city of Bor is causing environmental damage, leading to complaints from local residents over pollution and forcing the company to temporarily halt its operations, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.

200 Days And Counting: Protesters have demonstrated outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for more than 200 consecutive days over the disappearance of their relatives in Xinjiang and have now begun to spend the night outside the building, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reports.

Beijing Vs. Vilnius: China continues to target Lithuania over its decision to open a trade office in Taiwan, with Chinese companies halting contracts with the country and Beijing freezing export permits.

One Thing To Watch

What role the European Union will play amid Beijing and Washington’s deepening rivalry has been a topic of debate among policymakers, with the bloc taking up a series of at times contradictory positions.

That looks unlikely to change any time soon, especially with Slovenia, which has generally avoided criticizing China, currently holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union and seemingly keeping China policy off the EU agenda.

Still, relations between Brussels and Beijing have taken a hit of late and public attitudes look to be changing too. Fifty-eight percent of Germans now support a tougher line on China, even if it hurts economic ties.

Europe’s balancing act with China is unlikely to end, but the events of the last year have pushed it onto shifting terrain.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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