[Publication] China: Economic bulwark against terrorism? Lesson for others

Author: Imtiaz Gul


China, in the last decade or so, has emerged as a big economic connector on the back of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) proposed by President Xi Jinping. Soon after becoming the most powerful person in contemporary China in 2012, Xi embarked on the most ambitious plan any country has ever conceived; The BRI. But he was also conscious of the pitfalls in this regional and global connectivity undertaking. One of these pitfalls is the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and its consequences for the rest of the world. Particularly after the bulk draw-down of the US-NATO troops from the war-battered country in December 2014, it became clear that regional powers shall have to fill the ensuing vacuum and create firewalls against the growing menace of trans-border terrorism. China’s appointment of a special envoy for counter-terrorism and special outreach to both Afghanistan and Pakistan underscored the concerns arising out of the spiraling terrorist violence in Afghanistan. Beijing was also conscious of the fact that success of the BRI, of which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the flagship project, hinged on getting a handle on terrorism-induced violence. And this, the Chinese concluded, depended on a regional security architecture involving regional stakeholders such as Russia, India and Pakistan. That is why China has been pushing the idea of a regional security architecture since 2014 to successfully fight terrorism and terrorist proxies. This paper argues that since 2014 or so, China, cognizant of the growing Indo-US influence in the region, has been attempting to bring these countries plus Afghanistan together for a regional Afghan peace and counter-terrorism policy, which it believes is crucial for the success of all BRI-related initiatives aimed at connecting China with the world. By pursuing this dream of trade connectivity, China has assumed an unusual role in the global war against terrorism, without deploying high-handed tactics against smaller countries, a perception that accompanies the US counter-terrorism policies. This unique focus on the need for a regional anti-terror strategy comes in handy for Pakistan too; following 18 years of turmoil following its partnership in the global war on terror, Pakistan has suffered enormous losses – both  human and material. China happens to be the only country to empathise with the complex situation that Pakistan faces and herein lies a chance for Islamabad to align its counter-terror policies with China and other regional powers such as Russia for better and lasting solutions to problems induced by the trans-border terrorist networks.

The Trigger for China’s Counter-Terror Focus

Quietly, but resolutely, China has been choreographing its Afghanistan and counter-terror policy in consultation with regional stakeholders, Pakistan and Russia in particular. With this quiet diplomacy, it has emerged as the economically strong bulwark against terrorism, a power that is underpinning regional counter-terrorism efforts through its economic clout. Apparently, the impending US-NATO drawdown in December 2014 served as the trigger for Beijing’s activism on the Afghan front.

“For the past 13 years the US and Nato have been playing a major role in Afghanistan and we made a contribution and gave them support – but now with the US leaving, Afghanistan is facing a critical period……we are ready to do more, we want to play a bigger role.”

This excerpt from China’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Sun Yuxi’s rare interview with the BBC back in 2014 was quite instructive.[1]

Ambassador Sun went on to offer to even host  an intra-Afghan dialogue.

“We would welcome the Taliban in any neutral venue such as in China …we will make negotiations happen but the process must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led – the agenda must be proposed by President Ashraf Ghani,” he underscored.

The appointment of Sun Yuxi, 63, who has known Afghanistan since 1981 as a young diplomat, was itself a clear manifestation of Beijing’s strong desire to get involved in Afghanistan.

Nearly two years later in January 2016, Beijing played host to the Afghan foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, with the obvious objective of paving way for bringing Afghanistan’s warring factions to the negotiating table.

Ten months on, Taliban leaders too were enjoying the Chinese hospitality in Beijing. It was the first public admission of China’s contacts with the Afghan Taliban, whose Qatar office chief Sher Abbas Stanikazai led a five-member delegation for the rare talks with the Chinese officials. The delegation comprised Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, Jan Muhammad Madani, Salam Hanafi and Dr Saleh.[2]

“The visit was part of the relations of the political office with European countries such as Norway, Germany, France, Britain as well as neighbouring and regional countries,” a Taliban source said when asked about the purpose of the visit. “But these relations are focused on bringing about peace in Afghanistan and resolving the issue through negotiations,” the daily Express Tribune quoted an unnamed Taliban source. China is a main stakeholder and wants to play its vital role for peace and stability in Afghanistan. That is why it invited the Taliban,” the paper said quoting another Taliban source.

Engagement with Afghanistan and Taliban

Days after the Taliban trip to Beijing, Deng Xijun,  the Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, , flew into Kabul to convey to President Ashraf Ghani that his country had “encouraged the Taliban during our contacts with them to join the peace process,” Ghani’s office confirmed after Xijun’s meeting with Ghani.

“China has always conveyed to the Taliban that it recognises the Afghan government and the president and that talks are the only option for them,” the statement quoted Xijun as saying.

Interestingly, preceding the Taliban trip to Beijing was a close consultation among Chinese, Russian and Pakistani officials in December 2016 at Moscow, where all welcomed the lifting of international sanctions on some Taliban leaders. Their Qatar office was quick to appreciate the outcome of the Moscow meeting as an acknowledgement by major stakeholders “that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force.”

By inviting the Afghan foreign minister, followed by the Taliban delegation and active participation in the Moscow meeting, the Chinese leadership underscored its quest for regional peace – whatever way possible – which it considers critical for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Chinese scholars and former diplomats point out that with the economic rise of their country, their leaders feel the pressure that comes with the global economic status.

“The big backdrop is that the United States will have withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan with the antiterrorism mission unfinished, which is leaving the country a mess,” said Du Youkang, who worked in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a diplomat and is now the director of the South Asia Studies Center at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Bombings have never stopped, even in the capital. Afghanistan shares a border with China, so in this case China must get involved to promote the talks and to secure the stability in the region.” [3]

Securing Belt and Road Initiative?

Another reason for China’s engagement has been the BRI’s flagship project – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Both Beijing and Islamabad know that Afghanistan remains a critical trans-border transportation hub to connect with Central Asia.

The Uighur Islamist insurgency in its western  Xinjiang region, the largest in size and rich with mineral wealth, is another factor that may be fueling Beijing’s desire to proactively get involved in Afghanistan but the larger focus remains on defeating terrorist groups and restoring peace in Afghanistan, considered a sanctuary for several pan-Islamist terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Daesh as well as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which specifically relates to the Uighur Sunni Muslims of Xinjiang.

China also considers peace and stability as central to curbing drugs that are grown and processed in ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan. Some of it travels through to its markets via Xinjiang too.

Narcotics indeed is part of the deadly mix that keeps Afghanistan on tenterhooks and creates the space for all kinds of non-state actors including drugs’ smugglers, criminals, and terrorists. A former US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, who commanded 150,000 U.S. and NATO forces from July 2011 to February 2013, too, pointed to these elements as a source of continued strife in Afghanistan.

General Allen gave his assessment at the Brookings Institution in May 2018.

“In my mind, there was a triangular threat to Afghanistan’s future but also, in a military context, you had the ideological insurgency, which we would euphemistically called the Taliban, you had the drug enterprise which fueled an awful lot of insurgent and criminal behavior and then you had the criminal patronage network. I don’t believe we were properly organised frankly to deal with that.”[4]

Convergence with Regional Actors

This is where positions of China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey converge, allowing China to be the visible force behind a coordinated regional counter-terrorism policy.

China, Afghanistan and Pakistan political and counter-terrorism cooperation dialogues – both at official as well as the civil society level.  It is also part of a regional group ‘Six Plus One’, comprising US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran and Afghanistan.

Another trilateral forum comprising China, US and Afghanistan is pursuing the same objectives but – ostensibly for political reasons – Chinese officials would not publicize it as much as they do with other tracks.

No surprise that between February and July 2017 alone, defense officials from Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and the UAE visited Beijing to discuss security cooperation with China. Beijing also sent the PLA Navy (PLAN) to visit the region on several occasions. Navy ships called on ports in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Oman, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE. Some of these port calls were the first such visits in years. [5]  

The China Global Security Tracker also spoke of the Chinese Navy’s permanent presence in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea since 2008, as a result of its continued participation in counter-piracy operations. Meanwhile, China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti also became operational in 2017.

The same year in March, China launched the second joint counter-terrorism and humanitarian rescue drill – Dragon Gold 2018 – with Cambodia at a training field in the Maras Prov Mountains. It involved some 280 soldiers of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and 216 soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).[6]

This reflected the seriousness with which Beijing pursued its focus on counter-terrorism, taking countries of its entire neghbourhood on board for the trans-border phenomenon.

China had long been averse to getting involved in the Afghan or any other conflicts, not wanting to be seen as taking sides. But Afghan officials, beginning under the administration of President Hamid Karzai, have been insistent, pressing Chinese leaders at every opportunity to use their influence on Islamabad to curb the Taliban.[7]

China was also part of a similar track known as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) but it came to a literal grinding halt after a US drone strike killed Taliban leader Mulla Akhtar Mansoor in May 2016.

Li Shaoxian, a Chinese scholar and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Middle East Studies, said he believed it was important for China to establish direct contact with Taliban representatives.

“I went to the country in 2000, and I have to say that the Taliban simply will not be wiped out, because they are deeply rooted in the rank-and-file of society and are a representative of the Pashtuns,” Mr. Li said, referring to the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan. “So now Beijing, Washington and Kabul have all accepted the fact that, well, we need to include them in the peace and reconciliation process.”

In broader sense, the Chinese push for a multi-lateral engagement on peace in Afghanistan dovetails its strong, but less articulated, focus on trans-national terrorist outfits, which it describes as a “common security threat.”

Counter-Terror Diplomacy expands

No coincidence therefore that the China Association for Friendship, a helping arm of the Ministry for Public Security for outreach, organized the first unofficial counter-terrorism symposium in Beijing involving Pakistan and Afghanistan and the hosts. [8]

Chen Zhimin, the President of the Association, opened the dialogue and declared that the cross-border mobility of terrorist networks and their technical capabilities represented a major threat to all regional stakeholders.

At the same time Zhimin, who enjoys the rank of a minister, underscored the need for improving connectivity among all regional powers. Real connectivity would deny terrorists the chance to network and help break the nexus between terrorists and criminal networks, Zhimin said. At the same the President acknowledged that both Afghanistan and Pakistan had been suffering because of being at the forefront of the anti-terror war. We are with you, thank you for fighting ETIM and thank you for standing up to other terrorist and criminal networks, he said. 

Only two weeks earlier, senior Chinese officials went into an unprecedented huddle with their Russian, Iranian and Pakistani counterparts at Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital to share thoughts on developments around them, with a particular focus on the buildup of Islamic State in turmoil-hit Afghanistan.[9]

Daesh/IS: The common denominator

A spokesperson for Moscow’s Foreign Intelligence Service also confirmed that the emergence of IS in Afghanistan prompted the deliberations in Islamabad, and that director of the Russian spy agency, Sergei Naryshkin represented his country in a meeting that shocked many in western capitals.

“The conference reached understanding of the importance of coordinated steps to prevent the trickling of IS terrorists from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan, where from they would pose risks for neighbouring countries,” Sergei Ivanov told state-run TASS media outlet.[10]

This meeting also signaled a synergy of views on the mysterious phenomenon of Islamic State of Khorassan, or Daesh, in Afghanistan. Although China never took a public position on the  Russian allegations that the IS is a US-sponsored entity, particularly in northern Afghan provinces next to the border with Central Asian countries, yet its presence at the quadrilateral meeting in Islamabad was viewed by many in the west as an endorsement of Moscow’s view on Daesh.

Russian envoy to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, while addressing a Security Council meeting on Afghanistan in June 2018 had asserted that IS is creating training camps in Afghanistan for its fighters, including those who come from Central Asian states.

“This is a group, which has up to 10,000 fighters in its ranks, and it is already active in at least nine out of 34 provinces … and is constantly consolidating its positions in the north of the country, turning it into a springboard for its expansion into Central Asia,” Nebenzya said, reiterating the Russian view, which Iran, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, also shares.

Washington, though, dismissed the charges as rumours, and an attempt to justify Moscow’s links to the Taliban insurgency.

IS calls its Afghan branch Khorasan Province, or ISKP, and it routinely carries out deadly suicide bombings in the war-hit country and occasionally plots such attacks in neighbouring Pakistan.

Pakistani officials also believe the terrorist group has established strong bases in “ungoverned spaces” in Afghanistan and plans cross-border terrorist attacks from there.

They also cite US military assessments that the Afghan government controls less than 60 percent of the territory, particularly referring to estimates by John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) .

Islamabad, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran maintain contacts with the Taliban, saying they are meant to persuade the insurgency to seek a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war.

But the diplomatic ties with insurgents have upset both Kabul and Washington because they see them as an attempt to legitimise the Taliban’s violent campaign.

Sino-Pak Synergy on Counter-Terrorism

Although Pakistan failed to escape being grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) [11] in June 2018,  China stood by Pakistan in urging the international community to view the country’s anti-terrorism efforts in an objective and impartial way, an attempt to shouldered some of Pakistan’s political burden.

“The government and people of Pakistan have contributed and sacrificed a lot in their fight against terrorism and made great efforts in ground operations as well as combating terrorism in the financial sector,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a routine press conference.[12]

Lu’s comments came after some countries persuaded members of the Financial Action Task Force last week to place Pakistan on the “grey list” of nations with inadequate efforts to control terror financing.

China, as an all-weather strategic cooperation partner of Pakistan, will continue to strengthen communication and coordination with Pakistan in anti-terrorism cooperation, Lu said.

“ ….we stressed many times that Pakistan has made important sacrifices and contributions to the global anti-terrorism cause and the countries should strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation on the basis of mutual respect instead of finger pointing at each other. This is not conducive to the global efforts,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said during his regular press briefing here. [13]

The spokesperson underscored that the Chinese side opposed linking of terrorism with any certain country and disagreed to place the responsibility of counter-terrorism on a certain country. “First and the foremost I would like to say that terrorism is common enemy of the world… cracking down on the terrorism needs joint efforts from the international community,” he said.

Using SCO for inter-state synergy on terrorism

At the same time, Beijing also kept trying to bring India and Pakistan closer at multi-lateral fora such as the maiden joint counter-terrorism exercises under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held in Russia in August 2018.

 “We sincerely hope that they can enhance their dialogue and cooperation both bilaterally and within multilateral mechanisms like the SCO, work together to improve their ties and jointly maintain regional peace and stability,” the spokesperson added, [14] Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a news briefing, adding that both India and Pakistan are important countries in South Asia and “that stability in their ties was the key to peace and development in the region and the world.”

The counter-terrorism drill by SCO countries – involving at least 3,000 soldiers from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, India and Pakistan – was the largest under the SCO charter with the participation of India and Pakistan for the first time.

The drill plays a positive role in deepening defence and security cooperation among member countries, enhancing capacity in tackling new threats and challenges and safeguarding regional peace and stability, China’s Ministry of National Defence spokesperson Ren Guoqiang said.

The previous SCO counter-terrorism drills had mainly been limited to Central Asia. But because of the entry of India and Pakistan, the SCO’s counter-terrorism mission had expanded to South Asia.

The effective counter-terrorism cooperation among SCO countries has greatly undermined terrorist groups in Central Asia in recent years and it’s expected that this cooperation will also boost stability in South Asia, a region facing a more complicated counter-terrorism situation with a variety of active terrorist groups,” Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said.

Sun Zhuangzhi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of social sciences called the Peace Mission 2018 “a rare opportunity for Pakistan and India,” which have long been involved in the military conflict, to enhance military exchanges and trust. This could improve regional stability. [15]


With the rise in its economic might, China has also emerged as the biggest proponent of peace and the advocate of a regional approach in countering the complex web of global terrorism. Beijing’s focus on this particular issue has also dovetailed with Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy as well its long-drawn and hard battle against terrorist forces. We have been fighting monsters who were receiving support from both in and outside the country, said General Qamar J.Bajwa, the army chief in an off-the-record talk with three dozen leading journalists and writers.[16]

It indeed took the Pakistani state security apparatus to get a handle on the various proponents of terror – most of them external proxies  – between August 2008, when the Operation Sherdil (Lion’s Heart) was launched in Bajaur tribal region, to Swat Operation ( May 2009) to the South Waziristan Operation ( October 2009) to Operation Zarbe Azb , North Waziristan ( June 2014).

China was among the few friendly countries that demonstrated visible understanding of the complexity of the situation and the calibrated Pakistani response to it. Leaders and officials in Beijing also seem to learn from the way Pakistani forces – through a multi-pronged but sequenced strategy – attacked, disrupted and neutralized most of the terrorist outfits.

Once can therefore assume that success of China in counter-terrorism translates into gains for Pakistan as well. This has also helped in creating a regional ownership for a war that knows no boundaries but can still be restricted and effectively countered if major stakeholders, including China and Russia, can synergise their thoughts and actions.

This represents a great opportunity for Pakistan to align its counter-terror policies with China and other regional powers such as Russia for better and lasting solutions to problems induced by the trans-border terrorist networks. At the same time, the country needs to draw on experiences of China in particular in not only counter-terrorism but also in maintaining trade relations even with countries with which it is locked in political and territorial disputes.


[1], 2014



[4]   +




[8] The tripodal dialogue, held July 2018, involved high-ranking Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and intelligentia from Afghanistan, Pakistani private sector  security and terrorism experts  (including the author) and Chinese officials as well as academia. The first official counter-terror (CT) trilateral dialogue had taken place in December 2017 at Beijing.



[11] FATF is a 37-nation inter-governmental body established in 1989 to combat money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.

[12], 2018/2/27



[15] + drill/

[16] The author was part of the meeting that took place on March 9, 2018.

This paper was originally published in Pakistan Army Green Book 2019

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