While China has often asserted that it is opposed to the terrorism perpetrated by groups such as al Qaeda or ISIS, such a position has not prompted it to join international efforts to combat them in Afghanistan or the Middle East.
Rather Beijing has maintained an aloof posture consistent with its approach to the Middle East as a whole since the end of the Cold War whereby its core interests in the region — access to energy resources and overseas markets and investment opportunities — have been pursued through an “offend no one” and “attach no strings” strategy.
This position now looks increasingly untenable.
Is ISIS targeting China?
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) media agency, Amaq, reported on 8 June that the two Chinese nationals who had been taken hostage in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on 24 May were executed.
President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plans to transform the world economy with its Belt and Road Initiative to link Asia, Europe. the Middle East and Africa with physical and financial infrastructure, makes the threats to China’s foreign policy interests global in scope
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a case in point.
A 3,000 kilometer, $46 billion initiative to develop a network of roads, railways and pipelines to connect the deep-water port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province with Kashgar in Xinjiang.
CPEC is primarily seen by both Beijing and Islamabad as means of consolidating their “all weather friendship” by providing Pakistan with much needed investment and China with over-land access from Xinjiang to Gwadar.
Within Pakistan there is also growing domestic political disquiet about the siting of core CPEC projects in Punjab and Sindh, suggesting the corridor will primarily benefit the political and economic elites in these provinces at the expense of the rest of the country.
Finally, as the reported killing of the two Chinese nationals demonstrates, can China ultimately rely on the security forces of local partners such as Pakistan to protect its interests? Indeed, these killings come despite the Pakistani military’s commitment to secure CPEC with a “Special Security Division” and in “revenge” for military operations against the ISIS-aligned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-alami.
This raises the possibility that such groups may increasingly seek to target Chinese projects and citizens in Pakistan as a means of coercing Islamabad.
It’s clear that as China invests and expands its influence overseas, it is facing a string of new security challenges: From transnational actors such as ISIS to deepening domestic political fissures within key allies like Pakistan, and increased geopolitical friction with those states such as India that have not bought into President Xi’s rhetoric.
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