As Pakistan and Iran Face Afghan Unrest, Militants Wage War on China's Ties

As Pakistan and Iran grapple with growing unrest exploited by militants groups operating in Afghanistan, the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has declared war on Chinese presence in the Balochistan region, which sits at the heart of Asia and China's economic interests at the center of the continent.

In the latest eruption of violence to beset Pakistan since the Taliban took over neighboring Afghanistan, an apparent suicide bombing killed four people Tuesday, including three Chinese nationals, at a Chinese institute in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi.

The BLA's Majeed Brigade soon claimed "responsibility for today's suicide attack on Chinese in Karachi" via official social media channels, naming the perpetrator as Shari Baloch, known by the alias Bramsh, and credited her with having "made history" as "the first female" suicide soldier of the group.

Widely shared footage of the attack appeared to show a woman detonating a hidden explosive as a van passed the entrance of the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi.

The events have also prompted the reemergence of a video that first appeared to have been released after an attack targeted Chinese tourists at the Pearl Continent hotel in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar in May 2019. The video purported to show a masked member of the BLA flanked by fellow armed comrades delivering a warning "to China and Pakistan to withdraw immediately from Balochistan."

The man said that Gwadar, a central node of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), "and the rest of Balochistan belong to Baloch," and, as such, "it's our duty to protect our land and sea."

"This is a continuous operation that has been initiated to safeguard the Baloch from China, Pakistan and other foreign powers," the man claimed. "China, you came here without our consent, supported our enemies and Pakistani military, invading our villages, but now it's our turn. The Baloch Liberation Army guarantees you that CPEC will fail miserably on Baloch land."

He said that the Majeed Brigade "has been formed particularly to attack Chinese officials and establishments," and delivered a warning to the Chinese leader himself, saying "President Xi Jinping, you will still have time to quit Balochistan, or you will witness a retaliation from Baloch sons and daughters that you will never forget."

The Majeed Brigade has since gone on to claim a number of other attacks against Chinese officials, and has clashed with Pakistani troops.

Pakistan, suicide, bombing, Chinese, institute, Karachi
Police inspect a site around damaged vehicles following a suicide bombing near the Confucius Institute affiliated with Karachi University, in Karachi, on April 26. A woman suicide bomber from a Pakistan separatist group killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a vehicle carrying staff from the institute. RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

The attack had an immediate impact on China-Pakistan relations, as Islamabad's permanent ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, delivered a note to his Chinese counterpart Zhang Jun in which expressed his "deep anguish and sorrow for the death of 3 of our Chinese brothers and sisters in the cowardly terrorist attack in Karachi."

"These terrorists are sponsored by our enemies who are desperate to break the iron friendship between China and Pakistan," Akram said. "They will never succeed. My deepest condolences."

In another statement shared with Newsweek, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said its officials "strongly condemn the reprehensible terrorist attack in Karachi which claimed innocent lives, including those of Chinese nationals working at the Confucius Institute."

"The Government and people of Pakistan extend their deepest condolences and sympathies to the families of victims who lost their lives in the incident," the Ministry added. "The law enforcement agencies are investigating the incident to apprehend the culprits and bring them to justice. Local authorities are also providing all possible assistance to the injured."

The ministry also saw the operation as "a direct attack on the Pakistan-China friendship and ongoing cooperation," viewed as one of the most robust relationships in the region.

"Pakistan and China are close friends and iron-brothers," the ministry said. "Pakistan attaches great importance to safety and security of Chinese nationals, projects and institutions in Pakistan."

China's consulate general in Karachi issued a statement of its own on Tuesday in which it said Beijing "strongly condemns the terrorist attack, expresses condolences to the unfortunate victims and condolences to the injured." The consulate said it also "launched an emergency plan immediately, requiring the Pakistani side to spare no effort to treat the wounded at all costs, thoroughly investigate the truth, severely punish the perpetrators behind the scenes, and improve the security level of Chinese institutions, projects and personnel."

"The Consulate General in Karachi reminds Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in the consular area to pay close attention to the local security situation, improve the security level, strengthen security precautions, and ensure safety," the statement added.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, China's embassy in Washington referred to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson's remarks, which said "the Chinese side expresses strong condemnation and indignation over this major terrorist attack, and extends deep condolences to the victims and sympathies to the injured and bereaved families."

In addition to the emergency measures being taken, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao was said to have "made an urgent phone call to the Pakistani Ambassador to China to express extremely grave concern" and "demanded that the Pakistani side should immediately make thorough investigation of the incident, apprehend and punish the perpetrators to the full extent of the law, and take all possible measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens in Pakistan and prevent such incidents from happening again."

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif also expressed his condolences over the loss of life and was said by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to have visited Beijing's embassy in Islamabad.

There, he said "that the Pakistani government will conduct an in-depth probe into the incident, give exemplary punishment to the perpetrators, and strengthen security of Chinese personnel, projects and institutions in Pakistan in an all-round way" and that "his government will never allow any force to undermine Pakistan-China friendship," according to the Chinese remarks.

The spokesperson also noted that a "full-scale investigation" had been launched by local authorities in the Sindh province and Karachi city "to hunt down the perpetrators."

"The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese diplomatic missions in Pakistan will continue to urge relevant Pakistani departments to handle properly the follow-up matters of those killed, treat the injured, and resolutely crack down on the terrorist organization involved," the spokesperson said. "The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain, and those behind this incident will surely pay the price."

Such incidents mark a threat to the otherwise robust relationship between the two nations.

China and Pakistan have forged what both countries describe as an "all-weather strategic cooperative partnership," viewed as among the highest-ranked of Beijing's global partnerships, second only to the "comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era" reached between China and Russia. Beijing and Islamabad coordinate on arguably even closer levels, however, as the CPEC marks one of the most important hubs of Xi's global Belt and Road Initiative.

The viability of the landmark economic project has been threatened, however, by non-state actors that have taken root in Afghanistan. The country has long hosted groups that conduct cross-border attacks, but neighboring nations have expressed deeper concerns since the Taliban reestablished its Islamic Emirate last August in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from a two-decade war there.

Pakistan has long enjoyed a close relationship with the Taliban, having played a frontline role in facilitating U.S. support for mujahideen battling a Soviet intervention in the 1980s, and then going on to support and ultimately recognize the first Taliban takeover in the 1990s. While Pakistan played a role in the U.S.-led "war on terror" that ensued after the 9/11 attacks and 2001 intervention in Afghanistan, Islamabad maintained ties with the Taliban, and has continued to conduct diplomacy with the second installment of the Islamic Emirate.

But instability has ensued, with an uptick of attacks against Pakistan launched not only by Baloch separatists but also Islamist militants aligned with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). As tensions mounted this month, the Taliban accused the Pakistani Air Force of conducting rare airstrikes in Afghan territory, marking a new front for frictions between the two nations.

Shari, Baloch, Bramsh, Balochistan, Liberation, Army
An image released by the Balochistan Liberation Army separatist group shows a woman identified as Shari Baloch, alias Bramsh, said to be a member of the Majeed Brigade behind the April 26 suicide attack that killed four people, including three Chinese citizens, near the Confusion Institute of Karachi University. Balochistan Liberation Army Official Media Channel

And while China has repeatedly raised its own concerns about separatist activities in Afghanistan, especially those which relate to the Islamist Uyghur East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Afghanistan's neighbor to the west is also on edge.

A recent series of attacks within Afghanistan itself claimed by the Islamic State militant group's Khorasan branch (ISIS-K) has drawn blood among the country's ethnic Hazara community, a largely Shiite Muslim minority that has long faced discrimination and oppression within majority-Sunni Afghanistan. Iran, home to the world's largest Shiite Muslim population, has expressed outrage at the attacks.

"Iran is deeply concerned about the sharp rise in the number of such terrorist activities in Afghanistan," the Iranian permanent mission to the United Nations told Newsweek in a statement Friday, a day after a blast killed dozens gathered at the Shiite Muslim Seh Dokan mosque in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

"Unfortunately, some extremist forces are embarking on racial and ethnic disparities in Afghanistan for their own narrow political objectives," the statement said.

The Taliban has repeatedly reiterated that it would not allow Afghan territory to be used to attack other nations. In the wake of the recent bloodshed, however, Iran's mission reiterated Tehran's pleas for the leading group to crack down on such unrest, calling "on the ruling establishment in Afghanistan to urgently identify and punish the perpetrators of these heinous crimes."

"As in the past," the mission added, "the Islamic Republic of Iran is utilizing all its potentials to establish best relations with Afghanistan and views peace and security in this neighboring country as imperative."

Tehran too has forged an important strategic partnership with Beijing, a relationship further fueled by an agreement reached in March 2021. Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe was set to visit Iran on Tuesday in a bid to cement defense cooperation.

And like the fellow Islamic Republic of Pakistan, parts of Iran are also included in the greater Balochistan region, as is southern Afghanistan. This has led Iran to contend with a decades-long Baloch insurgency of its own led by Sunni militant groups such as Jundallah and the Ansar al-Furqan.

While Newsweek has previously reported on how Tehran and Islamabad were looking to work together on the Afghan issue, tensions have arisen on this front as well, as Pakistan has alleged that Baloch separatists were regrouping within Iranian territory. The claim was reiterated late last month by the Pakistani Interior Ministry in response to a lawmaker's question, as reported by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

Iran has also been forced to contend with turmoil on its border with Afghanistan, where sporadic clashes have occurred with Taliban guards. Tensions this week led to the closure of a crossing as a result of a new border dispute.

As much of the international community, including the United States, continues to focus on Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi criticized the U.S. and its NATO allies for having brought "nothing more than destruction and killing" during their 20-year stay in Afghanistan, which he said now still needs the world's attention.

"War and conflict in Ukraine must not drive attention away from the crisis in Afghanistan and people's problems," Raisi said.

This article has been updated to include remarks by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.