Bishkek bomb cloud casts a shadow over China’s interests abroad

Zhou Zunyou says no matter whether Uygur extremists were behind the attack, it highlights how Chinese nationals and facilities overseas have become terror targets as the country rises in global prominence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 9:46am

On August 30, a suicide bomber crashed his car through the entrance of China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, before blowing himself up and wounding three embassy staff. The attack came just a day before the Central Asian country’s 25th national day to celebrate its independence and just days prior to the G20 summit in Hangzhou (杭州).

Although no group has claimed responsibility, both Kyrgyz and Chinese authorities have called it an act of terrorism. Amid great pressure from China, Kyrgyz authorities are trying hard to conduct a thorough investigation.

Kyrgyzstan vows to hunt down and punish organisers of suicide bomb attack on Chinese embassy

Given the target and timing of the bombing, the public will wonder who was behind the attack and what security implications it will have for China.

While Kyrgyz media have assumed the bomber was Uygur, a Muslim group native to China’s far western region of Xinjiang, Kyrgyz authorities have neither confirmed nor denied the speculation. Prominent counterterrorism expert Li Wei, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, has gone so far as to place the blame on the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), a Uygur terrorist group formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The decision to blame Uygur militants or the TIP is not baseless. Mainly owing to its proximity to Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan is home to a large Uygur community, numbering about 50,000 and accounting for almost 1 per cent of its total population. So there is a good reason to believe that some disgruntled Uygurs, either with or without a connection to the TIP, have turned extremist and violent in the global context of terrorism.

Islamic State suspects are Chinese Uygurs

The idea is also partly based on the fact that the TIP has gained momentum abroad and is particularly active in the war zone of Syria and Iraq. Apart from Chinese accusations, foreign media and experts have confirmed that at least 100 Uygurs are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in alliance with the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in the Middle East. Many years ago, Uygur terrorism was confined to the region of Xinjiang. But things have changed since the suicide car attack in Tiananmen Square on October 28, 2013, that signalled the spillover of terrorism into other areas of China. Uygur terrorism reached a new level on August 17, 2015, with the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, that killed 20 people and injured 125 others.

Political violence against Chinese personnel abroad occurs from time to time, but Chinese missions have never been struck. The incident in Bishkek seems to be another indication that overseas Chinese interests, including its nationals and facilities, have become targets of international terrorism. As China grows into a major power with a global presence, its chances of being targeted by terrorists increase. Terrorist violence against Chinese interests abroad will continue, no matter how much security is in place.

The weakest links: Bishkek attack exposes security risks for Chinese projects in Central Asia

Yet, security prospects inferred from the Bishkek attack are not totally gloomy. From another perspective, it is also an indicator that overseas Uygur terrorists have little chance of mounting attacks that may have more lethal consequences within Chinese borders.

The Chinese government adopts a tough stance on terrorism, by putting many terrorists behind bars and keeping a close eye on dangerous extremists. Also, it maintains a tight grip on guns and explosives, and implements a strict security policy for transport networks and other public facilities. In addition, loyal officials have been dispatched to improve governance in Xinjiang’s local communities in an attempt to curb the infiltration of jihadist ideology.

China angered by US criticism of anti-terror fight in Xinjiang

No matter whether the TIP is connected with the Bishkek car bombing, the incident cast a shadow over the weekend’s G20 summit. Few people doubt China’s capability of successfully organising internationally high-profile events, but the price for security is disproportionately high, considering the enormous resources, both human and financial, that are deployed.

Dr Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China