Beijing for the first time officially accused Pakistan of being the source of terror after last Sunday’s violence in Xinjiang. Does this indicate significant change in China’s policy towards Pakistan in relation to America or India? Does it indicate change in the balance of power between the hardcore People’s Liberation Army and the more liberal elements of the civilian government? To understand that, some background needs to be recalled.
|Beijing would have to reconcile itself to the emergence of South Asian consolidation. It would have to forego its hegemonic ambitions. It would have to stop using Pakistan as its cat’s-paw to promote insurgency, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
Ever since the Soviet Union crumbled to create independent Central Asian Muslim nations Uighur separatism in Xinjiang accelerated. It was not promoted by outsiders but home grown. Chinese Uighurs practice Sufi Islam and speak a Turkic language. They have long had national ambitions that were frustrated by Beijing.
China for international consumption voiced concern about Islamic terrorism. But Beijing’s actions betrayed its cozy relationship with Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. It was not for nothing that on 9/11/2001 Beijing signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Taliban government endorsed by Osama bin Laden to set up Afghanistan’s communication network. In exchange Al Qaeda was to support peace in Xingjian. The Al Qaeda honored its pledge and cooperated with Beijing in Xingjian.
All that changed in 2007. China got caught in the Sunni-Shiite crossfire. China supplied arms through Iranian conduits to the Jihad terrorists. Obviously the arms were used by Shiites. This alienated Al Qaeda and Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who headed Al Qaeda in Iraq was personally loyal to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi threatened an Iraq-Iran war unless Iran stopped arming Iraqi Shiites. In this tussle China, heavily dependent on Iranian energy supplies, chose to support the Shiites. Inevitably Beijing-Taliban ties worsened. That led to Islamabad’s Lal Mosque crackdown.
Baitullah Mehsud who led Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) was reputedly a staunch loyalist of Ayman-al-Zawahiri who at that time was number two in Al Qaeda. With encouragement from Al Qaeda Mehsud started attacks against Chinese engineers and workers in Baluchistan and NWFP. Beijing was enraged. In July 2007 China compelled the Government of General Pervez Musharraf to launch commando raids into the Lal Mosque and its two madrasas in Islamabad after Chinese employees were held hostage there. These raids not only proved to be a turning point in the relations between Al Qaeda and China but also between sections of the Pakistani terrorists and the Pakistan army.
Much blood has flowed under the bridge since then. America and Pakistan are at loggerheads since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. America has cut aid and is demanding results from General Kayani. Pakistan sought Beijing’s support to fill the breach resulting from the aid cutoff by America. And it is at this critical juncture that China has for the first time slammed Pakistan for allowing its territory to be used by Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. So does this signify a decisive shift in Beijing’s policy towards Pakistan?
China’s leaders would know that there can be no half way house for repairing ties with America or India. Beijing would have to reconcile itself to the emergence of South Asian consolidation. It would have to forego its hegemonic ambitions. It would have to stop using Pakistan as its cat’s-paw to promote insurgency, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. It would be a paradigm shift in its foreign policy. Will China opt for it?
That depends largely on how the simmering differences between the hardcore elements of China’s Communist Party backed by the PLA and the liberal elements of the government are finally resolved. On any rational basis China’s national long term interests would be overwhelmingly served by opting for change. A consolidated South Asia would allow enhanced trade, a defanged Pakistan would help eliminate terrorism, and restoration of trust with America would encourage peace that is imperative for China’s own rise to global preeminence. A change in Beijing’s policy would greatly affect Islamabad’s attitude. A younger crop of leaders is emerging to replace the current dispensation in both China’s civilian government and its army. Will it, can it, change policy?