Behind the curtain on the international stage there is ferment. The muted sounds emanating from behind the curtain indicate possibility of new international alignments by end of the year. Consider some stray developments. Then note how they relate to each other.
On Thursday President Musharraf will leave for China. Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman announced on April 3rd: "President Musharraf will pay a state visit to China from April 10 to 15 at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao.' He said the visit was part of regular high-level interaction between the two countries. But it is a very short notice visit. Could there be a deeper reason for it? Near the end of his visit Musharraf will visit Urumuqi, the capital of the Xingjian Autonomous Region, and meet the Xingjian leaders. That could well be the real substance of the visit.
China needs to defuse the simmering discontent in Xingjian before it erupts to ruin the Olympics. President Hu thinks perhaps Musharraf can help defuse the resentment. Never mind if the Pakistan President could not extinguish terrorism in his own country! Last month one Pakistan based Uighur masterminded a failed skyjacking attempt in China. After the killing of Chinese engineers in Pakistan, and the threats issued by the Lal Masjid clerics, the Chinese may have recognized a common interest with Pakistan in combating terrorism.
The Lal Masjid episode marked a turning point in Beijing's equations with the Islamic world. China after the Telecom MOU signed with Mullah Omar's Taliban government on September 11, 2001, had a relatively trouble-free Xingjian. This was due to the cooperation obtained from Osama bin Laden in return for the technical help by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) rendered to the Taliban. But subsequently, for some reason, the attitude of Al Qaeda and the Taliban hardened. That led to the murder of the Chinese engineers. Quite likely these Sunni dominated outfits resented Chinese arms given to their rival Shiite outfits patronized by Iran. After signing mega energy deals with Iran which exceeded 200 billion dollars, China had little choice but to please Iran. Now it's evidently pay-back time. If the close links with Iran provoke Sunni terror outfits to fan the fires of separation in Xingjian, will China pay the price?
There are faint signs that China may already be distancing itself from Iran. According to London's Daily Telegraph, China betrayed Iran by providing the United Nations with intelligence on Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear technology. The paper quoted high level unnamed diplomats. Beijing is believed to have changed heart after documents seized from Iranian officials included incriminating blueprints. Does anyone seriously believe that after Beijing's conduit, Pakistan's AQ Khan, helped Iran with nuclear know-how, the Chinese leaders were unaware of this earlier? Once the material seized from Iran reached the IAEA in February, the Chinese reportedly ratted on Iran. The Sunni-Shiite complications may explain China seeking Musharraf's cooperation and at the same time leaving Iran in the nuclear lurch.
However, if China is attempting to divorce political interests from economic compulsions, the Iranians could be doing the same. The track-2 dialogue between Iran and the US seems to be making considerable headway. The battle of Basra ended in a ceasefire. Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful leader of Iraq's most formidable Shiite militia, ordered his men to stop the fighting and clear the streets. Why did this happen? It was because the Iranians intervened. According to author and Middle East specialist Pepe Escobar, the Basra ceasefire was brokered by Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps. In other words, Iran blessed the peace efforts between Muqtada's militia and the US backed Maliki government of Iraq. In fact, the senior representative of the Iraqi government as well as Muqtada-al-Sadr's representative traveled to Qom in Iran to clinch the ceasefire under the aegis of the Iranian government. Would Tehran do this without having progressed in its covert dialogue with America? Would the US allow the Maliki government to proceed with the ceasefire without satisfaction over its talks with Tehran?
If progress is taking place at the US-Iran end, what will happen at the China-Pakistan end? If indeed China has at long last recognized the urgency to eliminate terrorism and Al Qaeda, genuine cooperation with Pakistan could go a long way in achieving this. It remains to be seen whether President Hu Jintao, with his back to the wall in Tibet, and President Musharraf, a political target in Pakistan, can achieve meaningful results. The end of President Musharraf's visit to China on April 15 may provide some indication.