A Friend in Need: Sino-Pak Ties

August, 2011
By Sahiba Trivedi

At present, there is intense speculation on whether Sino-Pak ties will be affected by the recent attacks in Kashgar, China that led to Chinese authorities announcing the perpetrators had been trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Such a public announcement is extremely rare, especially when considering the fact that Pakistan has been visibly touting the countries as being ‘all weather friends’ in recent months. China is concerned about its restive Xinjiang province and wants to arrest the growth of any terrorist or separatist movements, both within and outside its territories, which may challenge the Chinese state. Despite the terrorism angle to the Sino-Pak equation, bilateral ties are likely to remain unaffected, at least for the next few years.

One theory says that that China is not too concerned about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the main Uighur separatist organization blamed for the Kashgar attacks, as the organization has weakened over the years. The nature of the Kashgar attacks with the homemade explosives and use of knives is used as evidence that the attacks were more of a hate crime than an actual terrorist attack. This theory says that China is more concerned about the ethnic tensions rife in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The Kashgar attacks just gave Beijing an excuse to place the blame on foreign elements in order to divert attention from its domestic troubles. Uighurs, the predominantly Muslim population of Xinjiang, have felt like second-class citizens in their own land for decades, with Beijing being perceived as the colonizer exploiting their resources. This is not the first time that the Uighur anger has erupted; in 2009, the capital city of Urumqi saw violent riots that killed over 200 people. Since then, China has invested a lot of money in this province with intentions of generating jobs and developing the province. The recent attacks prove that this tactic has not worked.

In truth, contrary to a lot of theories about the ETIM being weakened, in disarray or even defunct, the organization is still thriving, holed up in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan; it’s now known by a different name, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The TIP has had opportunities of building its ties with other militant outfits and its ties with al Qaeda have grown over the years. Its previous leader Abdul Haq was nominated to al Qaeda’s Majlis-e-Shura (executive council) in 2005. In 2009, Haq reportedly participated in a meeting with TTP ex-chief Baitullah Mehsud, Haqqani network’s Sirajjuddin Haqqani and Abu Yahya al-Libi of al Qaeda. This shows that not only is the ETIM active, it has strengthened itself due to being provided with safe havens and with opportunities to gain cooperation with other militant outfits. China is definitely concerned about this group and its evolution into something more powerful. 

At this point of time, Pakistan’s relations with the US are at their nadir. Pakistani ISI’s spy-vs-spy game with American intelligence is leading to worsening relations and jeopardizing American aid to Pakistan. So, Pakistan has markedly started promoting its alliance with China in order to transfer its dependence from the Americans to the Chinese. The Chinese authorities coming out to name their country as being the area used for training of Uighur terrorists, is enough to send the highest authorities in Pakistan’s establishment scrambling to do damage control. Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence Director General Shuja Pasha’s hurried visit to China a day after the Kashgar attacks was evidence enough that Pakistan would go the distance in order not to strain its relations with China. Things seem normal again with both sides touting slogans of ‘increased cooperation to quell terrorism’ and China praising Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism.

China’s bargaining position is very strong at present since Pakistan really needs its cooperation. China also has a lot of vested interests in Pakistan. It is one of Pakistan’s most important trading partners and its main arms supplier. China has invested heavily in key sectors like telecom, infrastructure and ports in Pakistan. It would like to maintain this key ally position with Pakistan and not push it into a corner, over the issue of terrorism. It is possible that China will use this issue in a way that would be beneficial to both the countries and still not upset the apple-cart. It is likely that China will continue with the present status-quo until its global ambitions are jeopardized. With the international community seemingly ganging up against Pakistan on the issue of terrorism, China could mostly ask Pakistan for certain concessions in return for support.

China has already asked for permission to set up military bases in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in order to combat the rising anti-China terrorism. Though Beijing has insisted these military bases would be strictly temporary, alongside their counter-terrorism use, it is evident that these may come handy in countering the growing American influence in these areas. Some analysts have even pointed to the use of this area for a possible ‘war of influence’ between USA and China in the future. The People’s Liberation Army already has a strong presence in Gilgit-Baltistan (previously known as the Northern Areas), that shares the border with China’s Xinjiang province. Deterring exiled Uighur militants from using this area as a transit point to Khyber Pakhtunkhwah’s safe havens may be the logic that Beijing uses to increase PLA’s presence even further. It may well serve China’s ambitions of connecting its Xinjiang province to Pakistani ports in order to increase its energy trade with the Middle East and Central Asian countries. 

But China is unwilling to take on the monetary burden that comes with being the key mentor to Pakistan. When Pakistan needed USD 7.5 billion to come out of a balance of payments crisis, China only shelled out USD 500 million. As a result, Pakistan was forced to agree to an IMF loan on stringent conditions. It is clear then, that while this friendship could weather most storms in the near future, in the long term, if developments in Pakistan prove to be a threat to China’s ambitions to global world order, the alliance may become strained. Superficially though, the friendship will continue, mainly as it is based on the commonality of perceived threats in the neighbourhood.