The April 2010 visit of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman, head of Pakistani Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), to China at the invitation of the Communist Party of China (CPC), was yet another move on Beijing’s part to tackle the challenge of terrorism emanating from Islamic fundamentalists. Starting from September 11, 2001, China has expanded its cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism through a wide range of activities, including engagement with the religious political parties of the country. This would certainly help China in handling its separatist problem in Xinjiang.
BACKGROUND: China aptly exploited the post-9/11 environment to its own advantage and initiated counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan with three main objectives: to ensure the security of Chinese working in Pakistan; break the network between Uyghur separatists and Pakistan-based militant groups, and gain Pakistan’s support including of its religious parties on the issue of Muslim separatism in Xinjiang.
Beginning in 2004, in four separate attacks twelve Chinese lost their lives on Pakistani soil. In addition, on occasions China warned Pakistan that Xinjiang separatists in collaboration with local militants planned to kidnap Chinese diplomats in Islamabad. Such warnings were at their highest during the Beijing Olympic games in 2008 and at the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009. However, timely coordination of the intelligence agencies of the two countries and Pakistan’s pre-emptive security measures prevented such plots from realization. Whether targeted attacks on Chinese in Pakistan had links with India or were collaborative efforts of local militants and Uyghurs – two convenient excuses from the Pakistani authorities – they did affect Sino-Pakistan relations. Beijing initially showed restraint, but as the attacks continued, it left diplomatic courtesy and went public pressuring Pakistan to ensure the fullest security of its nationals. Pakistan sensed the concerns of its trusted ally and provided extraordinary armed security for most of the 10,000 Chinese invited by the Pakistani government. These measures successfully prevented further attacks since the last incident in July 2007, in which three Chinese were killed.
Similarly, the liaison between Pakistan-based militants and Uyghurs and the latter’s sanctuary in Pakistani tribal areas was yet another issue on which Beijing had strong reservations. To address this issue, Pakistan intensified its crackdown against the Uyghur militants. The major breakthrough came in October 2004, when the Pakistani army shot dead Hasan Mahsum, head of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Over the years, Pakistani forces have eliminated, arrested and extradited a number of Uyghurs, claiming to have broken the backbone of the militant Uyghur groups in Pakistan. The exact number of those killed or extradited is unknown, but Pakistani measures have seemingly satisfied the Chinese authorities.
In the post-9/11 period, China also openly sought Pakistan’s support on the issue of Muslim separatism in Xinjiang. Beginning in December 2001, the then Chief Executive of Pakistan, General Musharraf, visited the Grand Mosque of Xi’an at China’s request and asked the Muslims to be loyal to the Chinese government. This was the first time a Pakistani leader went public to endorse China’s polices on Xinjiang. Pakistan has since backed Beijing on this issue. The most significant display of this support came during the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang in which almost 200 people were killed. Pakistan not only endorsed China’s measures to quell the riots but used its clout to prevent certain Islamic countries to take the issue to the Organization of Islamic Conference, thus saving Beijing from embarrassment.
Yet another Chinese move was to engage the leadership of Pakistani religious parties. In February 2009, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Qazi Hussain Ahmed visited China at the invitation of the Communist Party of China (CPC). According to an unverified claim of The Times of India, during the visit China concluded an informal agreement with the JI that the latter would not support the separatists in Xinjiang. In April 2010, the CPC invited a delegation of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), an even more conservative religious party of Pakistan. The CPC has signed party-level MoUs with both these parties.
On its part, China has helped Pakistan diplomatically, economically and militarily. Beijing has supported Islamabad within the UN and various other forums. In July 2005, Pakistan became an Observer member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China's help. This is an additional platform where these two countries discuss, among other issues, the threat of terrorism. Between June 2009 and May 2010, China’s aid to counterterrorism activities in Pakistan exceeded US$ 470 million. Beijing also supplied explosives scanners which can detect vehicles carrying explosive material to be installed at the main entry points of all big cities in Pakistan, trained Pakistani police officials and provided weapons and equipment. In addition, Chinese forces conducted two anti-terror military exercises with Pakistani counterparts, with a third scheduled for summer 2010.
IMPLICATIONS: After 9/11, China recognized Pakistan’s pivotal role in the fight against terrorism owing to Islamabad’s old links with the Taliban and various Islamist groups. Beijing therefore initiated comprehensive cooperation with Pakistan on counterterrorism to address the issue of Muslim separatism in its troubled Xinjiang province. While maintaining a very low profile with a fear of backlash from militants or even of Al-Qaeda, Beijing pushed Islamabad to move on Uyghurs hiding in its lawless tribal areas. It enhanced coordination and information sharing with its Pakistani counterparts, and signed agreements on terrorism and extradition of criminals (under which Pakistan extradited a number of Uyghurs caught during military operations in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, at the protest of human rights groups and Uyghur organizations). Cooperation has also developed in other non-traditional security areas.
A distinct feature of China’s diplomacy on counterterrorism was that it adopted a comprehensive policy including engagement with Pakistani religious parties. China realizes the centrality of Islam in Pakistani society and the influence of these parties on Jihadi elements. The visits to China of Qazi Hussain of the JI and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman of the JUI are cases in point. These leaders, who express pro-Taliban and anti-U.S. opinions and hose parties hold considerable regard for and influence on certain militant groups, spoke highly of Sino-Pakistan relations during their visits. The JI even issued a statement requesting the Pakistani government to further consolidate its ties with China to free Pakistan from the “clutches” of the U.S.. Regardless of the truth in the media report about an underhand deal between these leaders and the CPC on the issue of Muslim separatism in Xinjiang, these visits would certainly convey a strong message to the Islamists that China is a friendly country whose interests should not be jeopardized, nor should Uyghur separatists be supported.
Moreover, China is well aware that a weak and unstable Pakistan prone to Islamic militants could probably damage its interests more than any other power. China therefore feels obliged to enhance the anti-terror capabilities of the law enforcement agencies of Pakistan, which have to fight terrorism on the ground. China’s implementation of three anti-terror exercises with Pakistan, out of a total of ten such exercises which Beijing has conducted with other countries and organizations, is a demonstration of China’s seriousness. Though China is neither the largest, nor the only supporter of Pakistan’s ongoing war on terror, Beijing’s role is significant in boosting Islamabad’s morale.