Counter-Terrorism in South Asia: China’s Win-Win Triangle

China’s position on terrorism occurring outside its borders is based on its own specific and national concerns about the unrest in Xinjiang and legitimating its responses rather than acceptance of any international standard or norm of understanding or dealing with terrorism. The Chinese statements on the 16 December 2014 Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan/Pakistani Taliban attack on a Pakistan Army-run school in Peshawar that resulted in the death of 145 people, including 132 children,[1] is a case in point. The Chinese reactions to the attack offers further evidence that Beijing has decided to buy into and support Pakistan’s dual approach on terrorism – countering those who fight against Pakistan on the one hand and supporting those who fight Pakistan’s enemies, namely, the US and India, on the other. This in turn should throw up questions for India about the wisdom of its annual counter-terrorism exercises with China.

 

Chinese Statements

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in comments that came within hours of the Peshawar massacre declared that China condemned ‘in the strongest terms the terrorist attack… China opposes all forms of terrorism and will stand firmly with the Pakistani government and people in their unremitting efforts to fight against terrorism and safeguard stability of the country and security of the people.’[2] In his condolence message, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed China’s opposition to ‘any form of terrorism’ and called the attack ‘inhuman’.[3] Premier Li Keqiang went on to note that both China and Pakistan were ‘victims of terrorism’[4] and both leaders promised continued support to the Pakistani government and people in their efforts to fight terrorism.

In other words, China did not hesitate to call the attack an act of terrorism but it also did not acknowledge that terrorism as a larger problem was in some way also the result of the activities of and support provided it by agencies of the Pakistani state. If anything, it seemed to indicate that Beijing stood behind the Pakistani state, including its Army.

While the Global Times published an op-ed by a Pakistani author titled, ‘Pakistan public demands harsh acts on terror’ (sic), this does not in any way mean that the Chinese government is under any pressure to act in support against the kind of terrorism that affects Pakistan. Or India for that matter. Rather, it is only another attempt to shore up legitimacy for China’s own ‘anti-terror’ action against the restive Uyghurs – including not just terrorists but also separatists and other others who express their disaffection in non-violent ways. In fact, the Pakistani op-ed actually highlights some counter-measures, including punishment measures and use of local or neighbourhood surveillance that China too, has adopted in Xinjiang. The article also does not blame the Pakistani government, army or any other official agency for complicity in creating Pakistan’s terrorism problem.[5]

One might however, notice a certain nuance in another Global Times op-ed published a few days earlier by an Afghan journalist who was allowed to go as far as pointing out that the Islamic State and Arab fighters have a significant presence in Pakistan and that ‘[t]here can be no peace without understanding the nature of terrorism’. Any criticism of the Pakistani army was however, only implicit in the conclusion which stated that the Pakistani army simply had to ‘review its military strategies’ …[and] explore new ways’ to counter terrorists.[6]

A larger Chinese objective is clear from yet another Global Times op-ed based on an interview with Prof. Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University who appeared to suggest that the Sydney cafe siege earlier in December was ‘indirectly linked to Australia’s role as a close follower of the US in many aspects including counter-terrorism mission in the Middle East.’[7] Prof. Du Youkang of the Fudan University and a former staffer at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi has been quoted as saying that the Peshawar attack by the Pakistani Taliban was probably intended as a warning to the US. A Beijing Youth Daily commentary also tried to link Pakistan’s problems with the failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan while another analyst, Li Wei of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think-tank under the Ministry of State Security in Beijing, noted that the rise of Islamic extremists was the result of instability in the Middle East and its exacerbation through the intervention of world powers,[8] indicating, no doubt, the US and the West.

In short, publication of these pieces and the views of China’s scholars have little connection with the reality of terrorism in the Xinjiang, South Asian or wider regional context. They are intended only to lend greater legitimacy to China’s own approaches to and views on terrorism – including blaming the US.  From a policy perspective, this is not surprising for China’s concern is not really the casualties inside Pakistan or elsewhere but of how to prevent them inside Chinese territory. And despite years of violence in Xinjiang, the support for some of which has been traced back to Pakistan and the resulting largely unofficial criticism from Chinese leaders and officials, Beijing realizes that it needs Pakistan for a variety of reasons, including the need to fill in the power and leadership vacuum, if not quite the military boots, being left by the US withdrawal in Afghanistan.[9]

 

Sino-Indian Anti-Terror Cooperation

Following the March 2014 attack at the Kunming railway station by a group of knife-wielding Uyghur men and women, the Indian ambassador to China noted that India understood ‘the pain and suffering of the Chinese people’ having been a victim of terrorism itself.[10] Insofar as New Delhi wishes to highlight the problem of terrorism, this is the natural thing to do, but it must also ask itself what good comes of such solidarity with China or from the bilateral Hand-in-Hand counter-terrorism exercises, the latest of which was held in Pune, India in mid-November 2014.[11]

The answer that Indian military officials give is of a valuable direct exposure to Chinese troops and their skill-sets. Indian soldiers who otherwise would only run into Chinese troops only on patrols along the Line of Actual Control get to interact with them under less fraught circumstances and are able to get the measure of a country and its soldiers that is often an enigma to them in marked contrast to say, Pakistan. This is indeed, an important reason for the Hand-in-Hand exercises but given that such exercises happen only once a year – remember, they were halted after the first two editions in 2007 and 2008 and restarted only in 2013 – and given that these involve at most a battalion from each side, the exposure that the Indians talk about is extremely limited.

If Indian military officials seek genuine learning then, as this author has argued several times elsewhere, it is important to hold military-to-military exchanges regularly, frequently, on a large-scale, across the services, and at all levels of hierarchy.[12] This would require a major change of mindsets within Indian officialdom at least[13] and short of the willingness to do so on both sides, India risks incurring larger political costs by anti-terror cooperation with the Chinese in the current format.

For one, China remains unwilling to heed Indian concerns about terrorism originating from Pakistan. For another, by focusing on a force-based approach to dealing with terrorism in the exercises with China and having no exchanges also on other ways of politically dealing with the problem, India both legitimizes China’s heavy-handed attack on its ethnic minorities and weakens the importance of democratic engagement and dialogue as a way of dealing with political dissent.

As things stand, however, in the anti-terrorism struggle in South Asia involving China, Pakistan and India, Beijing scores off both its neighbours, Pakistan largely escapes censure for its omissions and India is left chasing a mirage.

ENDNOTES

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/17/world/asia/pakistan-peshawar-school-attack/

[2] http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2535_665405/t1220053.shtml

[3] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-12/17/c_133862069.htm

[4] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-12/17/c_133862020.htm

[5] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/898688.shtml

[6] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/898131.shtml

[7] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/897358.shtml

[8] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-30510780

[9] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/896873.shtml

[10] http://www.indianembassy.org.cn/ArchiveNewsDetails.aspx?NewsId=468

[11] http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-11/18/content_6230075.htm

[12] See Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Bilateral Agreements and Sino-Indian Confidence-Building Measures’, in Dipankar Banerjee and Jabin T. Jacob, Military Confidence-Building and India-China Relations: Fighting Distrust (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2013), p. 158. See also https://indiandchina.com/2014/09/19/xi-meets-modi-a-historic-opportunity-for-sino-indian-leadership/

[13] https://indiandchina.com/2013/11/12/china-policy-in-india-for-a-revolution-in-mindsets/

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