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Pakistani Lawmaker Considers China’s Growing Regional Security Role

Mushahid Hussain
Mushahid Hussain

Mushahid Hussain, a former journalist, heads the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Senate, and is chairman of the Pakistan China Institute, an Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization. Hussain is a leading expert on China's foreign policy in South Asia and Central Asia.

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Hussain said that the presence of Uyghur militants in Pakistan is a serious concern for China. He views Beijing as being prompted by security considerations to play a more prominent role in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan after Western troops withdraw from the region.

RFE/RL: How big a factor is pressure from Pakistan's regional ally China in the ongoing military operation in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal district?

Mushahid Hussain: There have been concerns among neighbors of Pakistan, including friends like China and Iran, that some of what is happening in their countries and causing instability -- whether it the ETIM [East Turkistan Islamic Movement] in Xinjiang [in northwestern China] or the Junallah [faction] in Iran's [southeastern] Sistan-Baluchistan province -- some of their roots could be traced to Pakistan or those areas of Pakistan in North Waziristan, which we can call ungoverned spaces.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his visit to China in September last year, talked of the ETIM as a common threat. More recently when Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif went to China, he also talked of "a common threat" and a "convergence of interest" between Pakistan and China. So obviously the security concerns of China are in congruence with the security concerns of the Pakistani state, including the government and the armed forces of Pakistan.

RFE/RL: We know that at least two Uyghur Islamist militant leaders have been killed in Pakistan since 2003. How big a threat do their activities pose to China?

Hussain: Unfortunately post 9/11, certain parts of Pakistan, particularly the North Waziristan tribal area, became a sanctuary of sorts for different kinds of militants in the region, whether they were Chechens, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and others. In 2003 there was a military operation by the Pakistani army in which the then-leader of the ETIM, Hassan Mahsum, was killed. In 2009 the Turkistan Islamic Party leader was killed in an American drone strike [in North Waziristan].

In 2011, when there were some incidents in [the Chinese city of] Kashghar, there were some comments in the local press of Xinjiang about some of [the perpetrators] having been to neighboring countries. They didn't name the countries, but some people saw it as a reference to either Pakistan or Afghanistan. So this has been a concern for Pakistan and for China, because what has been happening in China has roots outside the country.

RFE/RL: How much do such security concerns impact China’s policies towards Pakistan, particularly its long-term plans for economic investment?

Hussain: I think it is a serious concern if it develops into a potential threat. We are looking at 10,000 to 12,000 Chinese experts, engineers, and technicians working on about 120 projects in different parts of Pakistan. These include the Gomal Zam dam in South Waziristan [tribal district], Gawadar [in the southwestern province of Balochistan], and Gilgit-Baltistan, on China's borders. Over the years there have been some unfortunate incidents. A couple of Chinese engineers were kidnapped and killed in Balochistan. There were kidnappings in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

So those incidents do create a sense of insecurity, and if they are allowed to develop they could be an impediment to the enhancement of Pakistan-China economic cooperation, particularly the two developments that took place recently.

[The first is that] Pakistan is now the centerpiece of China's regional economic policy. When Premier Li Keqiang came to Pakistan in March 2013, he talked of a Pakistan-China economic corridor. [Secondly], President Xi Jinping, when he went to Astana in Kazakhstan last fall, talked of a Central Asian economic belt.

In both of these visions that China has for the region, Xinjiang is going to be the centerpiece, linking up northwest China to Central Asia and Pakistan, which has a border with China via the Xinjiang province. So insecurity could be a serious problem and concerns have been raised.

Pakistan has addressed those concerns and it recently raised a special force, the Karakorum Security Force, which currently has 1,500 people to protect Chinese projects and personnel in Gilgit-Baltistan.

RFE/RL: Some experts in the West have said that Xinjiang might become a future Chechnya for China. If such a scenario is plausible, how much Chinese pressure do you see building on the Pakistani security establishment to go after the Chinese separatists and Islamist extremists?

Hussain: It is too alarmist a view. The situation is not of that kind. But what has happened is that because of certain security incidents in the province of Xinjiang, we have seen a subtle but significant focus of Chinese foreign policy on Afghanistan, which wasn't there before. Previously, the Chinese policy towards Afghanistan had a purely economic dimension; now it has developed a diplomatic, political, economic, and even security dimension.

In August 2012 a very high-ranking Chinese security official, Zhou Yongkang, went to Kabul, which was the first important visit by a Chinese leader to Afghanistan in 46 years. During that visit, China agreed to train the Afghan national police. In August 2014, in a city called Tianjin, close to Beijing, the Chinese for the first time are hosting the Heart of Asia Conference, focusing on Afghanistan. A trilateral dialogue between China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is moving forward on the diplomatic front.

So you will see a more proactive Chinese interest, role, and involvement in Afghanistan, which is also linked with the security situation in Xinjiang, because China, like other neighbors of Afghanistan, is concerned that in the context of the U.S. and NATO military exit, which President Obama has announced, there should not be a vacuum in Afghanistan that could be a breeding ground for all kinds of militancy.

RFE/RL: How big and resourceful is the ETIM or other factions of Uyghur Islamist militants, and who is supporting them?

Hussain: So far there is very little evidence on numbers and specifics. We know that there are foreign militants based in Pakistan. There could be a sprinkling of Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and Arabs who have been there mostly after the Afghan jihad [in the 1980s] and 9/11. The Chinese side blames the World Uyghur Congress for this thing, and some of them [its members], I think, are based in Istanbul. In the past there were reports that there were some training camps in the northeastern Badakhshan area of Afghanistan. But of late I have not heard of that.

The incidents that have taken place inside Xinjiang do not demonstrate a certain level of sophistication in terms of arms or ammunition. They have mostly used knives or homemade bombs.

RFE/RL: During the past decade we have seen the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan transform into a transnational organization while being in exile in Pakistan. Do you see something similar happening with the Uyghur militants?

Hussain: There is a certain link between the dissident Uyghurs and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Remember, their leader, Tahir Yuldash, was killed in Pakistan in recent years, and they are supposed to be the most ferocious among the foreign jihadists based in Pakistan in North Waziristan.

RFE/RL: How do you see China’s future role in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, and do you also see Beijing mediating between Kabul and Islamabad?

Hussain: In the new situation after President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang assumed office last year, the Chinese focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan is now very important. I think it is one of the major areas of priority in Chinese foreign policy. China now has developed a strategic stake in the stability of the region in which China is located, especially in Xinjiang, Central Asia, and also where Pakistan and Afghanistan are.

So there is greater coordination and greater focus between China, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I would say that it is a welcome development because China is a neighboring country. So the Chinese role will be a stabilizing one. I think it is something that the Americans would welcome and other countries would welcome, because China is based in the region and has the economic and the political clout to push policies that can promote peace, security, and stability in the region.