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Author Says Militancy Problematic For China Pakistan Relations

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (3rd R) gestures near Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (C) and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif (2nd L) before a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2013.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (3rd R) gestures near Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (C) and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif (2nd L) before a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2013.

Andrew Small, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank in Washington, D.C., has explored Chinese foreign policy for years. His new book, "The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics," shines light on the bilateral relationship between the two neighbors which spans five decades. Small says the presence of Uyghur militants in Pakistan has been a major source of tension between Beijing and Islamabad.

RFE/RL: What is the key takeaway from your study of Pakistan and China's relationship, which Islamabad often characterizes as an "all weather" alliance?

Andrew Small: There is a lot of truth in the Pakistani statements about this relationship. For China, it is the only friendship it has in terms of its foreign policy. It is the only country its military and intelligence services really trust. When China is looking at questions like where it could rely on in a crisis to use naval facilities, Pakistan is the only country that ranks on that list. Some Chinese officials have said that if we have to revisit our nonalignment policy and look to start forming alliances, Pakistan is the first place ― and possibly the only place ― we can consider.

At the same time, the rise of [Islamic] militancy in the region has posed a huge set of problems for the China-Pakistan relationship and has created tensions that weren't there during the early phase [of their relationship] when the two sides could view things through an India-centric prism.

Andrew Small
Andrew Small

RFE/RL: During the past decade, Uyghur militants from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM], which Beijing sees as a separatist organization, have operated from Pakistan. How prominently does this issue figure into the current Pakistan-China relationship?

Small: In public, it figures very rarely; in private, this has been the biggest source of tension between China and Pakistan in recent years. China has been pushing Pakistan to do more to crack down on Uyghur militants operating in FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. In the initial years [after 9/11], Pakistan's role in dealing with these militants was viewed as quite successful.

But, in the last period of time, China was increasingly concerned that a large number of the members of the group on its list were able to operate relatively freely in North Waziristan [tribal district], and they have been pushing the Pakistanis on all levels to do more to crack down on that group. The total number of these people is actually small. There may be tens of people at most.

Nonetheless, with rising terrorism in [the northwestern Chinese region of] Xinjiang, China is becoming increasingly concerned, even about the propaganda role played by these groups, which have become increasingly prominent in terms of their social media activities such as videos, etc. Beijing views these as inspiring some of the [violent] incidents that have taken place in Xinjiang in the past couple years.

RFE/RL: In recent months, there appears to be a very strong Chinese interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, possibly in partnership with the United States. What is your assessment?

Small: For most of the period when the United States was in Afghanistan, China was quite ambivalent. It was very concerned about the U.S. military presence in its backyard, but at the same time, it didn't want to see a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, so it largely sat out the war that had been taking place there. Since the U.S. withdrawal has been announced, China has become concerned that there will be a repeat of the 1990s civil war in Afghanistan. Of course, it was a period in which there were safe havens for ETIM to operate from there.

China's grander plans for the region ― its new Silk Road Economic Belt and other projects ― could be destabilized by security problems in Afghanistan. And even that the insecurity in Afghanistan could spill over into Pakistan. So since it has started to believe that the U.S. presence will actually be drawn down, it has started to play a much more proactive, at least, diplomatic role and be willing to coordinate with the United States on some of these questions. This is one of the very few areas of foreign and security cooperation where the United States and China are relatively well joined-up.

RFE/RL: Recent media reports indicate that Chinese officials have been meeting the Afghan Taliban in the Middle East and that some Taliban representatives have visited Beijing. Do you really see China pulling off a breakthrough by pressuring Pakistan to push the Afghan Taliban toward reconciliation with Kabul?

Small: The direct meetings have been taking place for a number of years. China claims to be the only country other than Pakistan that has maintained continuous contact with the Quetta Shura [Taliban leadership council]. I think there are still efforts on China's part to maintain the deals with the Taliban when they were back in power in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to the Uyghur militants.

But with the big question of whether China will weigh in on Pakistan to facilitate some kind of a political settlement there, I think, in the short term, expectations are pretty low. The recent rounds of talks that took place in Beijing are not anything more than a relatively tentative step of China's involvement in this.

If the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, it will be quite a significant test of the China-Pakistan relationship. This is an area in which they have not really weighed in with Pakistan in the past. But they are already starting to. They are already making it clear to Pakistan that it should take China's interests in Afghanistan into account. And China's interests there are all about a stable political settlement and ensuring there is no repeat of the 1990s.

RFE/RL: Your book has some very interesting details about the Pakistani nuclear program. While Western nations have been worried about Islamabad's nuclear arsenal, how worried in Beijing?

Small: The most important part of China's involvement in the [Pakistani] nuclear program was probably in the 1980s. The cooperation between the Chinese military and scientists in Pakistan continues today. Many of the missiles in Pakistan's arsenal bear quite a striking similarity to the arsenal of the People's Liberation Army. Even on issues such as targeting mechanisms, the Chinese are working very closely with the Pakistanis.

In terms of the security of the Pakistani arsenal, China is largely a lot more sanguine about it than the United States and some other countries. They are pretty confident in the assurances they had from the Pakistani Army about the protection of the nuclear program. As one Chinese interviewee put it, "This is the only thing that the Pakistanis have that we are sure they will protect."

At the same time, there have been discussions with the United States about these sorts of issues over the past few years. The Chinese military intelligence has looked at scenarios that involved loose nukes on the Pakistani side.

RFE/RL: In Pakistan, there is a lot of disagreement over the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor. Political parties in the impoverished minority provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have accused Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's administration of diverting this trade route into his home province, Punjab. How does Beijing view this controversy?

Small: On the Chinese side, they are aware of the local political sensitivities around the location of the route. The main momentum for the most ambitious piece of the infrastructure connection comes from the Pakistani side rather than the Chinese. I think the Chinese would be quite happy having a more modest set of projects, industrial corridors and things constructed in some of the more prosperous Pakistani provinces and more activities up in Gilgit-Baltistan. The huge cross-country connections ― a lot of the momentum for that is really coming from the Pakistanis.

The big concern on China's part is the security for this route. Although it may be Sharif's government that is getting a certain amount of flak for this proposed route change ― even if they are suggesting it is only a temporary measure. At the same time, I am almost certain some of the pressure around the security of the route is coming from the Chinese side.

RFE/RL: Some major Chinese commercial and mineral extraction projects are located in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan. This region has been reeling from a military crackdown against Baloch separatists for a decade. How do the Chinese appraise the situation there?

Small: Balochistan was the location in Pakistan where China was first targeted. The [development of a major seaport on the Arabian Sea] in Gwadar has been very controversial for the [local] Baluchis. They sense it may entrench the presence of the central government and the Pakistani state in their province. So it has been a huge source of friction.

Nonetheless, China has still been willing to push ahead with the Gwadar project and other projects in Balochistan. They have sought security assurances from the Pakistanis, and the Pakistanis subsequently upgraded the level of security that has been accorded to the Chinese. Some of the Chinese companies that have been participating in some of the big mineral projects in Balochistan have pulled out in the past, and this is still a significant source of concern for them.

Ultimately, it is a problem for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a whole because if Gwadar is the end point of this route then it is going to suffer from a series of these problems until Pakistan is able to settle its political and security terms in Balochistan.