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Kashgar must not mar ties

August 08, 2011

THE recent events in the ancient Chinese city of Kashgar and their possible fallout need to be examined in three broad contexts: China’s concerns, Pakistan’s track record in combating anti-China terrorists and extremists, and the emerging ‘Great Game’ in a region in which the strategically located, mineral-rich province of Xinjiang is a geopolitical centre of gravity.

Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, has 17 per cent of China’s land mass producing roughly 40 per cent of its oil, coal and gas. The province’s economic underdevelopment has been reinforced by a cultural chasm between the Muslim Uighurs of Turkic origin and the Han Chinese population. Xinjiang saw the first signs of organised armed groups emerging soon after the end of the Afghan jihad in 1990. The biggest outbreak of violence was in July 2009 when rioting in the provincial capital, Urumqi, led to over 200 deaths and some 1,700 were injured.

Following the Urumqi riots, in May 2010, the Chinese central government announced the launching of a major modernisation and development plan for Xinjiang, with plans to pump in almost $100bn over a five-year period, with its centrepiece being the Special Economic Zone for Kashgar (similar to the one in Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong) to link the province economically closer to Pakistan and the seven other neighbouring countries that border Xinjiang. The Chinese initiative for Xinjiang also has two interrelated objectives: development and stability.

After the recent violence in Kashgar, local authorities referred to a leader of this terror group having been trained in Pakistan, a claim echoed in the semi-official English-language China Daily of Aug 2 which said “the leaders of the group learned terrorist techniques in Etim camps in Pakistan before they penetrated into Xinjiang”. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) was formally declared a terrorist outfit by the United Nations Security Council in 2002.

The subsequent official statement of China’s foreign ministry on Aug 3 made no mention of training camps in Pakistan, focusing only on a positive note of “continued close anti-terror cooperation between Pakistan and China”. And, in an unprecedented comment, the ISPR chief, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, underlined on Aug 5, the “Pakistan Army have been and would continue operations against Etim, and our cooperation (with China) in the field of operations and intelligence will continue against the common threat of terrorism”. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the head of ISI has visited China twice in five weeks.

Given the relatively free movement of people between Pakistan and China, concerns have been raised by Chinese leaders about border crossings by Uighur extremists. For example, when President Zardari visited China in February 2009, China’s minister of public security especially flew from Beijing to Shanghai to discuss these issues with him.

That this irritant hasn’t been able to spoil Pakistan-China relations so far is largely because of Pakistan’s consistently close cooperation with China on this count, key aspects of which have included:

— Capture and extradition of Xinjiang suspects from Pakistan on at least three occasions, 14 in 1997, seven in 2002 and nine in 2009;

— Killing of Etim leader, Hasan Mahsum, by the Pakistan Army in October 2003, as well as the death in a drone attack of his successor Abdul Haq Turkestani in January 2010, on information provided by Pakistan;

— Joint counterterrorism military exercises between the Pakistan Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China in 2004 in Xinjiang, in Abbottabad in 2006 and in July 2010 in the predominantly Muslim Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Several hundred troops, including elite commandos from both sides, took part in these military drills, whose preparations do not preclude the possibility of joint operations against anti-China terror groups on the Pakistan-China border, should the need ever arise.

Since Xinjiang, and Kashgar in particular, would be the hub of regionalism spawned by economy, energy, road and rail communications (a feasibility study for a railway line from Havelian in Pakistan to Kashgar is under way), geopolitics also casts its shadow over the region.

While China is vital for Pakistan’s security, stability, economy and energy, and is also now a factor for national unity given across-the-board national consensus on close ties with our time-tested neighbour, Pakistan’s importance too has increased since it protects China’s troubled ‘soft southern underbelly’ (Tibet, Xinjiang). With the Dalai Lama operating out of India, the ‘Tibet card’ could now be played in coordination with the ‘Xinjiang card’ as the World Uighur Congress has its headquarters in Washington.

Containing China’s rise and viewing China as the ‘new threat’ seem to be key ingredients of an emerging Great Game which has two other components: cobbling an anti-China coalition of Asian countries like India, Japan and Vietnam, and exploiting China’s ethnic fault lines.

In fact, such thinking is not new among influential circles in Washington. A famous Op-Ed which the prominent establishment writer, Leslie Gelb, provocatively titled ‘Breaking China Apart’, in The New York Times on Nov 13, 1991, stated that “a threat to the territorial integrity of the Middle Kingdom” could become the “ultimate sanction” if Beijing did not behave. He added, somewhat ominously, that “Americans and others may take extraordinary measures” including “kindling separatism” to pressure China.

Notwithstanding such a mindset of others regarding China, the primary onus is on Pakistani policymakers, both in mufti and khaki, to take the fallout of Kashgar seriously for its recurrence can be detrimental to our bilateral bond.

For starters, they have to ensure no part of Pakistan is used by any group against any of our neighbours. The excuse of ‘lack of control over ungoverned spaces’ no longer holds, more so, if such spaces can be used with impunity by forces destabilising both Pakistan and its friendly neighbours.

Earlier, Iran had voiced similar complaints, so the quicker and more competently we act, the better it would be for Pakistan’s interests and that of our relations with the region as a whole.

The writer is chairman of the Pakistan-China Institute, a non-governmental think tank devoted to relations with China and the region.