Will China walk the talk on terror?

Vikas Khanna

Unpredictability seems to be the mantra of China’s foreign policy! To everyone’s surprise, China joined hands with the four other BRICS nations and endorsed the Xiamen declaration that named militant groups based in Pakistan as a security concern in the region.

The groups named in the declaration included Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan among others.

The groups are engaged in terror activities both in Kashmir as well as in Afghanistan. Both LeT and JeM are anti-India groups based in Pakistan and have routinely carried out terrorist attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country.

What added to discomfiture of Islamabad was the inclusion of Pakistan-based ETIM, which China accuses of causing trouble in Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people. In the last two years, hundreds have died in Xinjiang due to fundamentalist unrest. China has often pressured Pakistan to take action against Uighur militants who are believed to be hiding in a tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also well aware of the outrage that Beijing is feeling due to abduction and killing of a Chinese couple in south-western Pakistan at a time when Beijing is pumping billions of dollars for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC. Earlier also, several Chinese engineers involved in the project have been attacked and abducted, and later released by militants active in the resource rich but restive Pakistani province of Balochistan. There is apprehension among the people in Balochistan that the CPEC will change the demography of the region and reduce the locals to a minority in their homeland. The killings, though claimed by the Islamic State, led to souring of ties between the two countries.

Despite the writing on the wall about China’s annoyance with Pakistan, a move as strong as the Xiamen declaration came as a shock to the country. It baffled foreign policy experts too, since it represented a marked departure from China’s long-standing approach towards militant groups active in Pakistan. In the past, China had stonewalled all efforts to censure Pakistan-based militant groups, therefore, China being party to the Xiamen Declaration, calling upon the international community to establish a “genuinely broad” international counter-terrorism coalition, was unexpected.

The very next day, Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan categorically rejected the statement and said no terrorist organisation had any safe havens in the country or was operating freely inside Pakistan. The nervousness, however, was palpable. The government decided to rush Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif to Beijing.

And lo behold! China sprang another surprise! Within days of the BRICS leaders demanding that patrons of militant groups based in Pakistan be held to account, China extolled Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism. Soon after meeting his Pakistani counterpart, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, had this to say at a press conference. “The government and people of Pakistan have made huge sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and such efforts and sacrifices are there for everyone to see,” adding “the international community should recognise that… and give Pakistan the full credit it deserves.”

By revisiting its position on Pakistan’s involvement in terror activities twice in four days, China sent confusing signals to the international community about its intent to walk the talk on terror.  If China were to give a clean chit to Pakistan, then why did it agree to sign the Xiamen Declaration in the first place?

China has always come to the defence of Pakistan whenever India tried to isolate the latter at various international forums. It has repeatedly rebuffed India’s attempt to get the chief of JeM, Masood Azhar, added to a U.N. blacklist of groups linked to al Qaeda. India has accused the JeM and its top leader, Masood Azhar, of masterminding several terrorist attacks on her soil, including a deadly one on an Indian air base in Pathankot in January 2016, in which, six Indian soldiers and five terrorists were killed.

The political pundits were also baffled as the Xiamen Declaration came within days of India and China agreeing to defuse a crisis over Doklam where the forces of the two countries were engaged in a face-off for more than two months. Given the bitter rhetoric the two countries were involved in, it was nothing more than a surprise that China agreed to name several terror groups based in Pakistan.

It may be recalled that in a televised speech last month, US President Donald Trump came down heavily on Pakistan, blaming it to be a fickle ally while announcing a new policy on Afghanistan. In the last few years, the relations between the United States and Pakistan have muddied and Washington has linked its military aid to Islamabad on its commitment to take action against militants operating in the country. Pakistan denies the accusation and portrays itself to be the biggest victim of terrorism claiming that it has suffered more than 60,000 casualties since 2001. Pakistan’s claims that Afghan Taliban militants do not enjoy a safe haven on its soil flew in the face last year when the then adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, admitted that Islamabad had considerable influence over the Taliban because its leaders live in the country.

Pakistan faces a diplomatic dilemma. The BRICS declaration, in a way, has supported India’s stand that Pakistan-based terror outfits pose a serious threat to regional security and that the world cannot afford to have double standards in the fight against terror. Washington has, for long, been ticking off Islamabad for not doing enough against militants ensconced there. Now with China also expressing its concern about JeM and LeT and the US already adopting a tough posture, the pressure on Pakistan to act against these groups is likely to build. However, it remains to be seen whether China will really put pressure on Pakistan to act against the terror groups active in Kashmir and Afghanistan. China’s flip-flops within a week on the issue do not inspire much confidence.

(Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and political analyst) 

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