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Threat to Sino-Pak friendship

THE issue of terrorism remains at the heart of the world’s diplomatic, economic and strategic engagement with Pakistan. It invariably constrains Pakistan’s pursuit of economic, strategic and political interests.

The ghost of terrorism will continue to haunt Pakistan and put more pressure on the country’s relations with its neighbours after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s major economic, strategic and political partner China will also expect that the former puts extra efforts into dealing with terrorism.

The recent incident of the kidnapping of a Chinese tourist from Zhob district of Balochistan coincided with President Mamnoon Hussain’s and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s visit to Beijing to sign the contract of Pakistan’s first metro train project. Though the president condemned the incident and vowed that Pakistan would take effective measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens and projects in the country, China is deeply concerned about the security of its interests in Pakistan.

Also, it is concerned about the Uighur militants who are allegedly based in the Pak-Afghan border areas and have developed strong links with Pakistani and foreign militants of Central Asian and Arab origin sheltered in these areas.

Pakistan cannot set aside Chinese security concerns as China has emerged as a major economic development and trade partner of the country. According to media reports, China is investing around $52 billion in major projects in Pakistan.

China’s new leadership has come up with a regional economic approach to engage neighbouring countries for common development and economic integration. Under this framework, China wants improved regional infrastructure for better connectivity; it is offering help and collaboration in building better transport networks including roads, motorways, railways and air links.

Under this vision, China is planning to develop four highways and maritime economic corridors including the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-China economic corridor and one with Central Asia. However, the Chinese are more enthusiastic about the China-Pakistan economic corridor and consider it an important part of the 21st-century Silk Road.

Chinese policymakers calculate three major risks which they think can hinder progress on the project. First, they are concerned about policy risks, both internal and external, and see the US as an irritant and India as a troubling factor. The internal policy issues are least likely to create any hindrance as the Pakistani establishment cannot delay the projects with China because of internal political turmoil; public opinion is also in favour of China.

The same applies to Chinese concerns about external interference as it seems almost impossible that the Pakistani political and military establishments would hamper any Pak-China project under external pressure. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline project has different global and regional perspectives and China understands the situation and Pakistan’s stated limitations.

The second risk entails Chinese policymakers’ perceived fiscal concerns. But the PML-N-led government is planning to allocate over Rs73bn in the Public Sector Development Programme for the next budget (2014-15) in order to implement development projects under the China-Pakistan economic corridor. Given Pakistan’s economic situation, assistance from the Chinese financial sector cannot be ignored. The Chinese know if there is a political will, there will be an economic way.

However, Pakistan needs to take more initiatives to address Chinese concerns related to their perceived security risks. China has two major security concerns: first, the link of terrorism and insecurity in China’s Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s tribal areas; and second, the security of its citizens working on projects in Pakistan.

The terrorists based in Pakistan’s tribal areas are not the only actors contributing towards insecurity in China; separatists and violent extremists based in Xinjiang also pose major internal security threats.

These factors have internal and external support and operational mechanisms. After the recent wave of terrorist incidents, Chinese authorities admitted that extremists are learning terrorism techniques through the internet. The growing similarities in militants’ operational tactics and strategies in Xinjiang, Chechnya and Dagestan reflect that coordination among the militants of these different regions cannot be completely ruled out.

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) and its breakaway factions such as the Turkestan Islamic Party are expanding their outreach within China and recent incidents of terrorism in Beijing and Kunming have increased anxiety among the Chinese authorities.

A realisation is growing among Chinese think tanks that only the development strategy in conflict-ridden regions cannot resolve the problem; they will have to adopt a political approach to increase engagement with communities, including the Uighurs.

Despite these changing dynamics of terrorism and insecurity in China, Beijing still expects active support from Pakistan. The Chinese believe that militants based in Pakistan’s tribal areas were the masterminds behind major recent terrorist attacks that occurred in China.

That is why after incidents of terrorism in China, pressure on Pakistan increases.

Though Beijing does not interfere in Pakistan’s approach to pursuing talks with the local Taliban, this writer’s recent interaction with some Chinese think tanks and scholars suggested that China wishes that Pakistan should soon reach a conclusion about launching an operation against militants in the tribal areas. They perceive that military action will also weaken Etim. They fear that any delay in action against terrorists can provide space to the latter and they can relocate themselves around the proposed economic corridor and create problems in smooth construction and trade through the corridor.

This is a tough equation; China is not the US, and it keeps politics separate from its core issues. Pakistan will have less space to avoid Chinese pressure on this subject.

By Muhammad Amir Rana,  a security expert.

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