China's problems in Xinjiang are forcing it to reach out to India. But does India care?
- By Bahukutumbi RamanBahukutumbi Raman served in India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, for 26 years before his retirement in 1994. He was a member of India's national security advisory board from 2000 to 2002.
In its attempt to stomp out the pro-Uighur movement in its restive western autonomous region, Xinjiang, China might be looking for help from a surprising partner: its major rival in the region, India, according to a recent report in the South China Morning Post.
The two countries don’t have a history of ground-level cooperation on counterterrorism — far from it — but they could end up moving in that direction as the anarchy in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan begins to spill over into China as well as India. But major questions remain: How far will China go to win India’s help? And is Beijing sincerely looking for advice, or just fishing for intelligence from the other rising powerhouse in Asia?
Before attempting to answer these questions, it’s important to note that the pro-Uighur movement in Xinjiang is actually two distinct movements. First, there’s Western media darling Rebiya Kadeer‘s Munich-based group, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which has been a major irritant to the Chinese, launching demonstrations that led to July’s riots in Urumqi. But the Chinese government is also contending with a lesser-known, but more threatening Uighur group — the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which draws its funding and membership not from the West, as with the WUC, but from the Uighur diaspora in Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, and Turkey.
The ETIM labels itself an agitator for the religious rights of Xinjiang Muslims. It looks upon Xinjiang, which the Uighurs call East Turkestan, as a traditionally Muslim land that has been occupied by non-Muslims. Unlike the WUC, which focuses on Uighur ethnicity — not religion — the ETIM’s ideology is pan-Islamic, and it claims to fight for the restoration of Eastern Turkestan to the ummah, or the worldwide Muslim community.
The Chinese claim that more than 1,000 ETIM members had been trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan before the September 11 terrorist attacks, but their claim is treated with some skepticism by the United States and refuted firmly by the ETIM leadership. Still, the U.S. State Department said in 2005 that the two groups were linked, and the United States has listed ETIM, which is based in North Waziristan, as a terrorist organization since 2002.
Because of the ETIM’s suspected links with al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another terrorist group operating from North Waziristan, China has reached out to its ally Pakistan for help. But repeated requests to Pakistan for action against the terrorist infrastructure of the ETIM have not produced satisfactory results. Pakistan arrested and deported to China some identified anti-Beijing Uighurs, but it has not been able to dismantle the ETIM’s terrorist infrastructure, as China had hoped. Nor has Pakistan been able to offer much help on the intelligence front, due to the government’s weakness in Waziristan.
After China’s striking out with Pakistan, then, it seems only logical that Beijing should move on to India — asking not for operations against the ETIM infrastructure, but for intelligence. There has so far been no reliable information that India has received such a request. But a request to New Delhi would probably not bring the results Beijing wants. For one thing, the focus of Indian intelligence is Pakistani Punjab and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the source of most terrorist threats to India. Thus Indian intelligence is not particularly well-informed on the Waziristan area. Second, China has never criticized Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India. There is, therefore, no built-up reservoir of goodwill that would induce India to help China with its ETIM problem.
Still, the request itself, if correct, is part of a larger movement toward greater cooperation between the two countries on counterterrorism efforts. Since 2002, China has welcomed meetings between Chinese and Indian counterterrorism experts to exchange views and assessments on the state of jihadi terrorism in the region, hoping to benefit from India’s experience and expertise on this subject.
India has responded positively to the general Chinese interest, and the cooperation has been expanding through mechanisms such as a joint working group on terrorism that periodically exchanges views and assessments and the joint counterterrorism exercises by the countries’ armies that allow each country to learn from the other’s tactics.
This new partnership only goes so far, however: Although cooperation against acts of terrorism will continue to expand, the chances of China and India working together against terrorist organizations are remote. The two countries agree on what constitutes an act of terrorism, but not on which are the terrorist organizations of the region. China, for example, agrees with Pakistan’s view that the violence in Kashmir is a freedom struggle and not terrorism. It has also blocked a consensus in the U.N. Security Council on declaring certain Pakistani organizations terrorists, against India’s wishes. And China — hoping to maintain good relations with Pakistan in order to keep the threat of a two-front war hanging over India’s head — is unlikely to change its mind on these positions, no matter how unhappy it gets over Pakistan’s failure to stamp out the ETIM in North Waziristan.
Working with China on ground-level counterterrorism is also difficult for India because India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, and members of this community might not want India to help China in what they see as repression of their coreligionists. What’s more, the pro-West Uighurs led by Kadeer are close with the Dalai Lama, who is based in India and commands considerable respect there not only as a Buddhist leader, but also as a thorn in the Chinese side. He and the large Tibetan refugee population in India would oppose helping the Chinese out in Xinjiang.
More broadly, relations between China and India in most other areas, though improving, still have their problems, which act as speed bumps: the ongoing border dispute, Indian allegations of the dumping of cheap Chinese goods, competition for oil and gas, and naval competition in the Indian Ocean. However, cooperation over counterterrorism, if it comes about, could bring the two Asian giants closer together.