The South Asia Channel

The Pakistan-China spat that wasn’t

The Pakistan-China spat that wasn’t

After last month’s violence in China’s Xinjiang province, perpetrated by minority Muslim Uighurs against Han Chinese settlers — blamed by local officials on Pakistan — trained militants — some analysts have claimed that Sino-Pak relations are under serious strain. But such assessments prove to be presumptuous when China’s challenges in Xinjiang and its relations with Pakistan relations are more thoroughly examined.

First, experts on Xinjiang doubt that Pakistan-trained militants are responsible for the violence in the first place.  Most likely, the statements by Chinese officials in Xinjiang are attempts to avoid discussion of the domestic causes of Uighur militancy, including religious and ethnic discrimination and a systematic campaign to dilute the native Uighur presence through a deluge of Han Chinese.

Secondly, the Waziristan-based East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)-the group Chinese officials claimed orchestrated the attacks-poses a marginal threat to the Chinese state at best. The ETIM is small (some claim virtually defunct), faces an adversary in Beijing that is popular with many of the world’s Muslims, and lacks a truly dedicated sponsor. It is tangential (though not irrelevant) to al-Qaeda’s global jihad and completely irrelevant to Pakistan’s more limited jihadi axis.

Indeed, jihadi groups supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), such as Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), are loathe to support the ETIM. Though Pakistan’s mainstream Islamists and state-backed jihadis are deeply hostile to predominantly non-Muslim Western countries and India, they treat their country’s alliance with communist China as a sacred cow.

Earlier this year, Hafiz Saeed, head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (an LeT front group), praised China’s decision to issue distinct visas from residents of Indian-administered Kashmir. And in 2009, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the-then head of the Islamist group Jamaat-i Islami, visited China after an invitation from Beijing. Pakistan’s political right, including its Islamists, criticized President Asif Ali Zardari during his first two years in office for distancing his government from Beijing.

Thirdly, for China, Pakistan is at least as much part of the solution in Xinjiang as it is part of the problem. China is keen on linking the landlocked, economically-backward region to sea via Pakistan, which occupies key littoral space along the Arabian Sea near Persian Gulf oil shipping lanes. Pakistan is expanding the Karakoram Highway to China, and ambitious plans to develop rail links and a gas pipeline from Pakistan to Xinjiang have also been floated. And given the closeness of Sino-Pak ties, it is likely that the ISI is very forthcoming in sharing ETIM-related intelligence with its Chinese counterpart.

Fourthly, the Sino-Pak alliance is far too deep and complex to be rocked by a single event. While China’s contributions to economic and social development assistance to Pakistan pale in comparison to those of the United States, military-to-military and political cooperation between Beijing and Rawalpindi has only increased in recent years.

Pakistan and China jointly manufacture a range of military equipment, including the JF-17 multi-role fighter aircraft and F-22P frigate. And Pakistan is often the first foreign recipient of Chinese military hardware. This year, China agreed to provide Pakistan with 50 JF-17s without cost and dozens of J-10 fighter jets under a loan with generous terms. Pakistan also plans to be one of the first purchasers of the Chinese-manufactured Yilong, an armed drone similar to the Predator. Furthermore, over the decades, China has been the major source of external assistance for Pakistan’s civil and military nuclear programs.

In a possible sign that the Chinese are upping the ante, an engineering regiment of the Peoples Liberation Army reportedly participated in Pakistani military exercises along the border with India’s Rajasthan state- the first detection of Chinese troops ever on India’s western border, according to the Times of India. However, it should be noted that this report could be embellished or entirely made up by Indian hard-liners in order to advance the myth of an aggressive Sino-Pak alliance against India.

While Pakistan is in no danger of losing Chinese friendship, it should reject the fantastical notion that strengthening relations with China will give it space to sever ties with the United States and indefinitely continue hostilities with India. Both China and another major Pakistani ally, Saudi Arabia, have massively expanded trade with India in the past decade, reaping benefits for their respective populations.

Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership must develop a strategy for their citizens to also prosper in what looks to be an Asian century. To achieve this, Pakistan can still work with the Chinese to achieve minimal deterrence vis-à-vis India and perhaps even exclude it from some areas of competition, but it will require the resolution of outstanding disputes between New Delhi and Islamabad and the liberalization of trade between the two neighbors.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).