People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, is an old saying that wise people keep in mind. By putting a “technical” hold on the application moved by the United States and two other countries recently at the UN Sanctions Committee regarding Masood Azhar, Pakistan-based founder of the deadly Islamist terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), China has chosen to ignore this saying. It has also ignored Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal requests to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
By repeatedly placing “technical holds” on India’s requests at the UN Sanctions Committee in the cases of Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi—each designated a terrorist by the US and UN—China has made clear that its support to Pakistan is unwavering and designed to protect Pakistan’s interests. An article in the official state-run Global Times on 9 February 2017, claimed that the US bid to include Masood Azhar as a terrorist came “weeks after India’s failed efforts last December”, but conveniently omitted to mention that it was yet again China which had blocked that effort. Suggesting that India needs to provide more “evidence”, it linked this with India-Pakistan relations and recommended that “any action the UN takes should assist the peace process rather than escalate tensions between the two”. It added that the move only increases military pressure on Pakistan. The article introduced an important caveat, which placed limits on the extent that China will cooperate in the fight against terrorism, when it said “China will enhance anti-terror cooperation with India, but regional peace and stability will always be a priority”.
China has problems in the Tibet and Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Regions, which together comprise more than half the country’s land area and are afflicted with tension and growing restiveness. Violent incidents occur with frequent regularity in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, where expenditure on domestic security alone exceeded US$1.07 billion this year.
The announcement on 11 January 2017, that China’s restive Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region had closed its borders with Pakistan is the first visible crack in the China-Pakistan relationship. It followed the terrorist attack on a Communist Party building in Moyu County, Hotan, on 28 December 2016, where attackers with knives detonated an explosive device killing two people and injuring three. Earlier Hafiz Saeed, chief of the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), had threatened the Pakistan government and asked it to ascertain whether Muslims in Xinjiang were being treated properly. Chinese provincial officials have earlier vented their frustration at the persistent efforts at proselytisation by Pakistani religious tanzeems and named Pakistan during discussions at sessions of the National People’s Congress, China’s version of a Parliament.
The links to Pakistan of persons involved in terrorist actions in China—like in the knife attacks in Kunming—have, quite unusually, been mentioned in China’s official media. Xinjiang’s communist leaders have expressed fears that militants returning to the province to carry out terror attacks have received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Xinhua also quoted Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Regional People’s Congress, as saying this January that security along the China-Pakistan border would be further tightened “to prevent terrorists from entering or leaving the region illegally in 2017”. Local officials in Kashgar prefecture, that borders Pakistan, specifically stressed the need to check illegal infiltration from Pakistan.
The incidence of terrorist attacks elsewhere in China outside the borders of the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region has been increasing. A study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China’s largest official think-tank, pointed out last year that the attacks occur in cities and towns with a large Muslim population. In many cases the authorities have established a connection between the terrorists and Pakistan. Mentioning that foreign countries are unwilling to assist China, the study disclosed that Uyghurs escaping from China, or returning to China, are assisted in their transit through Southeast Asian nations by countries like Turkey, which provide travel documents.
Notwithstanding China’s objections to India’s requests at the UN Sanctions Committee, a senior editor with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily and currently senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China’s Renmin University, Ding Gang requested India’s help. In an article in the state-run Global Times on 8 February 2017, he said India could help China stabilise Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state. He expressed concern that the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic extremist groups from Southeast Asia are sneaking across the border and that ISIS-backed recruits are helping Rohingyas cross the border. China is worried that radicalised Rohingyas will threaten Chinese facilities linked to its oil and gas pipeline in Myanmar. Ding Gang would undoubtedly be aware that the LeT is active in Southeast Asia and is training Rohingyas. The porous borders will facilitate the entry of radicalised Rohingyas into China. India can certainly help China, but that will require Beijing to be sensitive to India’s interests and effectively pressure Pakistan to stop using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Beijing cannot be conveniently selective while cracking down on terrorism.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.