China's South Asian Challenge


Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an op-ed penned for the Pakistani media on the eve of his visit, stated that even though it was his first visit to Pakistan, he felt as though he was visiting the home of his ‘own brother’. Tridivesh Singh Maini goes beyond the hyperbolic headlines to understand the new dynamics of the relationship between the two “close friends, dear brothers and trusted partners”, and its implications for India and South Asia.

Indian and Chinese leaderships have sought to de-hyphenate their relationship from Beijing’s ties with Islamabad. There are some strong reasons for the same. Firstly, over the past decade-and-a half, trade between both countries has witnessed a sharp rise. Bilateral trade has risen to nearly $70 billion from less than $3 billion in 2000 (2.92), though of course, the balance of trade is massively skewed in favour of China, and has been addressed in recent meetings between political leaders of both countries and is likely to be one of the important issues during Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming China visit.

Second, the Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang and terrorist attacks inflicted by Uighur militants, who receive support and training in Pakistan,  in 2013 and 2014 have compelled China to take cognizance of the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan. In the aftermath of the terror attack in Kunming in March 2014, Abdullah Mansour, leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party, dubbed the terror act as a ‘jihadi operation’ in an interview to Reuters. Uighur militants have hideouts in North Waziristan as well as certain parts of Afghanistan. Andrew Small in his book, ‘The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics’ (2015) argues that while Pakistan is crucial to China’s Silk Road vision due to its location, the insurgency in Xinjiang and the Pakistan link have not gone unnoticed and are likely to pose a challenge to the otherwise robust relationship.

Relationship beyond Rhetoric

There have also been some signs that China is keen to take a slightly more nuanced position on the India-Pakistan relationship. While this may not be clearly evident from President Xi’s recent Pakistan visit, but there are suggestions to this effect from certain statements made by Chinese diplomats.

If one were to examine the highlight of President Xi’s Pakistan visit, the Chinese President left no opportunity to highlight the importance Beijing attaches to Islamabad. In an op-ed penned for the Pakistani media on the eve of his visit, the Chinese President stated that even though it was his first visit to Pakistan, he felt as though he was visiting the home of his ‘own brother’. While addressing a joint sitting of Parliament, Xi stated, “Pakistan and China would fight the challenges of terrorism together. China considers Pakistan as its ‘Iron Brother’. I remember the time when China was completely isolated in the world. Pakistan was the country that stood by us in testing times.” PM Sharif reciprocated President Xi’s sentiments, and said “You are not just a friend from afar, but one who is so close to our heart. We are friends forever. We are close friends, dear brothers and trusted partners”.

This rhetoric is not unusual. During his 2006 visit to Islamabad, President Hu Jintao referred to the relationship as being ‘… higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean and sweeter than Honey’.

All-Weather Friendship Gets Stronger

China committed $46 billion for Pakistan’s development, out of which $28 billion was earmarked for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This announcement, made by President Xi at a time when other countries have reduced their economic assistance to Pakistan, is significant and thus received maximum attention.

There was also a strong emphasis on peace and security in South Asia and the threat of terrorism.  A joint statement issued after President Xi’s meeting with Pakistan President Mamnoon Hussain and PM Sharif stated, “The two sides are ready to work together for peace, development and cooperation among South Asian countries so as to achieve enduring peace and common prosperity in the region.”

Significantly, China also praised Pakistan for its role in counter-terrorism, and for seeking to resolve outstanding disputes with neighbours. Though behind closed doors, it is believed that the Chinese President is supposed to have expressed China’s apprehensions, not just about the Pakistan connection with Uighur insurgency, but the safety of Chinese tourists – in 2013, two Chinese tourists were killed, while in 2014, one Chinese tourist was kidnapped,  as well as workers in Pakistan. Pakistan, on its part, categorically stated that it would ensure security of Chinese workers in projects. “Our joint efforts against terrorism have succeeded so far, but we need to intensify our efforts”, said the Pakistan Prime Minister to the Chinese President.

Indo-Pak Relations: Time for a New, Nuanced Approach

If one were to analyse the complex triangle of the China-Pakistan-India relationship, China, while further strengthening its economic imprint in Pakistan through infrastructural projects and economic assistance, has also indicated that it would not be averse to playing a constructive role in greater engagement between both countries.

During his interactions with the business community in Amritsar in March 2014, the Chinese ambassador to India spoke about the possibility of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor till India. Trade through the Wagah-Attari border has risen to over $2.5 billion, in spite of political tensions between India and Pakistan, as well as the existing tariff and non-tariff barriers.

There have also been indicators that China may change its approach towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations said, “India’s concerns over terrorism will be addressed in a more constructive way”.

It would be pertinent to point out that the Chinese have not spoken out against the release of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The United States, on the other hand, has unequivocally criticised the release of Lakhvi.

Will Chinese Influence over Pakistan Increase?

It would be pertinent to point out that with strains emerging in the US-Pakistan relationship, and Washington no longer being its primary donor, as it has been in the past and the souring of ties between Islamabad and Riyadh due to the former’s refusal to provide military support for Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, China is likely to exert even more influence over Pakistan than it has been doing in the past. The question is whether the Chinese would leverage this influence to pressurise Pakistan to dismantle terror groups, which target not just China, but also India. While on the one hand, there are strong economic and strategic incentives for the same, a radical shift is not likely though we could witness an incremental one.

India, on its part, would welcome a firmer approach by Beijing towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan, but will not bank too much on its support and neither would it want the New Delhi-Beijing relationship to get hyphenated with Pakistan. This would send a wrong message, because for a long time, India has sought to expand synergies with great powers, while not being totally dependent upon any. While this policy did not yield results due to India’s laggard economy, in the past decade-and-a-half, it has been able to balance relations with major powers through astute diplomacy and growing economic might. The strong strategic relationship with the US and the growing economic relationship with China amplify this point.

In conclusion, South Asia is a complex region, but it remains to be seen whether China adopts a similar approach towards the region as the west, or it devices its own innovative way of engagement with the region. Henry Kissinger’s book ‘On China’ (2011) gives an interesting explanation of how the nature of Chinese engagement with the outside world is nuanced and differs from the Western style. Its role in South Asia especially in the India-Pakistan relationship is one instance where it will be tested. China needs to ensure that its ambitious vision for a Silk Road is accomplished while ensuring a stable security situation in South Asia. Finally, it needs to redefine its relations with India without drastically altering the nature of engagement with Pakistan. This will be its major challenge. New Delhi, on its part, will have to deal with Chinese moves in South Asia in a pragmatic and calculated way, and not by responding to rhetoric by sections of the strategic community and media.

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Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat

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