For decades, Pakistanis of all hues have been nurtured on a familiar slogan: The China-Pakistan friendship is deeper than the ocean and higher than the Himalayas. The shibboleth has been further embellished with a footnote: the friendship between the two neighbours is time-tested and is an all-weather union.
Well, those Pakistanis who took the message of these morale-boosting slogans to heart have recently been made to re-evaluate their commitment to their being immune to the vicissitudes of changing times and circumstances.
Pakistan was still at odds with itself trying to recover from US President Donald Trump’s blunt warning to it to change its course on terrorism. But then came an even bigger shock when China joined the chorus of its BRICS comrades—Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa—to declare some of the Pakistan-based radical and militant groups and armed factions a matter of regional security concern and demanding that their patrons be held accountable for sleeping with the devil.
The 43-page joint declaration issued by the BRICS, on September 4, at the end of their summit in China’s Xiamen, was a timely reminder to those in Pakistan who still have a thinking cap on their heads and can appreciate the timeless validity of that historic aphorism that says there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in inter-state relations, but only a state’s national interests have permanency.
Thou too, Brutus, an uninitiated Pakistani may well have said throwing up his arms in despair at what, to most novices, seemed like a stab in the back from Pakistan’s all-weather friend. But those with a sharper focus on China-Pakistan relations of the past six decades know there’s more of China’s own despair in this episode, vis-a-vis Pakistan.
China has truly been Pakistan’s number one benefactor and those, like this scribe, who have been professionally part of the long history of China-Pakistan camaraderie—in more ways than one—would readily vouch for it. It’s not only the ongoing and headlines-making CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) saga that has excited the imagination of even the layman in Pakistan; China has lent a helping hand to Pakistan in dire circumstances when there was rarely another to bail it out from its frequent trucks with adversity. But China has its soft underbelly, its proverbial Achilles heel, right where its land border meets with Pakistan.
China has faced the issue of Muslim insurgency for long years in its Xinjiang province. Xinjiang was the land of the Turkic people until it became part of the People’s Republic in 1949. The natives of Xinjiang, speaking classical Turkish language and practising Islam, had nothing in common with the Hans of China. But the Chinese embarked on a determined plan to colonise Xinjiang.
The influx of Hans from the traditional heart of China may have led to a near-parity, today, in Xinjiang’s demography between the Turkic people and Hans but has triggered an insurgency from the locals resenting China’s colonial push. The standard-bearer of that insurgency is the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which claims to have thousands of armed militants resisting China’s onslaught.
But while the ETIM militants may indemnify their struggle as a freedom movement, to the Chinese they are terrorists posing a threat to China’s territorial integrity in perhaps the most sensitive part of the People’s Republic.
That’s where ETIM becomes an embarrassment and a headache for Pakistan, too. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan ushers in a natural milieu of sympathy for Xinjiang’s Muslim freedom fighters. China has long grumbled and remonstrated in closed-door dialogue with Pakistan, though not publicly so until this Xiamen Declaration, about the support ETIM has been receiving—mostly covertly but often overtly too—from Pakistani jihadist outfits, some of which have been named in the Xiamen demand.
One can well imagine the kind of dilemma it poses to Pakistan’s policymakers, especially those tasked with keeping the Chinese in good humour on this issue of extreme sensitivity to China. It’s, for Pakistan, a Catch-22. China is Pakistan’s principal benefactor. The ongoing CPEC has, understandably, been hailed and propagated by the Pakistani power-brokers as the greatest thing that has happened to the country in the 21st century. Pakistan’s future economic progress and prosperity is in the balance and riding, critically, on the successful completion of CPEC.
But Pakistan has its Islamic underpinnings too, which makes it imperative for its people inspired by the universal brotherhood of the Muslim Ummah to stand shoulder to shoulder with their oppressed brethren in any corner of the world. Xinjiang’s oppressed Muslims, to add to the agony of Pakistani policymakers, happen to be right next door.
How to square the circle of the Muslim insurgency in China is something that Pakistani leaders would rather prefer to forget but can’t. China may have a valid argument that its Muslim insurgents have been getting, at the very least, a pat on their back from the Pakistani jihadists, if not a much robust dollop of help in both men and materiel.
China adding its name, for the first time, to those breathing down Pakistan’s neck to redouble its efforts to tighten the noose around its militants and terrorists should usher in a moment of truth for Pakistan. When your best friend calls on you to rein in your home-based rogues and terrorists you’ve to listen intently. It’s Pakistan’s call to take the sting out and prove its sincerity to its soulmate.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat