By M K Bhadrakumar
The week that the first cherry blossoms appeared in Beijing in April, the Chinese capital also received a hugely controversial figure in the politics of the region - the redoubtable "amir" of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) of Pakistan, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, who is often spoken of as the "father of the Taliban".
Two aspects regarding Rehman's visit would have intrigued an outside observer. The JUI-F has no Chinese counterpart, but Beijing solved the dilemma with the Chinese Communist Party of China (CCP) stepping in to hold Rehman's hand. The CCP and JUI-F may seem like oil and water, but today's China hopes to make them mix - and may well succeed. During Rehman's visit, the CCP and JUI-F signed a memorandum of cooperation. Second, from Beijing Rehman headed for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
It was an extraordinary moment - the energetic maulana getting exposed to the violent politics of the Central Asian region, thanks to the ideology of militant Islam practiced by his progenies, and on the other hand, the sheer audacity or pragmatism of Beijing's policies in hosting him in Urumqi while Xinjiang is bleeding at the hands of Islamist militants based in Pakistan and is barely coping with the activities of the drug mafia on the Karakoram Highway, which figures increasingly as the principal artery of drug trafficking to China.
Surely, Pakistan is of immense importance to the Chinese strategies. It is a time-tested "all-weather" friend, a potentially serious market for China's exports and investment, a vital link in China's new communication chain connecting the Persian Gulf, Middle East and Africa (bypassing the Malacca Strait), but most important, a land that shelters Islamist militants from China who may probably have come under the influence of motivated foreign powers.
Unsurprisingly, security cooperation with Islamabad has assumed high priority for Beijing while navigating the waters of friendship with Pakistan. The following report in the government-owned China Daily newspaper recently underscored the complexity of the relationship between the two countries:
An increasing number of members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which led the riots and is labeled a terrorist group by the UN Security Council, are reportedly fleeing to Pakistan and settling down there for future plots. According to latest reports, the ETIM has been in close collaboration with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. An ETIM leader is also reportedly hiding in Pakistan and there are reports of a "Chinese battalion" made up of about 320 ETIM members of the Taliban forces. "It is not hard for them to hide in Pakistan. They have similar religious beliefs, appearances and languages as the locals', the Beijing-based World News newspaper reported on July 1."Besides, China faces unprecedented geopolitical challenges in carrying forward the "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan. The heart of the matter is that Pakistan has become a hunting ground for the US regional strategies. There is a qualitative difference today in comparison with the ebb and flow of the US-Pakistan collaborative ventures of the Cold War era. The US today depends on the Pakistani military to end the Afghan war so that without the war casualties complicating Western public opinion, continued American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military presence in the Central Asian region becomes sustainable.
United States strategies toward Pakistan factor in NATO's future as a global security organization, the US's trans-Atlantic ties, and China's rise and the challenge it poses to the US supremacy in the world order in the 21st century. In short, Pakistan is an almost irreplaceable US ally and will remain so for the foreseeable future, given its geography, political economy and its unique dealings with terrorist groups. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's arrival in Islamabad next week for co-chairing the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue - the second in four months - underscores Pakistan's centrality in Washington's foreign policy calculus.
What emerges is that no more is it the case that whatever China does in Pakistan is with an ulterior motive against its big South Asian neighbor, India, or that Beijing's policy toward Pakistan is quintessentially India-centric. As a matter of fact, the trend for quite some time has been of Beijing trying to keep a balance between its relations with India and Pakistan. The political symbolism in the Chinese Premier and other leaders receiving a special envoy of the Indian prime minister recently in July, just ahead of the arrival of the Pakistan President on a week-long "working visit", cannot go unnoticed.
Following consultations in Beijing, the Indian special envoy said that New Delhi is looking forward to forging "a relationship [with China] which is not externally driven". How this translates into policy will be of keen interest. Curiously, soon after the Sino-Indian consultations and on the eve of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Islamabad, the US National Security Adviser arrived in New Delhi to "fortify" the strategic partnership between the two countries and to prepare the ground for US President Barack Obama's expected visit to India in November. The US official's itinerary included calls on the Indian defense minister and the military top brass.
Hopefully, a lid has been firmly put on the can of worms that Uncle Sam periodically held out in front of the Indians - an "alliance of Asian democracies" involving the US, Japan and Australia. There is need to shield India's normalization with China from episodic US interference.
The worrisome part is that on the sidelines of the recent US-India strategic dialogue in Washington in June, senior American officials resuscitated in their public diplomacy the George W Bush era ideas of the US and India patrolling the Indian Ocean and working together with Japan and Australia - doctrines which seemed irrelevant and quixotic once the world financial crisis erupted and new realities emerged in the international system.
Equally, India needs to view Sino-Pakistan ties in perspective and with new thinking. China's close relationship with Pakistan will no doubt have a bearing on New Delhi's impetus to strengthen Sino-Indian ties but it also needs to be put in geopolitical perspective. Indeed, it is high time to de-hyphenate the Sino-Indian relationship from China's relationship with Pakistan (or with the US). The Indian strategic community needs to re-orientate its thinking: India's relationship with China need not be dependent on the state of its relations with Pakistan, or vice versa.
And, conceivably, the same should hold good for China. The convergence of Indian and Chinese interests on a range of global issues today is obvious and demands a "new stage of the relationship", as a senior Indian official put it recently.
The Indian government has done well to refuse to join issue acrimoniously with Beijing over the China-Pakistan nuclear deal controversy - despite genuine apprehensions in New Delhi over anyone consorting with Pakistan, which could have a bearing on nuclear non-proliferation. The opinion-makers in the media have been suggesting that the Sino-Pakistan nuclear deal is primarily directed against India. To quote from a Western media report, "China and Pakistan are threatening to disrupt India's nuclear aspirations by stepping up collaboration of their own."
However, do the two reactors that China proposes to set up at Pakistan's Chashma complex under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards really threaten India's security or do they shift the "strategic balance" between India and Pakistan?
On the contrary, it can be argued that if Pakistan is brought into the fold of any form of non-proliferation regime including the IAEA safeguards that China seems to have in mind, it can only be a good thing. Besides, morality may not have a place in politics, but how can India possibly pick a quarrel over Pakistan having a nuclear deal of its own with China, which India secured from the US with considerable elan in 2008?
What is overlooked is that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as such did not bar nuclear trade with a non-signatory like India - or Pakistan. Rather, it was the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) that brought in the "Iron Curtain". The NSG was an American concoction aimed at penalizing India under a designated multilateral regime by roping in all and sundry countries that could have potential to be suppliers of nuclear fuel or technology to India at some stage.
Plainly put, as the US began sensing during the past decade the compelling need in terms of its global strategies to forge partnership with India as an emerging power, the NSG barriers became an inconvenient relic of the past. Similarly, it is entirely conceivable that in terms of the imperatives of Washington's regional strategies in the South Asian-Central Asian region, the US may well one day offer a nuclear deal to Pakistan.
In short, Beijing will have an added motivation to foster its ties with Pakistan at a crucial juncture when the latter figures as a key partner in the US regional strategies. The heart of the matter is that the US strategy to get “embedded” in the southwest Asian region profoundly worries China. Pakistan, on its part, has been an exemplary partner for China, too, who robustly insulates the Sino-Pakistan friendship from any American poaching.
To be sure, both Beijing and New Delhi will be keenly watching the diplomatic pirouette of the forthcoming US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Islamabad. For once, Beijing and New Delhi find themselves in the same boat - except, of course, that India sees itself as a direct beneficiary in some ways of the US's decisive influence over Pakistan.
The US has been savvy enough to realize the virtues of "de-hyphenated" ties in the complicated geopolitical environs of the region. A "de-hyphenated" policy enables Washington to optimally pursue its ties with China, Pakistan and India, while at the same time drawing sustenance from the contradictions in the mutual ties between the three regional powers themselves. The spectacle offers a veritable morality play in politics and diplomacy.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.