A fortnight-long lecture tour of China in April was revealing as to how little the Indian discourse factors in the winds of change sweeping across that country. The day I arrived in Beijing from Shanghai en route to Tibet, the Chinese capital received a hugely controversial figure in the politics of our region — the redoubtable “Amir” of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) of Pakistan, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman, who is suspected to be the “father of the Taliban.”
Two aspects regarding Mr. Rahman's visit intrigued me. The JUI-F has no Chinese counterpart but Beijing solved the dilemma with the Communist Party of China (CCP) stepping in to hold Mr. Rahman's hand. The CCP and JUI-F may seem like oil and water but today's China hopes to make them mix. During Mr. Rahman's visit, the CCP and JUI-F signed a memorandum of cooperation. Second, from Beijing Mr. Rahman headed for Xinjiang.
It was an extraordinary moment — the energetic Maulana getting exposed to the violent politics of our region, thanks to the ideology of militant Islam practised by his progenies and on the other hand, the sheer audacity or ingenuity of Beijing's policies in hosting him while Xinjiang is bleeding at the hands of Islamist militants based in Pakistan and is barely coping with the shenanigans of the drug mafia on the Karakoram Highway.
Surely, Pakistan is of immense importance to the Chinese strategies. It is a time-tested friend, a market for China's exports, a vital link in China's new communication chain connecting the Persian Gulf, Middle East and Africa, but most important, a land that shelters Islamist militants from China who may have come under the influence of foreign powers. Unsurprisingly, security cooperation with Islamabad has assumed high priority. The following report in the government-owned China Daily newspaper last week underscored the complexity of the relationship: “An increasing number of members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which led the riots and is labelled a terrorist group by the U.N. 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. Pakistan has become a hunting ground for the U.S. regional strategies. There is a qualitative difference from the U.S.-Pakistan collaborative ventures of the Cold War era. The U.S. today depends on Pakistani military to end the Afghan war so that without the war casualties complicating the western public opinion, continued American and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military presence in the Central Asian region becomes sustainable. The U.S. strategies factor in the NATO's future as a global security organisation, trans-Atlantic ties and of course China's rise and the challenge it poses to the U.S. supremacy in the world order in the 21st century. In short, Pakistan is an-almost irreplaceable U.S. ally at the present phase of the geopolitics of the region and will remain so for the foreseeable future, given its geography, political economy and its unique dealings with terrorist groups. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's impending arrival in Islamabad for co-chairing the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue — 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 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. Unfortunately, motivated sections of the Indian strategic community in their self-seeking zest to sub-serve the U.S. geo-strategy, often deliberately obfuscate these sobering geopolitical realities. The political symbolism in the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders receiving the National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon in Beijing and holding discussions with him in his capacity as the special envoy of the prime minister just ahead of the arrival of the Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on a weeklong “working visit” cannot go unnoticed — even while making allowance for the high esteem in which Mr. Menon is held as a scholar-diplomat on China.
Which is why Mr. Menon's remarks in Beijing following his consultations needs to be welcomed as reflective of a profound understanding at the top policymaking level in New Delhi regarding India's most crucial foreign policy challenge in the period ahead – relations with China. Mr. Menon said that India is looking forward to forging “a relationship [with China] which is not externally driven.”
Hopefully, a lid has been firmly put on the can of worms that Uncle Sam periodically held out in front of us — an “alliance of Asian democracies” involving the U.S., Japan and Australia. There is great need to shield India's normalisation with China from episodic U.S. interference. On the sidelines of the recent U.S.-India strategic dialogue in Washington, senior American officials resuscitated in their public diplomacy the George W. Bush era ideas of the U.S. 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-Pak ties in perspective and with new thinking. Mr. Menon was spot on while saying that China's close relationship with Pakistan should have no bearing on the momentum of New Delhi advancing the impetus of Sino-Indian ties. Indeed, it is high time to de-hyphenate. “We're no longer in an either-or, zero-sum game kind of situation. Our [India's] relationship with China is not dependent on the state of our relations with Pakistan, or vice versa. And judging by what we have seen in practice over the last few years, I think that is also true of China.” He said this while stressing the convergence of Indian and Chinese interests on a range of global issues, which demand a “new stage of the relationship”.
The government has done well to refuse to be enticed by the motivated exhortations by sections of our strategic community to join issue with Beijing over the China-Pakistan nuclear deal controversy – despite genuine apprehensions over anyone consorting with Pakistan, which could have a bearing on nuclear non-proliferation. Mr. Menon said, “This [Sino-Pakistan deal] was not the whole point of the visit. This took less than two and a half sentences in the whole visit.” The U.S. opinion-makers and the noisy pro-American lobby in the Indian strategic community have been suggesting that the Sino-Pakistan nuclear deal was 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, the two reactors that China proposes to set up at Pakistan's Chashma complex under IAEA safeguards do not threaten India's security nor do they shift the “strategic balance” between India and Pakistan. On the contrary, if Pakistan steps into the fold of any form of non-proliferation regime including the IAEA safeguards that China seems to have in mind, it can be a good thing to happen.
Again, the American commentators attempted to insinuate that the China-Pakistan deal raises misgivings in the international community, which in turn may revive concerns about the wisdom of the U.S. making out a special dispensation for India. This is sheer baloney. The litmus test is Japan's readiness to open negotiations to explore the possibility of nuclear commerce with India. What is overlooked is that the NPT as such did not bar nuclear trade with a non-signatory like India. Rather, it was the Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] that brought in the “iron curtain”. The NSG was a one hundred percent American concoction aimed at penalising India under a designated multilateral regime. Plainly put, as the U.S. began sensing the compelling need in terms of its global strategies to forge partnership with India as an emerging power, the barriers became an inconvenient relic of the past. Similarly, let us not overlook that the US may well offer a nuclear deal to Pakistan at some stage.
In short, Beijing will foster its ties with Pakistan at a crucial juncture when the latter figures as a key partner in the US regional strategies. Pakistan, on its part, has been an exemplary partner who robustly eliminates any U.S. interference in its relationship with China. The US has been savvy enough to realise the virtues of “de-hyphenated” ties in our complicated region. The spectacle offers a morality play for India.
( The writer is a former diplomat .)