ALEXANDRIA, October 27 - As MIL INT reported back in August after the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) [that is also described as the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP)] launched terrorist attacks in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang province (Western China) killing 18, the Chinese have actively engaged Islamabad on options to address the separatist threat.
The explosions provoked senior government officials in Xinjiang to publicly claim for the first time in recent years that the attackers had been trained in explosives in ETIM/TIP camps run by Chinese separatists in the Waziristan tribal regions of Pakistan. The Chinese allegation was described by many in the diplomatic circles of Islamabad as a clear sign of the growing impatience of Beijing with Islamabad's failure to control radical groups operating within its borders.Pakistani journalist Amir Mir claims in an Asia Times article that "Beijing is ... interested in setting up military bases either in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or in the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) that border Xinjiang province." Mir does not directly substantiate that claim but provides considerable background to recent rounds of Sino-Pakistani engagement.
Chinese Army bases in Pakistan (there has been talk about a naval base in Gwadar for years) would be a very interesting development.
First, it would be yet more evidence of the growing contradiction in Chinese foreign policy with respect to its principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries - a temptation that will grow increasingly irresistible as Chinese power grows.
Second, it will change the balance of power in central Asia in novel ways, effecting US, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan and Iranian policies in the region. It would also impact the balance within the SCO regional alliance.
Third, the Indian reaction will be very important. The Mir report carries comments from senior Indian officials about PLA activities in the disputed Jammu-Kashmir region.
Fourth, such a move may not be limited to Chinese CT efforts but might be part of a wider strategy to secure a buffer around energy routes through the SCO AO.
Fifth, no doubt Pakistan thinks a move of this kind would force Washington to draw closer and fork out yet more money to the Pakistani military. This would be a huge mistake.
HOW SHOULD THIS POSSIBILITY BE INTERPRETED?
As MIL INT argued previously, Washington needs to be much more imaginative in its Pakistan policy. A tighter embrace between Beijing and Islamabad might at first seem threatening to US interests but in fact they could be a positive development because Beijing has the squeeze - a lot of it - much more than Islamabad can control. If they think the US is a demanding friend they aint seen nothing yet. Put simply, the Chinese will not tolerate the kind of games Islamabad has played with Washington over the past decade. Nor will the Chinese care about international opinion when they use large scale indiscriminate force to achieve their objectives. After all, who is going to stop them?
Looked at the other way around, Beijing risks getting sucked into a complex morass of Pakistani domestic issues that will be next to impossible to solve and will further expose the growing contradiction in the #1 principle of Chinese foreign policy (non-interference in internal affairs).
In the nightmare scenario - a radical takeover in Pakistan - China would have as much to lose than the US or India. Its Western buffer will be much more exposed to radical Islamists than is already the case, making today's threat to Chinese internal stability look like a quaint bygone era of harmony. The US simply does not have the money, troops, or inclination to conduct stability operations among the 169 million people in Pakistan - China has all three, and a much deeper national interest in Pakistan due to the fact that Pakistan borders China - and therefore the sea and land energy routes to China.
Pakistan’s military chiefs are aware that America’s military has developed plans for an emergency nuclear disablement operation in their country, and they have periodically threatened to ally themselves with China, as a way to undercut U.S. power in South Asia. In a recent statement quite obviously meant for American ears, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, described the Pakistani-Chinese relationship as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.” But China, too, is worried about Pakistan’s stability, and has recently alleged that Pakistan has harbored Uighur separatists operating in western China. According to American sources, China has, in secret talks with the U.S., reached an understanding that, should America decide to send forces into Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections. (An Obama-administration spokesperson had no comment.)
Were China to be drawn into stability operations in Pakistan, this would be a huge boon for the US. It might be positively spun as greater burden sharing, but in reality it would put a useful strain on Beijing's resources, attention, and ambitions that have been running unchecked for the past decade. This of course has been exactly the impact of Afghanistan and Pakistan on US policy over the past decade.
It would be more complex for India - given the degree of encirclement New Delhi would naturally experience. However, the overall impact of Chinese stability operations in Pakistan might avert a nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan that would inevitably result if radical Islamists take over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It would appear that the Chinese are living in interesting times.
Update: China responds to attacks in Xinjiang with new anti-terror legislation.
Hat Tip to DR for drawing MIL INT's attention to the Asia Times story.