Analysis: Four reasons why China's new tune on terror could help India

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 16, 2015 00:33 IST

The Sino-Indian joint statement has a longer-than-usual section on terrorism cooperation. It is also the first such statement to urge other countries to stop “cross-border” terrorist movement and disrupt terror “networks”.

There are four reasons why China has begun trying to engage India more closely on terrorism . Traditionally, the two sides have talked past each other on the topic. India sees Pakistan as the root of all militant evil. China has said it would talk about everything except Pakistan .

One, China is increasingly worried about the rising Islamicist terror problem it is facing among its Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Most worryingly is that this terror problem is spreading to other parts of the country. "The last couple of years have seen a shift in Chinese perceptions of the terrorism problem from a largely local one in Xinjiang to a national-level concern, with attacks taking place in major Chinese cities, and moves from a very narrow focus on Uighur militants to looking more broadly at the enabling networks of extremism in the region," says Andrew Small, fellow of the German Marshall Fund and author of the book, "The China-Pakistan Axis."

Two, Chinese analysts privately say Beijing fears that Islamic fundamentalism and, in its view, the potential for Islamic terror is spreading beyond to the much larger non-Uighur Muslim population, including Han Muslims. The Uighurs number about six million, but the larger Chinese Muslim population is around 30 million and spread all across central China. "The crackdown on visible manifestations of Islam--hijabs, fasting and so on--is a crude attempt to control the spread of Islamic fundamentalism," said a Beijing-based Western diplomat.

Three, China's state-owned Global Times has said Beijing believes about 300 Chinese Muslims have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The ISIS threat is a new one for China. Unlike al Qaeda, the ISIS has publicly named China as one of its targets--one reason Beijing has provided arms to the Iraqi and Syrian governments. In closed door sessions, Chinese security analysts say the number of Chinese ISIS recruits may be double that. The figure is uncertain because recruits are now exfiltrating across the porous Myanmar-China border rather than the tightly monitored Sino-Pakistan boundary.

Four, Beijing believes that this terror spike is linked to the vaccuum being created by the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan--and Pakistan's evident inability to control its northwestern tribal areas. Says Small, "Beijing thinks that forging common ground with India will be important when it comes to navigating the Afghanistan aftermath. It wants to ensure that the two sides are not at odds there, China implicitly wants India's acquiescence to the enlarged role Beijing is playing in Afghanistan at the moment--on issues such as Taliban reconciliation." Beijing, he believes, sees India as probably the only major actor in Afghanistan that might be expected to be suspicious or even hostile to such Chinese moves.

This has not necessarily gone down well in Islamabad. But in track-two talks with Indians, Chinese delegates have said Beijing-New Delhi should talk "without concern about the objections of third countries." Says Small, "China is understood to be pushing Pakistan in a helpful direction on Afghanistan rather than indifferent to (or even facilitating) the sort of policies that Pakistan pursued there in the past."

Finally, China sees terrorism cooperation as a crucial and useful element in its larger attempts to create a sphere of stability on its periphery. Phil Potter, a terrorism policy expert at the University of Virginia, notes that "China is using shared concerns over terrorism as a tool for regional cooperation. This has been evident with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." He argues Beijing sees this as an area in which two strategic rivals can share some common ground and "it is therefore something that China will happily put on the table." As much as China cares about terrorism, Potter believes, "it cares about regional interstate relations a great deal more." But Small sees it less cynically: "Beijing genuinely believes the two sides' views on terrorism have come closer together in the last few years."

Chinese officials are explicit in saying that Islamic terror has now replaced US military power as their country's number one security threat.

There are obvious limits to what India and China can together. Intelligence agencies and militaries of both sides see each other as enemies. Anything India shared with China would presumably be passed on to Pakistan, say Indian officials. And their is deep scepticism as to how far Beijing would cross Islamabad when it came to terror. "Pakistan is the greatest victim of terror" is still a common Chinese refrain. And Lashkar-e-Toiba rarely gets a mention by Beijing. Nonetheless, just the very act of Sino-Indian attempting to engage on the issue would help New Delhi create a sense of isolation in Pakistan on its sponsorship of terror.

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