Monday, 30th October 2017

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Takes two to tango

This reporter's book, six years in the making, has been meticulously researched through documentation and interviews with Chinese and Pakistani officials, many of whom spoke on conditions of anonymity. Its theme is a relationship "emerging from the shadows" into the glare of international attention. 

By Premen Addy
  • Published 8.05.15


This reporter's book, six years in the making, has been meticulously researched through documentation and interviews with Chinese and Pakistani officials, many of whom spoke on conditions of anonymity. Its theme is a relationship "emerging from the shadows" into the glare of international attention. The clarity of the narrative, cool analysis and contemporary insights are worthy of close critical scrutiny, more so in the light of Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Islamabad and the $48 billion economic and military aid he is believed to have brought to an "all weather" friend, whose fellowship has withstood the pressures of time and circumstance.

The seedbed of this relationship was Kashmir and India on the Pakistani side; on China's it was India's perceived ambitions in Tibet. India, for its part, felt menaced by the newly arrived Chinese legions in a hitherto peaceful country, while Tibetan unrest and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and the emergent border dispute climaxed by the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 brought mistrust and outright hostility to the fore. Tibet was the source of the Sino-Indian imbroglio: it has continued to blight the Sino-Indian relationship to this day. The dark, prefiguring omens appeared at the start of Communist rule in China, as these bristling lines in the Party journal, World Culture, Shanghai 1949 illustrate: "Nehru is a rebel against the movement for national independence, a blackguard who undermines the progress of the people's liberation movement, a loyal slave of imperialism." Chou En-lai, in a private talk with Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Ali, on the sidelines of the Bandung conference in 1955, agreed with Ali that Pakistan's membership of the American-sponsored anti-Soviet, anti-Chinese Cento and Seato pacts need be no barrier to friendly Sino-Pakistan ties. Premier Chou said China's conflicts of interest with India could be expected soon. [Sarvepalli Gopal: Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography Volume II, p 243].

The brewing schism became a settled fact with the first exchange of fire between Indian and Chinese border patrols in 1959, inflaming Indian opinion and tying Nehru's hands when Chou, in 1960, offered a quid pro quo on the contentious border: China would hold Aksai Chin in the western sector, with India retaining Arunachal Pradesh in the east. The offer was withdrawn in 2006, when Beijing laid formal claim to the contended Indian province.

Small tells of an intensifying trilateral contest between a China-Pakistan condominium, and India. The battle was truly joined in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian confrontation of 1962. China, in tandem with Pakistan, stoked ethnic unrest in India's North East, arming and training Mizo, Naga and Manipur rebels, extending similar support to Naxalite (Maoist) insurgents in West Bengal. As late as 2004, a large Chinese arms cache was intercepted by the Bangladesh authorities, avers Small. The fraught 1960s were played out against the turbulence of China's Great Leap Forward and its collapse, the permanent rupture in Sino-Soviet relations, and the commencement of the Cultural Revolution and its myriad, incendiary fissures within the Communist Party and Chinese society.

Encouraged by China's force majeure in 1962, and India's defeat, Pakistan's military government, led by Ayub Khan, was spurred on by the country's political class to mount a proxy war in Kashmir through its Pashtun levies in a bid to wrest control of the territory from a perceived weak and inept India. Islamabad's hope of Chinese military intervention was stillborn. China well understood the absence of a national interest, and was sensitive to the perils of a wider conflict, for which it was ill prepared. Face was duly saved on both sides with a covert conversation on nuclear technology cooperation leading eventually, in 1976, to a firm undertaking from China to help Pakistan acquire a nuclear bomb and the missiles to deliver them, this mandated by India's overwhelming defeat of Pakistan in December 1971 during the Bangladesh liberation struggle. China was similarly loath to intervene militarily on Pakistan's behalf in the Pakistan-engineered conflict with India on the Kargil heights, in Kashmir, in the summer of 1999, leaving it to America to broker a peace.

China's decision to empower Pakistan with nuclear weapons, and America's passive acquiescence to the acquisition, and to the nuclear and missile proliferation that followed, bespoke a parlous gamble whose consequences were at best left to uncertain chance. Pakistan became the conduit for a China- Saudi Arabian démarche just as was the case earlier with China and the United States.

The denouement of President Xi Jinping's high-profile trip to Islamabad and its promise of a cornucopia of Chinese economic and military aid (matched incidentally by the United States) affirmed Beijing's intent to be a player in the Gulf and Indian Ocean and lands beyond. Small cites the multiple goals behind the diplomacy, among which he includes Beijing's keenness to deflect and deter the rising tide of Islamist militancy spilling over into troubled Xinjiang, the Uighur-populated Muslim province abutting Pakistan and the Islamic polities of Central Asia. Beijing's mounting anxieties in this regard extended to the Pakistani state itself, where Uighur Islamist groups have taken refuge and melded with local jihadi formations fighting the government in Islamabad for supreme control. Chinese engineers and tourists have been kidnapped and sometimes killed. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and the Islamist-infiltrated military highlight the Chinese dilemma: they have a sound grasp of Pakistan's ground realities, pronounced a knowledgeable Pakistani sinologist, whom Small quotes, "but there is one piece they don't just get: Islam."

Beijing's projected 3,000-kilometre economic corridor from Kashgar, in Xinjiang, to Gwadar, on the Balochistan coast, evoked the following comment from local leader, Nisar Baloch: "No matter how hard they try to turn Gwadar into Dubai, it won't work. There will be resistance. The future pipelines going to China will not be safe... if our rights are violated nothing will be safe." Small also quotes General Xiong Guandai, who exclaimed with solemn absurdity: "Pakistan is China's Israel." The tiny Jewish state, a global powerhouse in science and technology, is a royal piece on the regional chessboard to the Pakistani pawn. Furthermore, Israel is bound to India by close security ties, a fact which Small might have done well to elucidate.

His concluding observation, however, is tellingly pertinent: of China's 14 neighbours, it is only with Pakistan that Beijing has a suspicion-free bonding. China's ethnic conundrums mirror those of the defunct Ottoman state in the Balkans. From Xinjiang to Tibet, national unrest plagues the Chinese body politic, compounding its dysfunctional Great Power autism. Way back in 1878, the governor of Xinjiang, Tso Tsung-tang, commended a strict Confucian education for its recalcitrant Muslim subjects based on the classics [Teng and Ingalls, The Political History of China, 1840-1928, p 115]. The empire, constructed by Mongols and Manchus, men of the steppe, is stubbornly proclaimed as an inviolate Han inheritance. Chastening diverse ethnicities into a common shape is to legitimize the established political order.

The British sinologist, W.J.F. Jenner's seminal title, The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China's Crisis, glitters with historical insights: juxtaposed with Andrew Small, the exploration of the past in China's present can be a rewarding experience.