Even before the Indian establishment and the media stopped their celebrations over the BRICS declaration in Xiamen in China earlier this month condemning terrorist groups, including those based in Pakistan, hoping that this could be the game-changer moment in Islamabad-Beijing relations, the Chinese made a U-turn by openly defending their all-weather ally. In fact, China’s stand that Pakistan has made “great sacrifices” in its fight against terror is a repetition of what it had said at the BRICS summit in Goa in India in October last year.
On that occasion, China had uttered the same sympathising words for Pakistan after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tried to outmanoeuvre Islamabad at the BRICS summit, calling it the “mothership of terrorism”. There has been very little difference between China’s stands on Pakistan in 2016 and 2017 though this year, Beijing has played the game with more caution and diplomacy. And it has done so not without a reason.
International affairs saw significant developments between 2016 and 2017 BRICS summits
Between the two BRICS summits of October 2016 and September 2017, world politics has seen significant changes. The United States has seen a unique president in Donald Trump whose foreign policy priorities have been more than incoherent. The man had first expressed intentions of not continuing with an interfering foreign policy but gradually proved his incapacity to effect a real change on the ground.
Trump’s policy on Afghanistan has been particularly baffling, especially for Pakistan, as Washington had traditionally banked on Islamabad to exercise its influence on matters related to the war-torn country, both during and after the Cold War. This development has created a fair possibility of Pakistan joining China’s orbit and Beijing certainly cannot let go this strategic victory. The other big development which has happened between October 2016 and September 2017 is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
This connectivity project is not just about China’s gaining geopolitical advantages but also a major step towards facilitating its world ambition. The ‘retreat’ of the US around the same time has created a vacuum in international politics and the Xi Jinping leadership is fully aware of its implications.
There is little chance of seeing China hating Pakistan
Against this backdrop, it is futile to expect that China would start hating Pakistan. The Xiamen declaration condemning terrorism was a strategic move. Through it, Beijing not only showed to the world that like any responsible global power, it also detests terrorism and that also it considers terror as a prime threat to its BRI plan as it would touch several regions of the world that are affected by the extremism. Nationalist elements in India picked only a part of the story thinking China has finally aligned itself with its voice but the Xiamen declaration served China’s own vision and it was just that the terrorist angle had overlapped.
With Afghanistan becoming a key country on China’s radar, Beijing’s love for Pakistan will only become stronger. Despite its engagement with the North Korean problem, China has put considerable focus on Afghanistan and also urged Kabul and Islamabad to work together on improving things.
This is a key requirement for the success of China’s Western and Central Asian plans since Afghanistan is a crucial link between the two regions and Beijing will want it to be peaceful and stable to facilitate its own global ambition. China already has two mechanisms like the QCG (Quadrilateral Coordination Group) comprising China, US, Pakistan and Afghanistan and QCCM (Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism) featuring China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan focussed on Afghanistan and although the QCG has not yet delivered success, the QCCM has been seen as a key counter-terrorism mechanism to deal with the Afghan terror problem.
China has been wiser than the US in not allowing Pakistan’s decline in its quest for neutralising the terror elements in Afghanistan and the Trump administration’s increasingly tough stance taken vis-à-vis Pakistan is making it convenient for China to deepen its bonds with Islamabad. For Indian policy-makers, this is not something desirable.
For China, Pakistan constitutes a cornerstone of its foreign policy. It counters India’s quest to demean a Pakistan-based terrorist internationally not because it has sympathy for terrorist but simply because it wants to keep India under check. At bilateral levels, China doesn’t forget to remind Pakistan about the justification of safeguarding terrorists, something Pakistan’s Dawn had reported in October last year.
That’s how China conducts itself. It’s only concerned about its own national interests and under Jinping’s leadership, its quest for a global stature has made this pursuit of national interests all the more intense. For India, it will be more important to study the pattern of China’s behaviour vis-à-vis other global and regional powers than to celebrate momentarily.