By MALLADI RAMA RAO*
After much humming and hawing China has joined the war against terrorism though Beijing is the first God Father of terrorists. The calibrated attempt at image makeover deftly exploits the threat posed by the Islamic State or Daesh but doesn’t hide its true colours.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, has told the UN Security Council that Beijing cannot afford to ‘stand by and look on with folded hands’ as IS steps up its murderous missions. ‘Nations must stand united against violent extremist ideology,’ he said and went on to warn against ‘arbitrary interference’ – a barb directed at the US because of its penchant for ‘arbitrarily’ attacks of countries deemed as the axis of evil.
From Wang-Speak it is clear that the Chinese have concluded that the international community must unite to uproot Islamist extremism as represented by IS. This signals a slight shift in the Chinese outlook of the world, and dumping of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “keeping a low profile” in foreign and military affairs. This shift however doesn’t undermine ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan’s interests vis-à-vis Maulana Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Hafeez Saeed of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
Hitherto, China worked hard to spread its economic interests. China has been happy to do business with various countries, shunned by the West, particularly the US. It doesn’t feel the need to tell the countries it trades with about what kind of government they should have. If these countries gave (continue to give) a short shrift to democracy it was (is) their concern. China cares less if some of these countries nurture terrorism, as long as it is not directed towards China.
The Chinese have aided and abetted armed insurgency in North-east India, training rebels, supplying arms and ammunition to take on the Indian security forces. Pakistan had collaborated in the enterprise that was in its full glow particularly from the sixties to the nineties.
Any hope that the Chinese have rolled back that enterprise was set at rest in April 2014, when reports surfaced that China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO) was supplying weapons through Thai- based gun runners like Willy Naru. AK series of rifles, Universal Machine Guns (UMG), M20 pistols in the armoury of insurgent groups like NSCN (I-M), and ULFA are of Chinese make.
The Chinese nexus with the North Myanmar-based rebel groups has been used primarily to promote Beijing’s commercial interests. Many Chinese companies have taken up energy, mining, and oil pipelines projects in the area which has a tenuous link with Naypyidaw.
Chinese interest in the north-east region of India dates back to the early days of India’s independence from the British yoke in 1947. What brought this into play was the desire to retain its influence in SE Asia, Indo-China, and NE region of India which is contiguous to South East Asia. So came the concept, BRACHIN, followed by much more ambitious project, Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front, IBRF.
BRACHIN signified areas of Brahmaputra in India and those in Chin and Kachin States of Myanmar. It failed to click due to a variety of factors in the ideological and political realm. Both the Chins and Kachins refused to subordinate their Christian faith to the Chinese ideology.
The IBRF is not dead, not as yet, but is not in the original trajectory; its game plan is to bring together all Mongoloid tribes in NE India and areas further east, and link up with their cohorts in Myanmar. Put differently, the IBRF was a mischievous front organization and its impact was (is) felt in Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram. Another province, Arunachal Pradesh, is claimed as ‘Southern Tibet’.
Reports surfaced in the summer of 2015 that China could be helping the North-east rebels to set up a government in exile, probably somewhere in Myanmar. Security experts who have been Sinologists do not reject such a possibility. Because, this will be the Chinese answer to the Tibetan government in exile that operates from Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.
These reports also spoke about rebels trying to procure surface-to-air missiles (SAM) from China. Money has not been a problem for these insurgent groups. When the Chinese are not supplying them arms and ammunition gratis, they easily spare the money from their lucrative business of drug trafficking and extortion.
ISI DRUG MONEY
Interestingly, Pakistan’s ISI, which is known to export terrorism to India through its proxies like LeT and JeM, has also been using the drug money route. Back-of-the-envelope calculations show that the jihadi underbelly of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has created a slush fund of some $ 4 bn for terror-export.
The Chinese interference in India’s North-east has been continuous since the 1960s. They started training Naga rebels in 1966 quite openly. The training camp was closed down after India’s objections. But it continued to function away from public gaze. Probably, the Chinese have the mistaken notion that their bargaining position with India improves by keeping the pressure on India’s North-east.
Mizoram National Front’s insurgency in the Lushai hills (Mizoram today) was a joint venture of China and Pakistan. While Chinese leaders warmly received Laldenga, the MNF chief and his colleagues, Pakistan provided them shelter in the Chittagong Hill region of the then East Pakistan.
MNF TO ULFA
By the end of eighties, however, Laldenga gave up the gun, entered into an accord with New Delhi and joined the political mainstream of Mizoram to become the Chief Minister of the province. His decision was as much a tribute to the realization that power does not necessarily come from the barrel of a gun as a snub to the mischievous pursuits from the land of the Confucius. The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak and Muivah is presently in negotiations with New Delhi to end their insurgency on some respectable terms.
China is believed to have tried to unite rival insurgent groups so that they are in a better position to unsettle India. Many leaders of insurgent groups operating in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur are said to travel frequently to China from their hideouts in South-east Asia or neighbouring Myanmar or Bangladesh. The message is therefore loud and clear: the Chinese will not give up the policy of upsetting India in any manner merely because they have denounced IS.
In June 2015, an army convoy was attacked in Manipur, killing 18 soldiers. It was described as the handiwork of ULFA rebels, who operate from their hideouts in Northern Myanmar. This and the recovery of substantial quantities of AK class rifles, machine guns and grenades during periodic raids by security forces on the hideouts of the North-east rebels shows that the supply chain of Chinese arms and ammunition has not been broken.
The Chinese support Pakistan’s vast terror machine targeting India. They refuse to blame Pakistan when Pakistani and Pakistan-based terrorists attack India even if the rest of the world acknowledges that fact. At the UN, the Chinese go out of the way to bail out their ‘all weather’ friend Pakistan when it faces awkward moments during discussions on terror or when the question of taking action against UN-designated terror organisations is raised.
China has invested considerably in the Pakistan Army and ISI in pursuit of a ‘low –risk strategy’ for containment of India, says a Canada- based political scientist.
Speaking at a meeting of egg-heads held in New Delhi (Feb 21, 2003) Prof Ashok Kapoor from the University of Waterloo said, “China has replaced the CIA as a major source of funds for Pakistan’s ISI”.
He did not elaborate his thesis but asserted, “China is encouraging Pakistan to keep talking to India while keeping it bleedings in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere”.
The recent Jaish-e-Muhammad attacks on Pathankot air base, and the Chinese reaction thereof are a standing testimony to this Asian reality.
The Chinese, like Pakistanis, are selective in expressing their ire over terror activities. Both countries have classified terror groups into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Pakistan values its so-called ‘non-state actors’– who kill Indians, and condemns those who explode bombs within the land of the pure.
Lately, the Islamist terrorism has come to badly hurt China, and it could no longer keep quiet about the threat. Firstly religious extremism has become intense in its Uighur Muslim-dominated western province of Xinjiang. Secondly, the IS violence has taken a toll of Chinese lives in the Middle East and Africa.
China has encouraged large-scale migration of people from its interior to Xinjiang angering the local population who see it as an attempt to bring about a demographic transformation in the Muslim part of the country. Many mainland Chinese have been killed in the region by angry Uighurs.
China holds the Turkistan Islamic Party (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which has been spearheading the Uyghur cause responsible for terrorist acts at home and for attacks on diaspora in south-east Asia but remains silent over the fact that the ETIM’s safe havens are located in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The official narrative in China is that the Uyghur rebels come from Central Asia.
Elizabeth Van Wie Davis (Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu) has an interesting take on Uyghur Muslim’s ethnic separatism. “There is no single Uyghur agenda, and grievances of Uyghurs against the Chinese government are mostly political in nature. While some Uyghurs desire an independent state in line with Turkic ethnic groups of Central Asia, others desire an autonomous relation with China while retaining their distinct culture, whereas others desire extensive integration with the Chinese political system”.
If the face of terrorism in China has changed the blame rests squarely on the policies of Beijing and its wave of suppression coupled with deliberate attempts at engineering a demographic change.
Lately, reports have emerged that the Uighur rebels have joined hands with the IS to carry out attacks on Chinese nationals, in and out of the country. According to a report in The Diplomat (May 28, 2015), “since 2012 hundreds of Chinese Uyghurs have fled to Syria and Iraq via Turkey to fight against the Assad regime and later joined ISIS. Several Muslim militants returning from ISIS war zones were arrested in Xinjiang in March 2015”.
All this has naturally heightened Chinese concerns. A natural corollary is the Chinese-Speak against the IS. And anti-terrorism doctrine that invests Beijing with the right to anti-terror ops abroad and requires technology companies to assist security agencies in decrypting content. Also the possibility of China joining the international efforts for an all-out assault on IS
Yet, it cannot be said that China is unequivocal in rejecting all forms of terrorism. Because, it is unwilling to invoke its clout (rosy camaraderie?) with Pakistan to eliminate the roots of Uyghur terrorism.
Well, in this respect, China is no different from the US of America, which has been not willing to walk the talk on Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Haqqani Network and a host of other jihadi enterprises created and nurtured on the Pakistani soil for ops targeted at India and Afghanistan.
(* This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Power Politics, a New Delhi-based magazine)