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China’s Reaction to Mumbai Terror Strikes: Pro-Pakistan Bias?

While the leadership in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been very prompt in conveying (27 November 2008) its condolences to India on the Mumbai terror losses, it took some more time for Beijing to formulate an official position on the terror issue; when it finally came in the form of an appeal (Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, 4 December 2008) to both India and Pakistan “ to strengthen dialogue and bilateral cooperation”, the priority being felt by China to defuse the situation and adopt a cautious and neutral position on the developments became evident. New Delhi, at the same time, may not have missed the significance of Beijing’s failure at government levels to take notice of India’s claims that the strikes were carried out by ‘elements’ based in Pakistan.

In the matter of policymaking, the authorities in the PRC customarily rely on the inputs from non-governmental strategists, academicians and analysts, all belonging to various institutions receiving patronage of the Party and State. Viewing in this context, what the Chinese experts are saying on the terror attack on India, certainly deserve to be taken as pointers to the future directions of China’s policy towards India and Pakistan.

A number of articles about the terror strikes on India, written by specialists in China, have appeared and continue to appear in the Chinese language publications, apparently meant for the country’s domestic audience. In fact, the urgency being felt in the PRC to dwell on the subject along with wide participation in it from the country’s intellectual circles is indeed remarkable. It only reveals that China is taking the geo-political issue arising out of the terrorist attack very seriously, with an objective to draw suitable lessons and factor them in its impending regional and counter-terrorism policy formulations.

The articles have been found to contain following prominent themes:

An India- Pakistan war is possible

In contrast to a Chinese diplomatic assessment (PRC Ambassador in Pakistan, PTI, 6 December 2008) ruling out the possibility of an India-Pakistan war in the wake of Mumbai terror attacks, various internal evaluations in China are indicating the chances of such a war to erupt in the near future.

As per an assessment entitled, “ India-Pakistan War Getting Near and China Makes Preparations”(China Institute for International Strategic Studies- CIISS, Chinese language, 4 December 2008), India’s plan to suspend the five-year-old ceasefire agreement, whenever comes, could be a signal to start of a war at any time. Echoing the same view, a second article (CIISS, 4 December 2008) entitled, “ India-Pakistan War is Near and China Reinforces Troops in the India-Pakistan Border”, mentions about the reported visit of one Indian official to China on 3 December 2008 and another ‘secret’ one paid earlier by a high level Pakistan official to Beijing, as signs that the situation has become serious.

A third signed comment captioned, “ Only China Can Stop India’s Retaliatory Fourth War Against Pakistan”(Xibu network, Chinese, 5 December 2008), states that ‘under conditions of a powerful India and a weaker Pakistan’, India may utilize the opportunity of the terror attack situation to launch a punitive war against Pakistan in order to further weaken the latter’s power and enhance its control over the disputed Kashmir. By hitting alleged terrorist bases in Kashmir, India may eye on capturing more Kashmir territory. The analysis adds that though India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, a conventional war is still possible.

Support may be given to Pakistan in the case of war

The main current in the opinions of China analysts seems to be in favour of preventing by China of a fourth India-Pakistan war. This being so, options for China if a war breaks out, are also being discussed, which include support to Pakistan and launching a diversionary attack in the Sino-Indian border to put pressure on India.

‘China can firmly support Pakistan’ in the event of a war, says an analysis (CIISS, 4 December 2008), adding that while the latter could benefit from its military cooperation with China while fighting India, the PRC may have the option of resorting to a ‘strategic military action in Southern Tibet to thoroughly liberate the people there’. A write-up next day (CIISS, 5 December 2008) has been more categorical; it says that an India-Pakistan war will not be in China’s strategic interests and that Beijing-Islamabad alliance is meant to give advantages to the PRC on the Sino- Indian border issue. In the context of a possible war, it stresses the importance of the ongoing China-Pakistan cooperation to link Kashmir with China through the Karakorum highway project, an expansion programme for which was announced on 16 November 2008. Stating that during the second India-Pakistan war, China had lent its support to Pakistan, but the same did not happen in the third conflict due to constraints that arose in China due to the Cultural Revolution factor, the comment declares that this time, the PRC would like to ‘display its capacity to influence’.

Root causes for terrorism lie in India

Deserving special attention is a trend among Chinese specialists to look for terrorism causes within India. Academicians like Prof Li Wei of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations- CICIR, think (The Times of India, 4 December 2008) that terrorists who carried out the attacks in Mumbai came from within India. Interestingly, other Chinese analysts are taking the cue from him and link the attacks with social contradictions in India. None of them have so far taken notice of India’s claims that the ‘elements within Pakistan,’ are responsible for the terror strikes. Their pro-Pakistan bias is thus visible.

In the view of Liberation Daily (Chinese, Shanghai, 29 November 2008), the Mumbai attack has exposed the internal weakness of India, a power that is otherwise rising in status both in the region and the world and proving its capacity to reach the moon and intervene in Somalia etc. It says that the root cause for terrorism lies in the country’s social contradictions. Quoting what scholars have said (Prof Shen Dingli of Fudan University and Professor Hu Shisheng of CICIR), it points out that only a small number of groups in India have benefited from economic development. Another analysis (Xinjing Bao, 29 November 2008) takes a dim view of the ‘home-grown terrorism’ in India and the ‘internal political struggles’ on issues like POTA. A signed article (CIISS, 29 November 2008) specifically focuses on the Muslim backwardness in India and remarks that the marginalized Muslim community is confronting the authorities in an effort to balance. While stating that the Mumbai attack has its domestic roots, it also acknowledges the help and guidance to the terrorists in India coming from international terrorist organizations.

Lessons to be learnt from the Mumbai attack for security of Xinjiang

It is not surprising that the Chinese experts are laying emphasis on the need to learn from what happened in Mumbai in the context of maintaining stability in the Uighur-muslim dominated Xinjiang. The level of Eastern Turkestan terrorist activities in that region is going up and top priority is being given to the counter- measures from the government.

A notable comment (Chongqing Evening Post, 4 December 2008) feels that learning lessons from Mumbai attack is a must and highlights in this connection the warning of Iranian President that Mumbai terror plotters may possibly launch an attack on China. In the views of some terrorism experts in China (for e.g Professor Li Wei of CICIR, www.china.org.cn, 29 November 2008), Mumbai attack’s ‘unprecedented scale and sophistication’ and ‘multi-pronged approach’ merit a close study, in connection with Xinjiang situation.

Overall, on the basis of remarks at both official and non-governmental levels in China on the Mumbai terror attack, certain trends can be traced at this stage, which are given below:

  1. In its own strategic interests, China may not want any instability in its neighbouring South Asia region and as such, it would ‘use its influence’ to prevent an India-Pakistan war.

  2. If war erupts despite its efforts, Beijing may have no other option except to drop its official neutrality so far kept and support Pakistan; Chinese resorting to a diversionary tactic like creating tensions in the Sino-Indian border cannot be ruled out. Relevant to this situation would be the reported Chinese reinforcements near India-Pakistan border and Beijing’s obligation to protect Pakistan as per the 2005 China-Pakistan friendship treaty. However, China may be required to weigh carefully the potential damage that such support to Pakistan may cause to the present level of Sino-Indian ties, which it itself admits as facing ‘best period in history’.

  3. Chinese non-admission so far of the role of ‘elements’ within Pakistan in the Mumbai attack, stands in contrast to their recognition in the past of the training given to Uighur separatists in Pakistan camps

  4. China now sees signs of an internally weak India; it seems to have started perceiving a degree of disequilibrium in the comprehensive national strengths of the PRC and India. This may have implications for future Sino-Indian equation and in a larger perspective, even for China’s future policy towards South Asia; Beijing has so far preferred to keep the latter ‘balanced’, but will this continue?

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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