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Perspectives on India-China cooperation in combating terrorism: C3S Interview with Col. R. Hariharan

Image Courtesy: Twitter/MEA India

C3S Interview 007/2019

India and China share common concerns about the spread of terrorism worldwide. Their concerns on terrorism grew with the rise of Al Qaeda and later on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) spreading their tentacles in many countries of the world, including in the region. Counter-terrorism cooperation has figured as one of the issues discussed at India-China formal and informal meetings for nearly two decades. At the recently held Mamallapuram informal meeting (now termed as Chennai Connect) between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, one of the issues discussed was counter-terrorism cooperation.

In the context of the Chennai Connect, Ms. Situ Kumari, Research Officer, C3S interviews Col. R. Hariharan, VSM (Retd.), an MI specialist of the Indian Army on South Asia and Terrorism and Insurgency, and Member, C3S, on the scope and limitations of counter-terrorism cooperation between India and China.

Q 1. What are your views on the Modi-Xi informal meeting at Mamallapuram, particularly on combating terrorism, which was one of the topics of discussion?

We have to study the Mamallapuram informal summit (now known as Chennai connect) in the overall context of India-China relations, to understand India-China cooperation on combating terrorism. These one to one informal meetings reflect the continued efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping to maintain cordial relations between the two Asian giants, despite periodically complex bilateral and international situations threaten to cause friction and misunderstanding.

The Wuhan informal meeting held after the 72-day long military confrontation at Doklam defused the tense situation between the two countries. The Chennai Connect was held after India became seriously concerned at China’s all-out support to Pakistan, both bilaterally and internationally over India’s action to abolish Article 370 of its constitution giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir. As it is an informal meeting the focus was on efforts to understand each other’s sensitivities than evolving solutions. This is evident from the MEA press note of October 12 on Mamallapuram worded in generalities, rather than specific actions. It summed up the meeting saying: “The two leaders shared their mutual vision on goals for the development of their respective economies. They agreed that the simultaneous development of India and China presents mutually-beneficial opportunities. The two sides will continue to adopt a positive, pragmatic and open attitude and to enhance appreciation of each other’s policies and actions in line with the general direction of their friendship and cooperation.”

On the issue of terrorism, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) note said: “Both leaders are concerned that terrorism continues to pose a common threat. As countries that are large and diverse, they recognized the importance of continuing to make joint efforts to ensure that the international community strengthens the framework against training, financing and supporting terrorist groups throughout the world and on a non-discriminatory basis.”

However, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in his official summing up of the meeting did not mention anything related to discussions on combating terrorism. However, China’s actions and statements after the Chennai Connect have shown that China was playing down concerns on terrorism threat because India’s emphasis is on recognizing Pakistan as the source of global terrorism.

Q 2. Speaking about terrorism and radicalization and the Pakistan angle, do you think that China is displaying inconsistency between speech and action?

Of course, China often takes a contradictory stand on terrorism and radicalization when it relates to Pakistan for reasons of strategic security and realpolitik. China has assiduously built its strategic security relations with Pakistan. China is heavily invested in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Pakistan’s multi-modal infrastructure development because they are vital for China’s strategic articulation in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and South and Central Asia. China’s strategic priorities in favour of Pakistan will continue to hobble it from fully cooperating with India in combating terrorism not only in the sub-continent but in any international forum if Pakistan’s interests are affected.

China had been supportive of Pakistan in international forums including the UN Security Council and the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) meetings on money laundering and terrorism financing. If FATF blacklists Pakistan, it would not only cripple its economy but adversely affect China’s huge investments made in Pakistan. China’s support of Pakistan’s objections to the abolishing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution has to be understood in this larger context.

Q 3. In spite of China’s support to Pakistan, do you think there is scope for India and China to successfully combine their efforts to tackle the menace of terrorism in the future?

Despite China’s strategic compulsions relating to Pakistan, at the global level India and China cooperation is valuable in combating international terrorism, because it covers a wide spectrum of related activities across various disciplines affecting the two neighbours. These include military and security cooperation on counter-terrorism operations, extradition of terrorist suspects, sale and trafficking in arms, trafficking in drugs and people, money laundering, evolving international protocols for combating terrorism.

Combating international terrorism had been part of the agenda of bilateral meetings at various levels between India and China starting with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s official visit to Beijing in 2005. During the visit, India and China mooted the idea of mutual consultation and cooperation on combating terrorism. This paved the way for holding periodic meetings of foreign ministers of both the countries as well as the India-China Joint Working Group on Counter-terrorism.

After the Doklam standoff, the most significant move in 2018 was the signing of an agreement on internal security cooperation to “strengthen and consolidate discussions and cooperation in the areas of counter-terrorism, organized crimes, drug control, and other relevant areas”. It could be path-breaking if pursued in earnest. (The caveat is Chinese official statements frequently contain the word “relevant” to suit the country’s ambivalent stand on some of the related issues.)

The internal security agreement was signed at the first-ever India-China high-level meeting on bilateral security chaired jointly by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and the visiting State Counselor and Minister for Public Security Zhao Kezhi.

The 8th meeting of the Joint Working Group was held in Beijing on January 29-30, 2019. Both sides assessed and exchanged views on regional and international counter-terrorism situations, areas of mutual concerns including bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

Counter-terrorism cooperation has also featured in multilateral forums where both India and China are members: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Russia-India-China (RIC) and Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) meetings. In fact in the SCO’s objective are economic cooperation and security cooperation, particularly in counter-terrorism.

But in all these groupings where India and China are members, the reference to terrorism is in generalities, avoiding naming Pakistan. For instance, at the 16th meeting of the foreign ministers of RIC, held after the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14, 2019, China said that extremist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals and those backing terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice. In spite of this, in the joint communique of the meeting, the three nations strongly condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations without any reference to Pakistan.

But there are limitations in India-China cooperation on counter-terrorism because of China’s understanding of what constitutes terrorism is that of doctrinaire Communism of Soviet vintage. China considers terrorism as one of “The Three Evils” -terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. It has always considered terrorism as one of the biggest threats to internal security and territorial integrity, which are part of China’s core interests. According to the Terrorism laws, terrorist acts as those that are intended “induce public fear or to coerce a state or international organizations by means of violence, sabotage, threats or other tactics…These acts cause or aim to cause severe harm to society by causing casualties, bringing about major economic losses, damaging public facilities or disturbing social order.”

China’s main terrorism concern has been largely related to the separatist struggle of Uyghur of Xinjiang. This was aggravated when some Uyghurs had joined Al Qaeda to take part in the war in Afghanistan. However, China’s expanding global footprint and after the BRI, there had been terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals in Syria, Pakistan, etc. So in 2015, China passed a new anti-terrorism law that allows the military to venture overseas on counter-terror operations China says it faces a threat not only from home-grown Islamists in its far western region of Xinjiang but also from militants in the Middle East, some of whom it says are from Xinjiang. As the BRI extends into Afghanistan and Iran, the scope for China’s counter-terrorism cooperation with India will increase. How the two countries will meet this need to cooperate will depend upon future developments in the Af-Pak region.

(The views expressed are the interviewee’s own.)

(Ms. Situ Kumari, Research Officer, C3S. Email id- situkumaric3s@gmail.com)

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