One constant in our foreign relations since the early 1960s has been our singularly positive relationship with China, unlike our ties with other countries, which have had their highs and lows. But how well we manage this relationship will determine whether it proves to be an all weather highway or something more mundane.
While our geostrategic value to China is self-evident, especially our ocean frontage, which would give them commercial access to the sprawling Indian Ocean and the countries on its rim, yet there are challenges to be met before that can be turned into a reality.
The problems are numerous, like religious extremism that has made us particularly inhospitable to foreigners; congenital political infighting; gross economic mismanagement and a serious erosion of state authority and state coherence. Another problem has been the mediocrity of our leaders who are totally unschooled in foreign affairs. If these problems persist, China may conclude that we are too big a risk for them to make grandiose long-term investments.
And that’s not all. Our international isolation is another risk that might make China cautious about strategic investments which would increase its dependence on us while exposing them to danger and uncertainty. All of this may cause China to revise its thinking and adopt a much less ambitious approach – not withstanding all the gibberish about our friendship being ‘higher than K-2 and deep than the Indian Ocean’.
Hence, there was alarm when the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman praised Zardari’s trip to India. Not just that. He also accused ‘a country in South Asia’, for providing sanctuary to six Muslim Uighur leaders of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement who ‘not only threaten China’s national security’ but, according to the official Xinhua news agency, ‘poses the most direct and real safety threat that China faces.’ Xinhua also made brief references to how important India-Pakistan normalisation is for China today because Beijing sees subcontinental stability to be in its strategic interest.
Such candour from the reticent Chinese is unusual but unique when directed at Pakistan, even if it is insinuated. Though implicit the message seems clear enough: our very special relationship is losing its lustre and restoring it will now require a new perspective and an updated mindset on our part in a vastly changed environment.
Of course, Pakistan has not connived in the Uighur rebel presence on our soil. And yes, the Chinese have been remiss in their handling of the Muslim Uighurs, a proud and independent people, who once had their own country (East Turkestan Republic or permutations of that) even if briefly.
The Uighurs face religious discrimination in China. They resent being forced to use a state approved version of the Holy Quran. And they have other gripes such as control of mosques and additional restrictions. Competing with other ethnic groups especially the more dominant Han Chinese is another source of tension and misgiving.
But tolerating a separatist movement on our soil is an entirely different matter. No one tolerates separatism or the training of armed separatists on foreign soil. Our own conduct is a good example of our intolerance of such separatism directed at us. Besides, in Xinxiang’s case, we are not looking simply at separatism but also at armed religious extremism (Al-Qaeda backed) who are using ethnic nationalism for ulterior motives and that too in a province of China where the Uighurs themselves, separatists and non-separatists alike, are not in the majority to begin with.
And lest some forget, China has a valid historical claim to Xinjiang. It rightly fears that the independence movement of the Uighurs, which is partly funded if not led by outside sponsors, who seek to grievously weaken China and set back the rapid economic progress that Xinjiang, has made over the past two decades. Besides, internal stability is China’s key concern, especially now that it is on a self-sustaining economic growth trajectory. So it can be expected to react very strongly to any such threats.
The Chinese government statement also suggests that Beijing takes a neutral stance on the India-Pak Kashmir dispute and is more interested in an amicable solution than continued feuding. The India-Pak hostility once served as an opportunity for China to develop a special relationship with us in order to bog down India in the subcontinent, but the situation has changed vastly.
China and India are no longer regional powers with purely localised preoccupations. China is, and India aspires to be, a world power and their interests are far more wide ranging. Indeed, learning to live with their unresolved border disputes and keeping their rivalry within manageable limits has displaced the old world syndrome in which they once lived.
In other words, China believes that stability in the subcontinent is much more in its interest than backing us against India, or letting its bilateral issues with India get out of hand.
Actually, China now regards India as being among the key players on the international economic scene with whom it shares a similar agenda for reform of global financial institutions. Their membership of BRICS, a new global grouping of emerging economies, is a significant illustration of Beijing’s new orientation.
China, therefore, like other countries, is constantly readjusting/recalibrating its strategic perspective and its regional diplomacy and we should be doing the same thing rather than continue clinging on to old perspectives, policies, prescriptions, and hang-ups.
That simply won’t do because our situation too, whether internal or external, has also changed greatly. For a start we are virtually isolated regionally and internationally. Even the special relationship with China is fading. So our foremost concern must be with internal recovery (jobs, countless other things, including bijli, pani, and countless other things) for which an enabling environment is needed.
Much will therefore depend on our relationship with India and finding a way out of the Afghan imbroglio.
A start with India can be made in the aftermath of the Siachen tragedy by finding an interim solution that puts an end to military confrontation on that glacier where even the endangered snow-leopards dare not go, not to mention the abominable Himalayan snowman. We also need other mutually reinforcing steps to steadily turn the relationship around.
Alas, for us, so much has changed around us, and so much more may change in the years just ahead that we cannot continue to pursue old world ambitions especially with old world mindsets. We are in serious danger of being left so far behind that catching up may become an impossible task – just survival alone will become our daily grind.
Decades have passed, yet Pakistan and India are virtually where they were on almost all issues. It’s high time they embraced a dynamic approach and realised that absolute solutions of their complicated problems are best left to the next generation – who hopefully will be less Kautilayan than ours.
Old style nationalism and the ‘nation state’ with its militaristic culture, historical distortions, machismo, etc, are passé. That has become a big drag. Though still important, the ‘nation state’ concept needs a makeover in order to make it more relevant.
In the final analysis, it’s the jihadist mentality that has stalled our progress and brought us to such a sorry pass. And it’s them and the victims of their political influence, both within and outside our establishment, who continue to enjoy the upper hand, while most people, including the Chinese (and others in the outside world) wait for signs of stirring and rejuvenation.
We cannot risk losing our special relationship with Beijing, which we will if we can’t make the transition from the old world to the new one, both with its opportunities and challenges.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org