Islamists complicate ties with atheist Beijing
by KEVIN KNODELL
On the surface, it’d be easy to view Pakistan and China as two close, emerging friends with mutual distrust of India — while hedging against a U.S. government that is increasingly wary of Pakistan and assertive in the Pacific.
Beijing provides Pakistan with a wide range of advisers and equipment — including warplanes — for conventional military operations, and assists Islamabad’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, Pakistan gives China a platform to engage with the Muslim world, including backdoor talks with the Taliban.
However, not everyone in Pakistan is totally on board. In May, controversial Islamist hardliner Hafiz Sayeed of the Pakistani group Jaamat ud Dawa condemned Beijing’s policies toward Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang region — which borders Pakistan.
The speech came shortly after China hosted the Second National Conference on Religion in Beijing. During the event, Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping urged citizens to shun religion in favor of the state policy of “Marxist Atheism.” In particular, he urged people to be suspicious of Islamic customs such as halal foods.
“By uttering such statements, China is hurting its time-tested relations with the people of Pakistan,” Sayeed said. Speaking to his congregation in Lahore, Sayeed said that while China is Pakistan’s ally, “any comment that hurts our religion, Islam, is not acceptable and we urge the Chinese leadership to take it back.”
Many Uighurs in Xinjiang have become members of a protest movement opposing the Chinese government. It’s a fractured movement of disparate groups and individuals variously motivated by political activism, ethnic nationalism and religious grievances.
Last year, the Chinese military reported it killed 28 members of an Uighur group that reportedly carried out a deadly attack at a coal mine. During the battle, Chinese troops used flamethrowers to kill Uighurs hiding in caves. However, Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress claimed those killed weren’t militants and weren’t even armed.
“The Paris attacks gave China a political excuse to brazenly use flamethrowers to clamp down on unarmed Uighurs who have no just legal protection and who seek to avoid arrest,” Raxit told Reuters.
But some Uighurs have taken up arms. And not just in Xinjiang. More than 100 Chinese Muslims are fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And some militant Uighurs have taken to hiding in nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan. China has urged Islamabad to root out these militants and stamp down on Islamist propaganda possibly flowing into Xinjiang from Pakistan.
The July 2016 issue of U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office’s magazine O.E. Watch noted that while the Sino-Pakistani alliance probably won’t be seriously threatened by Sayeed or other religious figures, the dispute does have the potential to complicate relations.
“There are sympathizers and followers of Sayeed in the Pakistani military and political institutions who could be influenced by his rhetoric,” analyst Jacob Zenn wrote. “Ill will towards China could also embolden and bolster support for militant groups in Pakistan, including both religious and secular ethno-nationalist groups that target overseas Chinese workers.”
Recently, the two countries have experienced drama over delays in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The project would be a boost to Pakistan’s crumbling infrastructure and energy sector, while Beijing will get a free trade zone in Pakistan’s Gwadar port along with direct access to the Arabian Sea. The corridor would connect with landlocked Xinjiang.
But slow progress on roads and other projects has prompted Chinese officials to suggest that the Pakistani military take a larger role in the project. Currently the Pakistani military is providing security for the corridor.
While some Pakistani officials noted that the military could provide logistical aid to the endeavor, others have suggested that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party wants to maintain as much control of the project as possible so that his party can tout the corridor as a major accomplishment in the next election.
Whoever has the seat of power in Islamabad must ultimately maintain a healthy relationship with Beijing. Even if Pakistan’s Islamists are wary of their neighbors in China, military and trade ties between the two will likely bind both nations for years to come.