BRICS declaration: What is China playing at exactly? Does it plan on cutting Pakistan loose?

Source:  Tribune Published in World on Monday, September 11, 2017

Despite its recent defence of Pakistan against the United States on the issue of terrorism, China seems to have taken a surprising new turn on the issue.

This week, the declaration adopted by Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) at their summit in Xiamen has not only condemned terrorism but also named three key Pakistan-based terrorist groups – the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT),  Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) –  in a larger list of terrorist groups responsible for violence and insecurity.

Beginning with a condemnation of violence against “innocent Afghan nationals”, the declaration went on to firmly back the Afghan national government, as well as the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). Along with the Pakistani groups, the declaration listed the Taliban, the Islamic State (IS), the al Qaeda and its affiliates like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan and the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT).

China’s stand will affect Afghan equation

Just two weeks ago, when the US gave a stern warning to Pakistan for providing safe havens to terrorists, China came to its defence noting that,

“Pakistan is at the frontline of fighting terrorism, has made sacrifices in fighting terrorism.”

This is a message for Pakistan and it should not be overlooked. There is a message for India as well and it is foolish for sections of the Indian media to see this as a victory over China.

 Such declarations are consensus documents and Chinese being the hosts steer their drafting

Had the Chinese not wanted it, the language on the Pakistan-based groups would have been kept out. The Chinese may well show this as a concession to India, but it is in fact a well-considered shift in Chinese policy with larger aims which will become clearer over the year.

The decision by hosts China to categorically name groups has major implications. First, the prominent reference to Afghanistan and the actions of the Taliban and the Haqqani group appear to be a riposte to the recently announced US policy on Afghanistan.

In naming the Haqqani group and coming out in strong support of the ANDSF, the Chinese are putting the squeeze on Islamabad and creating space for inserting themselves into the Afghan equation.

Seriousness of purpose

At the same time, the Chinese may be seeking to remove what has become a recent thorn in the side of Sino-Indian relations – Beijing’s technical hold on preventing the United Nations’ (UN) al Qaeda Committee from including the name of the Masood Azhar, the chief of the JeM, in its list of banned terrorists. The JeM itself had been listed by the Committee earlier in 2001 and China went along with it. But when it comes to Azhar, China has claimed that India had not provided enough evidence against him and so even now we should not assume that the hold will be lifted.

Of course, signing declarations and implementing them are two different things. Realpolitik considerations are always there and, even if there is seriousness of purpose, it is not easy to implement cooperation in the area of security and counterterrorism.

Even so, by specifically naming groups like the Haqqanis, JeM and the LeT, China has taken a significant step that could not have been taken without some forethought and it could mark a policy shift on the part of Beijing.

It is not that China is cutting Pakistan loose. Indeed, the opposite could be the case. Beijing could well be drawing Islamabad into a closer embrace. After putting down money through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China is seeking to promote peace and stability in the Af-Pak region, both as a means of getting a return on its investment as well as displacing the US as the principal actor in a region China considers its periphery and a strategic one because of Xinjiang and its One Belt One Road (OBOR) plans.

Period of Chinese activism

China could actually be thinking of an even larger role here. It is significant that in his remarks at the BRICS Business Forum on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping got a round of applause when he declared that “terrorists will have no place to hide” if the world community took “a holistic approach to fighting terrorism in all its forms and address both its symptoms and root causes”.

What Jinping meant was also explicated in the speech when he spoke of the need for dialogue and consultation for the political settlement of issues behind the Syrian, Palestinian and Libyan issues. In that sense, the new Chinese shift could well presage a period of Chinese activism on global issues ranging from Afghanistan to Syria and the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Impact on India-Pakistan bilateral relationship

There is an obvious and unstated corollary here – the need to settle the India-Pakistan issue. In recent times we have seen both the US and China offer to mediate on the issue. India has snubbed both proposals because it believes that bilateral talks are the only way of dealing with the issue.

There is also a larger message in the more forthright approach to terrorism visible in the Xiamen declaration: The original imperative of BRICS – promoting economic growth. This requires peace and stability, especially in the neighbourhood.

The threat of terrorism, especially from the collapsing IS, is actually growing and China also has to deal with the Korean nuclear tensions and a possible trade war with the US, so this could be a good time to take a step to promote better ties with India.

This post originally appeared here.

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

The author is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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Written by Manoj Joshi