SLAMABAD - While Pakistan wants China to build a naval base at its southwestern seaport of Gwadar in Balochistan province, Beijing is more interested in setting up military bases either in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or in the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) that border Xinjiang province.
The Chinese desire is meant to contain growing terrorist activities of Chinese rebels belonging to the al-Qaeda-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that is also described as the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP).
Beijing believes that similar to the United States military presence in Pakistan, a Chinese attendance would enable its military to effectively counter the Muslim separatists who have been operating from the tribal areas of Pakistan for almost a decade, carrying out cross-border terrorist activities in trouble-stricken Xinjiang province.
There have been three high-profile visits from Pakistan to China in recent months; the first by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar; the second by President Asif Ali Zardari and the third by the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
The Pakistani visits were reciprocated by the September 28 visits to Islamabad by Chinese Vice Premier Meng Jianzhu and Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu. This was prompted by two bomb blasts in Kashgar city of Xinjiang province on July 30 and 31 in which 18 people were killed.
The explosions provoked senior government officials in Xinjiang to publicly claim for the first time in recent years that the attackers had been trained in explosives in ETIM/TIP camps run by Chinese separatists in the Waziristan tribal regions of Pakistan.
The Chinese allegation was described by many in the diplomatic circles of Islamabad as a clear sign of the growing impatience of Beijing with Islamabad's failure to control radical groups operating within its borders.
The Chinese charge was made on the basis of a confession by a Uyghur militant arrested by the Chinese authorities. Pakistan swiftly extended all possible cooperation to Beijing against the ETIM/TIP network. "Terrorists, extremists and separatists in Xinjiang province constitute an evil force," said an August 1 statement issued by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry after Chinese President Hu Jintao rang Zardari to express his grave concern over the growing activities of "terrorists" belonging to the Pakistan-based ETIM/TIP network.
In a subsequent video released on September 7, ETIM/TIP corroborated earlier Chinese claims that it was involved in attacks in Xinjiang in July.
The ETIM/TIP, run by natives of Xinjiang province, a Muslim-dominated region three times the size of France, is fighting against the settlement of China's majority Han ethnic group in the western province, describing its struggle as a freedom movement.
The ETIM/TIP maintains that the Chinese are a colonial force in Xinjiang province - which it refers to as Turkistan - and emphasizes Islam over ethnicity. Though the ETIM/TIP network on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has been much weakened in recent years in the wake of the killing of many of its top leaders in US drone attacks, hardcore Uyghur militants are still shuttling between China and Pakistan, mainly because Xinjiang province shares a border with Pakistan.
The ETIM/TIP presence in Pakistan was first confirmed when one of its founding leaders, Hasan Mahsum alias Abu Muhammad al-Turkistan, was killed by Pakistani security forces in South Waziristan in October 2003.
The next one to be killed by the Americans in a drone attack was Memetiming Memeti alias Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the ETIM/TIP chief, who was targeted in North Waziristan on February 15, 2010. Abdul Haq was succeeded by Abdul Shakoor Turkistani, a Chinese Uyghur, who is well known for his friendly terms with major Taliban groups in Waziristan.
He has taken control of overall command of Chinese and Uzbek militants in North Waziristan, due to his past association with the late Abdul Haq and late Tahir Yuldashev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Beijing believes that the Chinese rebels operating from the Pakistani tribal areas are well-connected to al-Qaeda, which not only trains them but also provides funding.
Thus, Pakistan and China, which have cooperated for a long time in the field of counter-terrorism, have intensified their efforts to nip the terrorism in the bud, especially after the Kashgar blasts.
In fact, it was in the aftermath of the May 2 US raid which killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad hideout that Islamabad started playing its China card aggressively, perhaps to caution Washington against pushing it too hard. Shortly after the Abbottabad raid, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani traveled to Beijing.
Accompanying Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar had stated on May 21 that whatever requests for assistance the Pakistani side made, the Chinese government was more than happy to oblige, including agreeing to take over operations of the strategically positioned but underused port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea on expiry of a contract with a Singaporean government company.
He disclosed that Pakistan had asked China to begin building a naval base at Gwadar, where Beijing funded and built the port. "We would be grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan," he said in a statement. Mukhtar later told a British newspaper in an interview: "We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar port."
Knowledgeable Defense Ministry sources in Islamabad say that by having a Chinese naval base in the Gwadar area, Pakistan intends to counter-balance Indian naval forces.
However, diplomatic circles in Islamabad say Beijing, which has no military bases outside its territory and has often been vocal in criticizing American moves for operating such bases, first wants to establish military bases in Pakistan, which could be followed by the setting up of the naval base.
Therefore, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie promptly dismissed (on June 6) suggestions that Beijing was carving out a permanent naval presence in India's neighborhood.
Answering questions at the 10th Asia Security Summit, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Liang disclaimed moves to build naval bases at Gwadar and at a Sri Lankan port. Emphasizing his credentials as a member of the Chinese State Council and Central Military Commission, he said:
We will have a very serious and careful study of an issue of such importance to the government and the military like the reported move for establishing naval bases in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Indeed, we will have exact plans and set up a panel to discuss it if the move were for real. However, I haven't heard of it.
Asked by Manish Tewari, the Indian Congress party's spokesman, to spell out China's core interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean area, Liang said:
The core interests include anything related to sovereignty, stability and form of government. China is now pursuing socialism. If there is any attempt to reject this path, it will touch upon China's core interests. Or, if there is any attempt to encourage any part of China to secede, that also touches upon China's core interests related to our land, sea or air. Then, anything that is related to China's national economic and social development also touches upon China's core interests.
The Chinese desire to have military bases in Pakistan is not a new one and has been discussed in the past.
An article published on the official website of the Chinese central government (www.gov.cn) on January 28, 2010, signaled that Beijing wanted to go the US way and set up military bases in overseas locations that would possibly include Pakistan. The obvious purpose would be to exert pressure on India as well as counter American influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The article stated:
Setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right. It is baseless to say that we will not set up any military bases in future because we have never sent troops abroad. As for the military aspect, we should be able to conduct a retaliatory attack within the country or at the neighboring area of our potential enemies. We should also be able to put pressure on the overseas interests of potential enemies. With further development, China will be in great demand of military protection.
Analysts say although it might not be politically feasible for the Pakistani government to openly allow China to set up military bases on its soil, Islamabad might allow Beijing the use of its military facilities without any public announcement as a first step.
The Chinese demand to set up military bases in Pakistan has gained momentum at a time when the Indian military leadership is already raising a hue and cry over the alleged presence of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir as well as in the FANA, which was earlier called Gilgit and Baltistan.
In August 2009, the Pakistan government passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order to grant self-rule to the people of the area and create an elected legislative assembly. Gilgit-Baltistan thus gained de facto province-like status without doing so constitutionally.
Gilgit Baltistan province borders Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province to the west, Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor to the north, China to the east and northeast, Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the southwest, and Jammu Kashmir to the southeast.
Although the supposed Chinese military presence in Pakistan's northern areas of Gilgit Baltistan has been a matter of intense speculation in India, it was on October 5 that Indian army chief General V K Singh went public for the first time with the Indian establishment's assessment of the kind of Chinese presence in the northern areas of Pakistan. "Around 4,000 Chinese including troops of the People's Liberation Army are present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir," Singh told journalists in New Delhi.
However, senior Foreign Office officials of Xinjiang told this writer during a briefing in Urumqi, the capital of the province, that the Indian army chief's claim was fallacious and must be based on some misunderstanding.
Despite the fact that diplomatic ties between China and India have improved in recent years, they are still at odds over territorial claims from both countries dating back to the India-China border war in 1962.
While India and Pakistan control Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Azad) and Jammu Kashmir states respectively, China claims part of northeastern Kashmir that it says is a part of Tibet. Therefore, Beijing is highly critical of India's support for the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 and set up a government in exile in the northern Indian hill town of Dharmsala.
The Indian army chief was not the first senior military official to have talked about the alleged Chinese presence in the northern areas of Pakistan.
In April this year, Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General K T Parnaik, while addressing a seminar in Jammu and Kashmir, said that the Chinese footprint in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was increasing steadily and its troops were actually present along the line of control (LoC) that divides the disputed Kashmir area.
"The Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan and the northern areas of Pakistan is increasing steadily. There are many who are concerned about the fact that if there was to be hostility between India and Pakistan, what would be the complicity of the Chinese. Not only are they in the neighborhood, but the fact is that they are actually present and stationed along the LoC," Parnaik said.
Zhang Xiaodi, the director general of the foreign affairs office in Urumqi, told this writer in a meeting on October 10 that there is no truth in the allegations leveled by Indian military officials. "There are only Chinese construction teams working in the northern areas of Pakistan on certain development projects being carried out by Pakistan and China jointly. The presence of People's Liberation Army troops there is out of question."
At the same time, there are those in the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing who view the Indian army chief's allegation against the backdrop of the Pakistan army's recent decision to include for the first time Chinese troops in military exercises along the border with the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan; the 101 Engineering Regiment of the PLA took part in exercises with their Pakistani counterparts in August this year.
Analysts say China's deepening strategic penetration of Pakistan and the joint plans to set up not only new oil pipelines and railroads but also naval and military bases, are enough to set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi and Washington. The repercussions are particularly stark for India because both Beijing and Islamabad refuse to accept the territorial status quo and lay claim to large tracts of Indian land that could come under Chinese sway once Beijing is allowed to establish military bases in Pakistan.
The fact that Gilgit and Baltistan is located in the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir presents India with a two-front theater in the event of a war with either country. By deploying troops near the LoC and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi, Beijing is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.