A cricket star turned politician, Imran Khan, called Taliban a terrorist group in UpFront on Al Jazeera in 2016. Answering Mehdi Hassan’s quick question “Do you consider Taliban to be a terrorist group”, he answered in an assuring manner that “Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, they are. Anyone who kills innocent people is a terrorist.” In an interview to Fox News, he said “And yet it was ISI that gave the information which led to the location of Osama bin Laden. If you ask CIA it was ISI which gave the initial location through the phone connection.” Imran Khan changed his stance now and considers Osama Bin Laden to have died for a noble cause – a cause that is considered terrorism in the civilized world.
Recently, in the National Assembly session, he made a controversial speech in which he explicitly called Osama Bin Laden a martyr who was killed by the Americans. While the extremist segments in Pakistan may welcome the gesture of Imran Khan, Beijing will certainly see it as a potential threat even if the Prime Minister takes his words back for it was not a slip of tongue but the gesture showcases an ideology. A confused response to the most important issue pertaining to stability in Pakistan by the national leadership sends signals of mistrust to Beijing. To Beijing, stability matters the most.
China is a prisoner of its geography. The China-Afghanistan border was enacted as a result of the 1895 agreement between Russia and England – a deal involving neither the Afghans nor the Chinese. The thin strip that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan meets with Xinjiang. The western region of China lacks development and Beijing views the activities in Xinjiang autonomous province with keen eyes. China is blamed to disrespect human rights there in re-education camps. The separatist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is frowned upon by the Han Chinese. Andrew Small writes in his book “The China Pakistan Axis” that a leaked Chinese government document in 1998 listed Uighur independence movements as the main threat to the stability of the Chinese state.” With Xinjiang having border with eight countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan, any religious instability that can destabilize China enrages Beijing.
The extremist segments in Pakistan are accused of having links with Xinjiang’s internal instability, though at a limited scale. During the Operation Silence at the Red Mosque of Pakistan in 2007, twelve Uighars were killed. This operation was launched because the Red Mosque students, considering themselves as the ultimate custodians of Islam, took the responsibility to impose a self-hypothesized version of sharia in Islamabad and abducted Chinese women accusing them to spread vulgarity. As a consequence of that operation in which the Jihadi proponent Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed, Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was formed. Pakistan had to bear a huge cost protecting the lives of Chinese from religious extremists. The damages done by TTP are hitherto unseen in Pakistan’s history.
Pakistan has always enjoyed the support of China with the only exception of the former’s sympathy toward the religious militancy. The abduction of Chinese workers and engineers from Pakistan over the course of time had given sleepless nights to many in Beijing. When the ideology of sympathizing with terrorists revive, it gives setbacks to peace efforts by the civilian and military leadership to curtail terrorism in the war against terrorism in which seventy thousand lives have been lost in Pakistan. The opposition lambastes PM Imran Khan for his callous statement of applauding Bin Laden. Trivializing a highly sensitive issue puts question mark on the role of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in countering terrorism. China looks forward to a perpetual peace that Pakistan officially claims to achieve by combatting terrorism.
For China, “it’s the economy stupid”. To drive the economy, China looks forward to stability. Zhu Rongji, the then premier of China, advised Pakistan’s president General Musharaf in 2001, “Investors are like pigeons, when a government frightens them with poor decisions, they all fly off together”. China needs a stable Pakistan and a stable Afghanistan to rise peacefully. It aims to complete the Belt and Road project by 2049 – celebrating 100 years of creation of the People’s Republic of China. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is its flagship project. Pakistan relies heavily on CPEC for economic growth. It is equally important for both the states. With the revival of fresh air of militant ideology, a single spark can start a prairie fire in Sino-Pak relations. Pakistan needs to think twice before appeasing extremists for it can lose the only friend in the region.