The significance of geo-strategic interests, overriding the conventional ideologies, become evident with the convergence of two distinct ideologies in Pakistan and China. While Pakistan, an advocate of political Islam, support a society based on Islamic principles, China has shifted from nationalism and populism to the ideology of pragmatism. Amid myriad issues, including Pakistan’s economic, political, socio-religious and identity crisis and China’s growing tensions with the US and its allies as well as questions arising over issues like its expansionist designs, Uyghurs, and Covid pandemic, stimulated both sides for an alliance. The shared animosity with the US and India, though with a different tangent, like Kashmir issue for Pakistan and expansion of influence over the regional states for China, provides a common platform to the two countries. In this context, jihadist groups in the South Asia, offer an opportunity to them for their usage as a pawn to promote their respective vested interests.
The declination in Islamic State (IS) and allied groups’ influence in West Asia, coupled with assumption of power by Taliban in August 2021 offered China a strategic tool to expand its influence in other states in collaboration with Pakistan and prevent eruption of Islamic movement in Xinjiang, with threats from the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) activists, based in the Af-Pak region. China moved towards forging a covert understanding with Taliban/AQ groups, in lieu of its covert support to them to help expand their activities in other South Asian countries. Being an Islamic host country to such groups, Pakistan, saw an opportunity in these developments to promote its Kashmir agenda. Moreover, China’s funding diplomacy offering Pakistan a shield from US’ economic coercion and India’s pro-active coercive diplomacy as well as US’ exit from Afghan quagmire facilitated their alliance. This nexus while working to marginalise Indian interest, also rejuvenated moribund terror groups in India. With leverage over Taliban regime, Pakistan found an easy option to operate terror camps focused on Kashmir and other Indian states.
Meanwhile, with Taliban and IS-Khorasan Province (ISKP) fighting each other to further entrench themselves in the fluid situation in Afghanistan, Taliban overtly preferred, to desist from its engagement in Kashmir. However, on ISI’s behest, AQ and ISKP increased their activities in India. During last quarter of 2021, Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), through a video captioned ‘Kashmir is ours’ tried to allure local Kashmiris, though it conveniently ignored the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang from their agenda. Meanwhile, IS-Hind Province (ISHP), carrying out attack against non-Muslims in Kashmir, conveyed their intent to cooperate with Kashmiri groups. While China wants Pakistan as its proxy to keep India engaged in multi-dimensional conflicts, Pakistan, piggybacking China, wants to enhance its standing among Islamic states including OIC. Both sides intend to leverage Islamist groups against the potential rival countries. Hence, the deployment of few Pak Army officers in the Western and Southern Commands of China may seek infiltration Pak based terrorists through the Eastern Ladakh.
The spurt in killing of civilians, security forces and threats to women to observe Islamic principles coupled with enhanced usage of drones by Pakistan, to smuggle arms/ammunition in J&K and other border states, including Punjab signifies Pakistan’s bold attitude. One cannot gainsay the fact that sudden upsurge in anti-government attitude under the garb of of various movements, including Farmer’s agitation, Article 370, anti-Citizenship legislation or intemperate attitude towards Muslim community, somewhere, owe its roots to Sino-Pak nexus. It was manifested by the recent involvement of Pak-backed Khalistani elements, in the farmers’ agitation and ‘Sikhs for Justice’ involvement in the recent blockade incident of PM Narendra Modi’s convoy near Firozepur. Amid renewed efforts to infuse militancy in Indian north-east sector and West Bengal state, China’s unexplained behaviour to resort to ‘Salaami slicing’ strategy to grab Indian territory, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh is inexplicable. Moreover, China’s refusal to withdraw forces at reasonable terms at the Hot Spring / Depsang Plains indicate towards the ominous designs of Sino-Pak nexus in South Asia, for those, not falling in line with Sino-Pak interests.
Maldives forms an important part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative and ‘string of pearls’ strategy. However, pro-China President Abdulla Yameen‘s defeat at the hands pro-India Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in 2018 upset the Chinese plans. China would be keen to utilise Pakistan and Maldives’ common religious identity and OIC membership. In May 2021, a bomb attack by Islamist elements on Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Nasheed (former President of Maldives), a severe critic of Chinese activities, indicates an attempt to rejuvenate the fundamentalist elements, the scenario, apparently offering China a chance to exploit the situation in this strategic Island country. Earlier, in March 2020 a Police surveillance speedboat in the harbour of Thundi District of Gan in Laamu was set afire, followed by an incident wherein, IS elements set afire in Cheval Blanc Randheli, a luxury hotel located in Noonu Isle. Subsequently, in April 2020. Five speedboats, were damaged in an arson attack at Mahibadhoo Harbour on the Alifu Dhaalu Isle. In November 2020, Maldives police had arrested eight people, linked to IS, who were training to carry out terror attacks in the country.
Sri-Lanka, another link in China’s BRI and ‘Pearl’ strategy, was left disenchanted following loss of Hambantota port in 2017 for 99 years lease over Chinese debt trap and was gradually recalibrating its relations with India to China’s discomfiture. On October 5, 2021, India’s ‘National Investigation Agency’ arrested one Satkunam alias Sabesan, a Sri Lankan national and former member of the LTTE’s intelligence wing for arms/drug trafficking from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, to revive LTTE activities in Sri Lanka. Earlier, a series of suicide bombings in Colombo and Batticaloa on Easter Sunday in April 2019 by local Islamic extremists (National Thawheed Jammath (NTJ) and Jamaat-al Mullathu Ibrahim (JMI)), inspired by IS was a precursor to Islamist elements’ design of expanding their activities into Sri Lanka. Such a planned attack needs lot of logistic and moral support as well as expertise. It raises suspicion of involvement of some elements, who prefer Sri Lanka vulnerable and in a weaker state. Despite overt decrease in Islamists linked terror attacks post 2019 attacks, religious tensions between Muslims and the Sinhala Buddhist majority have increased and possibility of flaring up of an undercurrent of sentiments with the intervention of vested external forces cannot be gainsaid. Notably, in the prevailing security scenario, former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President of Maldives Mohammed Nasheed had termed the 2021 developments in Afghanistan, a matter of concern for all its immediate South Asian neighbours.
Pakistan-based Islamist organisations have always viewed Bangladesh as their extended area of operation not only to penetrate India but further in the Southeast region. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with support from Pak-ISI has been working to expand Islamic extremism in Bangladesh. The Chinese interest to forge close relations with Bangladesh, backed by Pak Islamist groups’ anti-India activities perfectly supplement each other’s interests.
In yet another important South Asian country of Bhutan, which China sees as the final piece in its South Asian conquests, the satellite images and analysis by U.S. data analytics firm ‘HawkEye 360’ shows that China in January 2022 enhanced its settlement-building along its disputed border, with over 200 structures, including two-storey buildings, under construction in six locations.
Nepal, over the years had become the Pak ISI’s hub and has been hosting trans-criminal gangs having hand in gloves with terror groups. Meanwhile, the deepening political crisis in Nepal offered China an opportunity to China to meddle in Nepal’s internal affairs. The Chinese road and rail infrastructure projects, including Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional connectivity network in Nepal are more in line with its own strategic goals than to help Nepal. Both China and Pakistan are aware of the significance of encirclement of India and the inability of small nations like Nepal to challenge their nexus. Chinese Vice Minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, Guo Yezhou played a major role in bringing together the Oli-led CPN-UML and the Dahal-led CPN-Maoist Centre in 2018 to form the NCP and make further territorial inroads as manifested in August 2020 by Chinese incursion in Humla District, Nepal.
China and Pakistan’s strategic relationship extends beyond south Asia to their cooperation at global platforms including UN to address their core concerns. China has repeatedly saved, already grey-listed Pakistan from further black listing by Financial Action Task Force, the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, owing to linkages between Pakistan and terror groups. In reciprocation to Chinese gesture of providing Pakistan an observer status in the ‘Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’, Pakistan is keen to include China in the ‘SAARC’ to enhance their mutual clout against their common influential rival, India, in the region. Director of the Chinese Affairs Department of the World Uyghur Congress, Kokbore, has aptly concluded that without China’s support, Pakistan cannot continue its terror sponsorship and countering China effectively would only help resolve varied South Asian issues, particularly the Kashmir issue.