Trouble Brewing Between China and Pakistan?
Sep 12, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


A senior Chinese official says separatist forces in the country's restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region have received instruction in "several training camps in Pakistan." If the statement is accurate and officially sanctioned, it signals trouble between longtime strategic allies China and Pakistan.


During a press conference for foreign journalists on Sept. 11, regional Communist Party secretary and Politburo member Wang Lequan said separatists in China's predominantly Uighur-populated northwest are receiving assistance from international militant groups, including instruction in "several training camps in Pakistan."

The statement is a shocking deviation of protocol between longtime allies China and Pakistan. In the past, Beijing has gone out of its way not to implicate Islamabad when speaking of the activities of Islamist militant groups. However, if the quote attributed to Wang is accurate and his views are official, it contains startling implications for Chinese-Pakistani relations.

Speaking about Beijing's struggle with Muslim separatist groups in northwest China's restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Wang reportedly said a small number of training camps had been found in Xinjiang since Sept.11, 2001, but that several more camps exist in Pakistan. He gave no further details.

The official's statements, reported by The Associated Press and published in the Malaysian daily the Star Online, could have been poorly translated or unsanctioned, off-the-cuff remarks. If so, Wang probably will be called to Beijing to do some fast kowtowing, while Xinhua issues a flurry of press releases extolling the importance of "harmonious relations'" with Pakistan. However, if his words reflect the current party line, a very sharp policy shift vis-a-vis Islamabad has occurred in Beijing.

About 10 million of Xinjiang's 19 million people are Muslim Uighurs, many of whom claim they are a distinct ethnic group with a right to declare their own homeland. Beijing has suppressed a Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang for more than a decade, and more than half a million Uighurs reportedly have fled from China into neighboring Pakistan and Central Asia since 1996. From there, they slip arms, aid and insurgents back across the border, aiding the rebellion.

The U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda has helped Beijing's efforts to eradicate separatists and religious extremists in the region. In May 2002, Chinese officials asked the United States to return 300 Uighurs who were captured along with Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. And in August 2002, after intense lobbying by China, the United States placed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a leading separatist group -- on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

During Beijing's battle against Uighur separatists and Islamist militants, the Chinese have conducted crackdowns domestically and across the border in Central Asia, with the help of Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, in light of its four-decade-old strategic alliance with Pakistan -- which is designed to to counter Indian and Russian power in the region -- China almost always has refrained from public discussion of separatist activities by Chinese citizens in Pakistan. Pakistan's intelligence services have been known to support Islamic militants in Kashmir, and both Islamabad and Beijing have preferred to keep such sensitive discussions out of public view.

In fact, Beijing once tended to publicly reject the existence of Uighur separatists or Chinese Islamist militants in Pakistan. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao acknowledged during a November 2001 press conference that ETIM members were in Afghanistan and had received support and training from al Qaeda and the Taliban. But in the very next breath, he denied that these forces also were in Pakistan.

However, in May 2002 , Wang announced that Pakistan had caught ETIM's third-highest leader, Ismail Kadir -- reportedly while he was meeting with Muslim groups in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir -- and handed him over to Chinese authorities. Although the Kadir case was an explicit example that dissident Chinese have sought refuge in Pakistan, it nonetheless provided evidence of cooperation between the two allies. It also showed that in some sense, Pakistan is willing to crack down on Islamist militants, though Washington and New Delhi have called for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to do more.

That said, if Wang's recent statement about China's separatist camps are accurate and official, it raises an intriguing question about what may be happening behind the scenes between Beijing and Islamabad.

Trusting allies don't make public allegations; discussions of sensitive matters are conducted behind closed doors. And yet, relations between Pakistan and China otherwise appear stable and very positive. During a meeting between Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider and a Chinese delegation, the two sides agreed to establish a Joint Working Group "for closer collaboration in combating terrorism, extremism and other trans-national crimes." The two countries also signed a defense assistance protocol on Sept. 5.

Either Wang's statement is an anomaly of poor reporting or a slip of the tongue -- an explanation that we find unlikely, since he was speaking in an official capacity at an open press conference -- or something subtle and disturbing is brewing between Beijing and Islamabad. The question is, which is it?