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China Seeks Military Bases in Pakistan

Taking a page from failing U.S. policy, China seeks to embroil itself in Pakistan's restive backlands
 
 
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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).

The Chinese Muslim rebels want the creation of an independent Islamic state and are allegedly being trained in the tribal areas of Pakistan. According to well-placed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, Beijing's wish for a military presence in Pakistan was discussed at length by the political and military leadership of both countries in recent months as China (which views the Uyghur separatist sentiment as a dire threat) has become ever-more concerned about Pakistan's tribal areas as a haven for radicals.

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:

 
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