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JUNE 25, 1999
T V R Shenoy
Pilgrimage to Beijing
On June 28 Nawaz Sharief visits Beijing, the thirteenth high-level visit in the last twelve months by a Pakistani to the Chinese capital. Prime minister, foreign minister, chief of army staff -- each has made the pilgrimage, some more than once. Yet China has been remarkably quiet when asked to support Pakistan. Why?
Not for love for India! China occupies thousands of miles of Indian territory and lays claim to even more. Historically, the Chinese have never seen neighbours as friends, merely as "barbarians" or as feudal tributaries. It is possible that at some point in the future China's interests shall clash with those of India. So why hasn't Beijing come out in open support of Pakistan today?
Simple: China too is worried about Islamic fundamentalism. And they have reason to worry -- some of the mujahideen killed in the Kargil invasion were Chinese citizens. Not too many, but it points to a worrying trend.
We tend to think of China as a single homogenous unit. That is largely true; roughly 90 per cent of the population is Han Chinese, a greater proportion than Russians in Russia. But almost all happen to be living in the eastern two-thirds, roughly in 18 of China's 26 provinces. That still leaves a huge expanse of territory in the western third.
The region that causes the Chinese leadership in Beijing the most concern is giant Sinkiang Uigur; at 633,802 square miles, it is larger than Britain, France, Germany, and Spain put together. It is home to Lop Nor, where the Chinese conduct their nuclear tests, and is China's richest region in strategic minerals. And, finally, 75 percent of the population is Uygur (Turkish Muslims).
Mao never trusted the Uygur. He banned their language from the schools, and moved Han families to Sinkiang to shift the population balance. Mao's successors relented a little, calculating the Uygur were cut off from their fellow believers by the vast bulk of the Soviet Union. Even the rise of the fundamentalist regime in Iran was shrugged off.
Those calculations came to naught with the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. Literally overnight, the familiar Russian presence was replaced by the newly independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Ruled by Muslims for several centuries, they include cities famous in Islamic literature such as Samarkhand and Bokhara. They are not, yet, full-fledged Islamic republics, but it would be silly to expect that they shall continue to be as secular as before.
After all, Jinnah's first speech to the Pakistani constituent assembly included the declaration: "You are free to go where you will. The State has no concern with where you worship!" And look at how Pakistan has turned out.
Like it or not, there is now a constant stream of coming and going across this vast Muslim-dominated area. China, however reluctant, cannot stand aloof. Not even when the headquarters of this fundamentalist resurgence happens to be its old friend Pakistan.
The problem began in the late 1970s when General Zia-ul Haq began wooing the clergy in Pakistan; part of the deal was patronising traditional Muslim schools at the expense of more secular institutions. For two decades, they have been churning out pupils who may not be too familiar with, say, biology or computer science, but know it is their duty to fight "infidels." That is India today, but it could be China tomorrow.
A further complication came with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thousands of Muslims poured into Pakistan, to be trained by Pakistanis and equipped with American weapons. Today, there are no less than 80,000 of these battle-hardened mujahideen still in Pakistan. If their current aim is "liberating" Muslim-majority Kashmir, why wouldn't they try the same for Muslim-majority Sinkiang?
The Pakistan army, according to the captured wireless conversations, believes that it has these militants on a leash. But the mujahideen themselves boast that if they are let down in Kargil, they shall march on Islamabad and overthrow the government. Thus far, Pakistan was a nation of three groups -- the army, the civilian government, and the people (in descending order of power). Now, there is a fourth element -- the mujahideen.
China doesn't want to do or say anything that might make life easier for these militants. India may or not be a problem in the distant future. But the mujahideen are a threat here and now, especially when they begin recruiting Chinese citizens. As long as the mujahideen are a factor, China will maintain a studied neutrality -- no matter how many times Nawaz Sharief makes the pilgrimage to Beijing.
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