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Re-tuning a partnership

Ananth Krishnan Beijing

Photo: Reuters

Is China quietly pushing its all-weather ally to finally get its act together on curbing terrorism? Two high-profile meetings in April and May between the close allies saw Chinas leadership press their Pakistani counterparts to deal with what Beijing sees as a growing impediment to its ambitious $50 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), according to reports.

In April, Chinese president Xi Jinping in his meeting with Pakistan prime minister Shahid Abbassi at the Boao Forum in southern China reportedly suggested relocating Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed to a West Asian country amid increasing international pressure to take action on him. An aide to the PM was quoted as saying Xi spent 10 minutes in a 35-minute interaction on Saeed. This notion was pooh-poohed by Chinese officials as baseless and shocking and viewed sceptically by several Beijing observers, who pointed out that such matters are usually left to lower-level officials and that the Chinese president rarely dwells on such specific cases seen as below his pay-grade. What Xi did do at the Boao meeting was to encourage Pakistan to have friendly relations with India. This comes amid rising concern among many Chinese economists of its planned investments in several Belt and Road countries, with Pakistan seen as top of the high risk destinations.

Terror was also on the agenda in May when the Peoples Liberation Armys top-ranking General Zhang Youxia, who is also vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by Xi, made a rare visit to Pakistan. Pakistani media reports said General Zhang highly appreciated the Pakistan armys safeguarding of CPEC. The PLA general also said that China wanted close cooperation with Pakistan to ensure security of CPEC.

Beijing has in the past shielded Pakistan from international censure on terrorism, most notably at the UN Security Council sanctions committee, where it has blocked efforts to list the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar. In February, however, China decided to stay neutral when Pakistan was placed on a grey list of terror financing by the Financial Action Task Force. Chinas stand on Azhar emerged as a big sticking point in relations with India since 2016, although there is currently no pending application at the UNSC.

Chinese officials have in the past slammed such listings as being politically motivated, and preferred to privately pressure Pakistan even as it mounted a public defence of its ally. Many Chinese experts believe that this approach has generally worked as far as Chinas interests in Pakistan are concerned, specifically regarding the presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorists there, with China not bothered by the blind eye towards anti-India terror outfits. With Chinas interests today growing manifold in Pakistan, thanks to CPEC, is Beijing beginning to look at things a little differently


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