China and Pakistan signed an agreement on Monday to increase security ties during China’s top security official, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu’s, visit to Islamabad.
Meng has met with a number of Pakistani officials already, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Meng is also scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha during his two-day trip to Pakistan.
Malik welcomed his Chinese counterpart by stating, ““China is always there for us in the most difficult times.” For his own part, Meng said, “I have come to Pakistan to further beef up ties.”
Along with Beijing pledging $250 million of aid to Pakistan, the two countries concluded an agreement to increase their security cooperation, ostensibly to combat Islamic militants along Pakistan’s border with China.
China is obsessed with maintaining social stability among its Muslim Uighur population located in China’s Western Xinjiang region, which shares a border with Pakistan. China is concerned that the Islamic insurgency in Pakistan will contribute to its own unrest. Just last summer, Beijing blamed attacks in Xinjiang on Pakistani-trained militants.
All this notwithstanding, the United States and India almost certainly factor just as prominently into at least the timing if not the decision to ink this deal.
To begin with, China’s fears over Pakistan contributing to unrest in Xinjiang have to be tempered by the fact that the Himalaya Mountains make its border with Pakistan basically impermeable.
More importantly, however, is that the deal comes at a time when both countries’ ties to the United States are fraying.
Pakistan has been eagerly courting China ever since ties with Washington deteriorated in May following the U.S. raid on Pakistani territory that killed Osama bin Laden. Subsequently, Islamabad offered Beijing a key naval port in Gwandar and later provided China access to the mysterious U.S. helicopter that crashed during the bin Laden raid. Pakistan’s desperation has only increased in recent days as the Obama administration has publically accused Pakistan’s intelligence service of using proxies to attack U.S. troops and personnel in Afghanistan. These accusations have created somewhat of a fury in Congress, which is now threatening to further reduce U.S. aid to Pakistan.
Not wishing to scuttle improving ties with Washington, China has thus far treaded careful in response to Pakistan’s overtures. For example, it turned down Pakistan’s offer of the Gwandar port despite having long invested in its development.
With the Obama administration’s decision to upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of F-16’s, however, China’s reluctance to offend the United States has receded. China has consistently protested U.S. arm sales to Taiwan, which Beijing considers its sovereign territory. After the Obama administration’s last arms sale to Taiwan in December 2009, for instance, Beijing cut off military-to-military ties with Washington for the better part of 2010.
Although the new arms sale is not as large, China has predictably protested. At the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, while seated next to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called upon the United States to reverse its decision. Since the United States expects China to react adversely to any Taiwan arms sales, Beijing knows it has greater latitude in taking actions the United States opposes, such as strengthening ties to Pakistan.
The U.S.-Taiwanese impetus for China’s cooperation with Pakistan is further reinforced by Beijing’s recent dealings with India. Although New Delhi has traditionally been China’s main rationale for allying with Pakistan, Sino-Indo relations have been generally favorable over the past two decades.
Not so in recent weeks, however, as China and India’s navies had a brief confrontation in the South China Sea earlier this month, while India has dismissed Beijing’s objections to New Delhi’s oil and natural gas exploration projects with Vietnam. Moreover, last Friday India concluded a deal with Japan to increase bilateral security and economic cooperation. China has always viewed Vietnam and especially Japan warily- roughly speaking, Japan is to China what Pakistan is to India- and thus Beijing has every reason to counter India’s recent diplomacy with its own.
In short, while Islamic militancy is not inconsequential to China and Pakistan’s new security deal, geopolitics is likely more important.