There is an increasing scope for counter-terrorism cooperation between China and South Asia, given the commonalities shared by these countries in their current security crises. Within several South Asian countries, Al Qaeda’s terroristic operations persist, either directly or indirectly, while the threat of IS looms large. In tandem, China’s Xinjiang region is in direct line of IS’s envisioned growth, as declared by its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in a video released on 4th July, 2014[i]. This holds not only potential security consequences, but immediate economic consequences, given China’s dependence on crude oil from the Middle Eastern region (in 2014, more than half of China’s total imports constituted Middle Eastern crude oil)[ii]. Moreover, the existing turbulences in Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region are likely to exacerbate with the proliferation of international terrorism in South Asia. Subsequently released putative IS statements further reinforced the threat[iii].
However, significant obstacles to multilateral cooperation remain. Intra-regional cooperation on counter-terrorism in South Asia has faltered in the face of the age-old challenge of “state-sponsored terrorism”. While sovereign states are not deemed to be terrorist entities, state support of non-state actors perpetrating terrorism is a matter of growing concern across the world. However, in no other region of the world has it stunted intra-regional cooperation as it has in South Asia, where India and Pakistan’s positions have remained irreconcilable. India’s allegations against Pakistan have ranged from the overarching charge of providing safe havens and training facilities to terrorists that target India, to a number of highly specific accusations as to instances of terrorist attacks on India.[iv].
Some measure of consensus on how “terrorism” is conceptualized is essential to international cooperation. This is evidenced by China’s own divergence of view with Western states which has been a perennial impediment to their counter-terrorism cooperation[v].
Notwithstanding the challenges to cooperation in this region, there is a compelling rationale for pursuing a coordinated counter-terrorism strategy. In the first place, tensions between India and Pakistan, although unlikely to dissipate, may dilute considerably in the face of the common threat posed by IS. Moreover, China has a valuable instrumental role to play here. The fine balance China has maintained in pursuing cooperation with India, and yet maintaining its staunch support of Pakistan makes it an apt mediator of regional tensions. China has thus far skirted round the diplomatic minefield of acknowledging terroristic allegations against states[vi]. However, this is unlikely to remain the case in the imminent future. The Chinese government is now likely to be prompted to action by the recent IS video which has evinced the powerful reality of the threat to its people. The “all weather friendship” of China and Pakistan is a firm foundation for the delicately balanced pressure that is required in South Asia. This can offset the instinctive guardedness that marks interstate dialogues on issues of terrorism in this region.
There are semblances in the South Asian and Chinese conceptualizations of terrorisms, as neither view terrorism as an exogenous threat, but rather as one rooted in their domestic sectarian conflicts. This parity of perception provides sturdy groundwork for a comprehensive scheme of counter-terrorism that meets the specific cultural, political and social needs of these countries.
There have been piecemeal attempts at cooperation. China and Afghanistan’s strategic alliance has included close cooperation in counter-terrorism. China has also worked with Pakistan towards their shared objective of exterminating terrorism. Between China and India, there is a joint statement on counter-terrorism cooperation[vii]. Given the robust arms’ trade between China and Bangladesh, there is also clear potential for security cooperation[viii].
China leads multilateral cooperation in counter-terrorism, but these initiatives have thus far excluded South Asia. China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have formed a quadrilateral intelligence-sharing agreement[ix]. Similarly, the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (RATS SCO) has engaged China with several Central Asian countries in counter-terrorism cooperation[x]. While both India and Pakistan and observer states to the RATS SCO, the South Asian region is not part of this endeavor.
The international threat of terrorism we face today is unlike all preceding breeds. Terrorist networks sprawl across the globe, and this strategic decentralization cannot be met by counter-operations that remain confined within state borders. Terrorists have magnified global presence through their dense web of allegiance. This must be surpassed by a multiplicity of interfaces for confronting and overpowering terrorism, which can be achieved through counter-terrorism cooperation that arches over national boundaries. There is much to be gained in both the national and international fights against terrorism through a framework for regional cooperation between China and South Asia.