China seeks military bases in Pakistan By Amir Mir
ISLAMABAD - 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
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
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
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
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
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:
We will have a very serious and careful study of
an issue of such importance to the government and the military like the
reported move for establishing naval bases in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Indeed,
we will have exact plans and set up a panel to discuss it if the move were for
real. However, I haven't heard of it.
Asked by Manish Tewari, the Indian Congress party's spokesman, to spell out
China's core interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean area, Liang said:
core interests include anything related to sovereignty, stability and form of
government. China is now pursuing socialism. If there is any attempt to reject
this path, it will touch upon China's core interests. Or, if there is any
attempt to encourage any part of China to secede, that also touches upon
China's core interests related to our land, sea or air. Then, anything that is
related to China's national economic and social development also touches upon
China's core interests.
The Chinese desire to have military
bases in Pakistan is not a new one and has been discussed in the past.
An article published on the official website of the Chinese central government
(www.gov.cn) on January 28, 2010, signaled that Beijing wanted to go the US way
and set up military bases in overseas locations that would possibly include
Pakistan. The obvious purpose would be to exert pressure on India as well as
counter American influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The article stated:
up overseas military bases is not an idea we have to shun; on the contrary, it
is our right. It is baseless to say that we will not set up any military bases
in future because we have never sent troops abroad. As for the military aspect,
we should be able to conduct a retaliatory attack within the country or at the
neighboring area of our potential enemies. We should also be able to put
pressure on the overseas interests of potential enemies. With further
development, China will be in great demand of military protection.
Analysts say although it might not be politically feasible for the Pakistani
government to openly allow China to set up military bases on its soil,
Islamabad might allow Beijing the use of its military facilities without any
public announcement as a first step.
The Chinese demand to set up military bases in Pakistan has gained momentum at
a time when the Indian military leadership is already raising a hue and cry
over the alleged presence of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops in the
Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir as well as in the FANA, which was earlier
called Gilgit and Baltistan.
In August 2009, the Pakistan government passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment
and Self-Governance Order to grant self-rule to the people of the area and
create an elected legislative assembly. Gilgit-Baltistan thus gained de facto
province-like status without doing so constitutionally.
Gilgit Baltistan province borders Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province to the
west, Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor to the north, China to the east and
northeast, Pakistan-administered Kashmir to the southwest, and Jammu Kashmir to
Although the supposed Chinese military presence in Pakistan's northern areas of
Gilgit Baltistan has been a matter of intense speculation in India, it was on
October 5 that Indian army chief General V K Singh went public for the first
time with the Indian establishment's assessment of the kind of Chinese presence
in the northern areas of Pakistan. "Around 4,000 Chinese including troops of
the People's Liberation Army are present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir," Singh
told journalists in New Delhi.
However, senior Foreign Office officials of Xinjiang told this writer during a
briefing in Urumqi, the capital of the province, that the Indian army chief's
claim was fallacious and must be based on some misunderstanding.
Despite the fact that diplomatic ties between China and India have improved in
recent years, they are still at odds over territorial claims from both
countries dating back to the India-China border war in 1962.
While India and Pakistan control Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Azad) and Jammu
Kashmir states respectively, China claims part of northeastern Kashmir that it
says is a part of Tibet. Therefore, Beijing is highly critical of India's
support for the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in
1959 and set up a government in exile in the northern Indian hill town of
The Indian army chief was not the first senior military official to have talked
about the alleged Chinese presence in the northern areas of Pakistan.
In April this year, Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General K T Parnaik,
while addressing a seminar in Jammu and Kashmir, said that the Chinese
footprint in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was increasing steadily and its
troops were actually present along the line of control (LoC) that divides the
disputed Kashmir area.
"The Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan and the northern areas of Pakistan is
increasing steadily. There are many who are concerned about the fact that if
there was to be hostility between India and Pakistan, what would be the
complicity of the Chinese. Not only are they in the neighborhood, but the fact
is that they are actually present and stationed along the LoC," Parnaik said.
Zhang Xiaodi, the director general of the foreign affairs office in Urumqi,
told this writer in a meeting on October 10 that there is no truth in the
allegations leveled by Indian military officials. "There are only Chinese
construction teams working in the northern areas of Pakistan on certain
development projects being carried out by Pakistan and China jointly. The
presence of People's Liberation Army troops there is out of question."
At the same time, there are those in the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing who view
the Indian army chief's allegation against the backdrop of the Pakistan army's
recent decision to include for the first time Chinese troops in military
exercises along the border with the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan; the
101 Engineering Regiment of the PLA took part in exercises with their Pakistani
counterparts in August this year.
Analysts say China's deepening strategic penetration of Pakistan and the joint
plans to set up not only new oil pipelines and railroads but also naval and
military bases, are enough to set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi and
Washington. The repercussions are particularly stark for India because both
Beijing and Islamabad refuse to accept the territorial status quo and lay claim
to large tracts of Indian land that could come under Chinese sway once Beijing
is allowed to establish military bases in Pakistan.
The fact that Gilgit and Baltistan is located in the Pakistani-administered
part of Kashmir presents India with a two-front theater in the event of a war
with either country. By deploying troops near the LoC and playing the Kashmir
card against New Delhi, Beijing is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the
Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books
on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The
Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.
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