'ISIS is really, a huge concern for China' –Andrew Small
Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. A specialist on Chinese policy, his research looks at US-China relations, Europe-China relations, Chinese policy in South Asia, and broader developments in China's foreign and economic policy. Small was recently in Delhi for the launch of his book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics published with Hurst / Oxford University Press in 2015. In an interview with Hardnews, Small talks about the unrest in the middle–east and especially Syria, what it means for China and how it would determine international economic and diplomatic policies. Excerpts:
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
So, what do you make of the happenings in West Asia, specifically Syria; of the change in dynamics post the Russian intervention.
There has been an intensification in the last little period of time with the attack on the Russian Airliner and the Paris attacks and now there is an urgency about the problem in Syria. There is no question that it needs to be addressed comprehensively and that necessarily involves the Russians. The Assad issue is going to be addressed simultaneously and it has to be realised that the Islamic State situation in its own right is only a part of the broader problem for the Europeans. The refugee’s situation is driven more by Bashar al Assad than by ISIS. So, you have two problems emanating from the same place at the moment. At least now with the attacks, the bombing and the refugee crisis in Europe, a number of major powers sense that the crisis needs to be dealt with rather than be allowed to fester as it has for a number of years. Things have advanced too far in the last little period of time but there is more hope for some alignment between countries than we have earlier seen.
Where do you place China in this whole scenario?
On the Syria issue, China has broadly tended to swing in behind Russia and their position is less firm than Russia’s in terms of the level of backing for Assad. Even in the UN, there have been attempts to carve out some differences between China and Russia because the two sides have their agreement and shared approaches to the Security Council vetoes and things. It hasn’t always been possible to find much daylight but I don’t think the Chinese have wanted to be in a position of just being the unequivocal backers of a government that is killing large numbers of people. It’s been damaging to their reputation in the Arab world and among populations in the streets in a number of these countries. And in addition, Islamic State is probably the most significant new terrorist threat that China has faced in a number of decades. Unlike Al-Qaeda which tended to give China bit of a pass (since Bin Laden made some very ambivalent statements about the issues in Xinjiang) ISIS has been very explicit about the Uighur cause, about East Turkistan and about the situation in Xinjiang. Because of its proximity to Turkey, it’s easy for Uighur recruits to come and join in the fighting. In fact now, the most visible propaganda that comes out from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is coming out from Syria.
So, it becomes a wider level of concern about China’s relations with its Muslim population and it only needs, of course, a small number of individuals who could, for instance, launch other attacks elsewhere in China. So, ISIS is really, a huge concern for China. If the politics can be lined up, China, unlike in the past when it has been a bit more ambiguous with the Taliban, in buying people off and things like that, this time China is unequivocally set against ISIS. We just saw what appears to be the execution of the Chinese hostage recently, which is only going to further highlight in China the problematic issue that it now faces there.
What is the level of Islamic Fundamentalism in China? Is it a very big issue especially beyond the restive Xinjiang?
Beyond Xinjiang, not really. Xinjiang, because it’s been such a special case, there have been all sorts of restrictions that have been imposed. To take one example, on Saudi mosques and Wahhabism and there are other parts of China where those restrictions have been little bit less stringent. To take one example, Kunming in Yunnan, probably saw the worst of the attacks that have taken place. At one point the attackers stopped in a place called Shadian which is a different sort of phenomenon than you would see in Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, the authorities would have been more restrictive in a sort of slightly more radicalised enclave, which may be an unfair characterisation that the Chinese counter-terrorism people give. But it certainly is the case that more leeway is given to Wahabi preachers than some other locations and the Chinese are thinking about that a little bit differently now. It’s not a large scale problem but it’s something they have tended to see as just a Xinjiang issue and actually, in the last couple of years, they have started to see some of the external terrorist threat and some of the internal risks as more of a kind of whole of China issue.
So, where does Afghanistan fit into this, the situation in Afghanistan fit into this? What do the Chinese want?
So, Afghanistan, for China, is almost exclusively a security issue and it is a security issue in three different senses. First of all, their main priority is to avoid Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants, as it was in the late 90’s under the Taliban. The second concern is that instability in Xinjiang will spill over into Pakistan itself and that in a sort of Taliban resurgence in the country. A Taliban that is too strong in the country would act as a sort of problematic inspiration in Xinjiang. The third security concern is for China’s silk road ambitions. The silk road economic belt passes through Central Asia. China’s economic ambitions to its west really rely on some degree of stability in the region and if Afghanistan acts as a destabilizing force, not just in its own right, it will be tough for relations between neighbours. There are also concerns, for instance, about proxy battles between India and Pakistan taking off in certain scenarios. These sort of things could have a serious detrimental effect on its economic and security plans for the wider region. So once it became clear that US was drawing down its presence, China has ``been active primarily in trying to push some kind of a political settlement in Afghanistan. They have long established relations with the Taliban. They have a long standing relationship with the Pakistani government and they are trusted by a lot of other parties on the Afghan side. So, they have used their good relations with all sides to try to push this peace process forward. Of course, the process has now become much more difficult and has, kind of, gone off the rails after the confirmation of the death of Mullah Omar. They are still pushing it very actively at the moment and that’s their main attempt to find a solution. They think that a political settlement in Afghanistan is probably the only outcome that is going to secure their interests.
But China also has economic interests in Afghanistan?
They do but they are relatively minor. You look at what’s happened to the copper price in the last period of time. You look at what has happened to the companies that are involved in the copper mines. I think some of the companies would happily walk away from the project. And they have some oil interests in the north of the country but they are also on a relatively small scale. Afghanistan is not going to have a major impact on Chinese oil imports. So, I think, although its often suggested that Afghanistan has great mineral wealth etc., the situation that China is in now is different and it wants to look after its own economy and the interests of its companies. But even before all of this, the scale and significance of Afghanistan’s economic interests was never especially great and it always had a kind of take it or leave it quality. I think Afghanistan has an impact on some wider economic interests in the region but it’s still mostly seen through a security prism.
And do you think Pakistan and China are on the same page when it comes to Afghanistan, the Afghan policy?
I think the two, of course, co-operate very closely in trying to be as joined as possible and at the same time, I don’t think the two see their interests in identical terms. For a period of time, China used to effectively outsource its policy in Afghanistan to Pakistan. They just let it be. They were happy just to go with the Pakistani lead on these things and they trusted the Pakistanis to look out for their interests. And there still is an element of that there. I think China is still quite heavily dependent on Pakistan for the information and intelligence that it receives and they don’t have the same depth or, of course, the expertise on what’s going on in the country. And so they still rely on the country they are closest to in the region which is Pakistan. At the same time, in terms of the relative priority of stability in the country for instance, China is far more concerned to see a stable outcome there than Pakistan which I think has been far more comfortable with instability and warfare for the sake of other political objectives. And previously, China didn’t use to weigh in on the issue. Now, it is a much bigger power than it was before, and it has a much wider set of interests. China has these specific security interests in the country and it is not as confident that Pakistan will always necessarily make the best judgement calls on some of these issues at the moment. So, China is weighing in much more actively than it was. It has put some pressure on Pakistan to deliver Taliban for peace talks. One must have seen that in the last few years in some international conferences, the two have taken slightly different positions on issues which never happened earlier.
So, what in your reckoning are the reasons for this sudden spurt in violence in Afghanistan in the past one year? Do you think China has not been able to contain Pakistan and that is what is driving this?
China is not trying to really have an impact on what Pakistan is doing meaningfully on the ground in Afghanistan, and what the Taliban are doing beyond not attacking Chinese assets and Chinese citizens. These sorts of concerns exist but as far as I am aware China is not actually asking Pakistan to, say, rein in Taliban activities. I think, a few things have obviously gone on over the last year. You’ve had the new government in place which the Taliban have been looking to test out. The new government has, of course, a lot of divisions and problems. There are good reasons for the Taliban to be pushing to test its viability. The additional challenge, of course, has been the role that the US forces have been playing. The ANSF has been left to take on many more of the operations itself. US airpower has been pulled back and it meant that the ANSF has been left to bear the brunt of things. And again, the Taliban have in certain respects, been trying to test them out. This has been the first year with scope to have a great push to see whether the government and the ANSF hold on the Taliban’s part. And then, in the last period of time we saw the leadership transition effectively from the ghost of Mullah Omar to Mullah Mansour. Mansour is a new leader who has to consolidate his position and has to do so by showing commitment to the struggle on the ground. And thus, in the immediate aftermath of Mullah Mansour’s confirmation as Taliban leader we saw some of the worst attacks in Kabul. More recently, we’ve seen Kunduz and other things. In some respects, some of these things have been on a continuum. The first two factors have meant that, in practice, the Taliban has been pushing very hard in the last period of time with the new government. With the ANSF on their own but the consolidation of the power for the new leader and even the possibility that they might go in for some talks. This is something that is of course very closely debated within the Taliban, but one also gets the sense that advances need to be made on the ground and their hand needs to be as strong as possible if they were to pursue it.