Recent news reports on the alleged arrest and detention of 50 Uyghur women married to Pakistani men from Gilgit Baltistan and a resolution passed by the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) demanding the federal government in Pakistan take steps to release these women exemplify the escalating on-ground mistrust between the so-called “iron-brothers.”
Gilgit Baltistan is significant for both China and Pakistan since the region serves as the gateway to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which has seen a $62 billion investment by the Chinese.
The Uyghur presence in Baltistan is nothing new; marriage between the people from Gilgit Baltistan and Xinjiang has been a frequent affair. Recently, China’s increasing crackdown on Uyghurs in the name of the “war on terror” appears to be extending toward Uyghurs outside Chinese borders. As part of the larger standardization, surveillance, and securitization measures adopted in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities had started arresting people married to foreigners and among those were the wives of the Gilgit Baltistan men who were mostly traders.
But this shouldn’t be read in isolation. There were media reports last year about the arrest of Pakistani nationals in China who were involved in drug trafficking especially through the Khunjerab pass into Xinjiang. Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Security of China has taken the decision to withdraw passports issued to women married to Pakistan nationals.
The Pakistani authorities have maintained their now routine silence, offering their assurance to the Chinese government in their attempts to remain China’s “trusted ally.” This is not surprising in the context of 2017 BRICS Summit held in Xiamen where, unlike in the past, Beijing agreed to call out and condemn Pakistan-based terror groups like the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). This was considered as a major move as China had been proactively engaged in blocking the United Nations Security Council from listing JeM leader Masood Azhar as a globally-designated terrorist.
Political Islam and Securitization
Since September 11, 2001, China has persisted in linking growing Uyghur resentment with the radicalism of global jihad, although there is no enduring evidence that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is linked with the Uyghur resentment or other threat perceptions. However, in the recent crackdown under Xi Jinping, the objective of the Chinese state in Xinjiang is the securitization of the Uyghur management as part of the broader counterterrorism narrative. In this process, the Chinese state is attempting to re-engineer the Uyghurs through secularization of Xinjiang public sphere.
China’s engagement with Islam has always been complex because of China’s sensitivity towards transnational religions and the separatism or splittism in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang issue and the security discourse preoccupy China’s CPEC and it has emerged as China’s remedy for the Xinjiang issue. The Chinese state has always expressed its concerns over Islamization of the Xinjiang region, but this concern is dominated by an attack on anything related to the Islamic faith in their recent regulations that are very intrusive in nature violating religious rights of the Uyghur ethnic population. Many aspects of Uygur cultural and religious life are now being deemed ‘abnormal’ and ‘manifestations of extremism.’
The same propaganda also attempts to prevent Uyghur teachers, students, and civil servants from fasting during Ramadan. This initiative restricts children under the age of 18 from entering mosques and suggests the need to send Uyghur children to schools rather than madrasas attached to mosques. Moreover, the Chinese state has emphasized the supremacy of the Chinese Constitution in comparison to the Quran.
These measures are counterterrorism measures rather than secularization as claimed by the Chinese state, and often the state ends up blaming anything and everything about Islam. This is the context when the Xinjiang security state extends its tentacles to outside its boundaries to Pakistan, suggesting there is no compromise on issues of domestic stability and security.
The rampant securitization measures in Xinjiang are often expanded to drug trafficking from Pakistan especially through the Khunjerab pass into Xinjiang. Many Pakistanis living in Xinjiang Region have been either arrested or placed under watch by Chinese security agencies. This “no compromise” position and the crackdown on Pakistani nationals and the arrest of Uyghur women in Pakistan enable to understand the nature of Chinese involvement in CPEC and its priorities.
All-pervading National Interest and Security Model
Despite the all-weather alliance with Pakistan, the pattern that emerges from China’s engagement with Pakistan in the context of CPEC is not different from how the Chinese approach their outside projects and investments. China’s principled position of noninterference and sovereign equality of states reflects why China is welcomed in countries like Pakistan. Moreover, China’s image as a status quo power and exporter of goodwill and consumer goods is appealing.
But the major challenge China faces at this critical juncture is the trust deficit towards Chinese investments and interests that can translate into Sinophobia. China’s increasing business interests are received with varying degrees of acceptance, mistrust, and tolerance, while political elites often welcome China aiming the economic opportunities. However, this raises concerns among the general population, reflecting the regime-people divide. This is the general trend that has been emerging in both Central Asia and South Asia with respect to Chinese investments and infrastructure development. The concerns raised by Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) and the federal government’s silence reflect the regime-people divide on Chinese interference in Pakistan.
The Chinese position here represents its major concerns and showcases its capacity to shift its stance from the defense of Islamabad to put effective pressure on Pakistan to abandon its selective approach to combating terrorism, while prioritizing China’s domestic security and stability as its primary concerns.
China’s pledge of noninterference into the internal affairs of another country and its proactive diplomacy challenge the political and military understanding of intervention and raise concerns about the definition of China as a benevolent hegemon. The nonintervention consequently remains a discursive tactic that continues to prevent any outside critic from interfering with China’s political preferences.
As CPEC is China’s flagship program and largest foreign investment, China wants to ensure its success. The Xinjiang security model has thus spilled over to Pakistan, pointing out insurgency and the security concerns it raises to Chinese investments and Chinese nationals. Deployment of the security force and other Chinese interventions already caused disapproval from civil society.
This is not new for Chinese firms operating abroad, and often this has prompted the Chinese to initiate security measures for their own firms operating outside China’s soil. China’s economic diplomacy does not come free and it has always been followed and supported by the Chinese security networking. There is a strategic attempt by the Chinese to offer security to its own economic initiatives in the partner countries.
However, the security initiatives following the economic diplomacy draw challenge to China’s traditional stance on non- intervention. China’s efforts to overly depend on the political elites and the official system would undermine its larger interests in Pakistan. Though Pakistani authorities keep mum on Chinese highhandedness, the distrust among the population is evident.
The Gilgit Baltistan resolution, therefore, is not an isolated move. Since neither China nor Pakistan could afford the failure of the CPEC, local mistrust should be a serious concern. However, this underpins the discourse on the nature and positioning of Chinese power in Asia and its proactive involvement, from creating the non-western financial aid to the materialization of BRI.
Veena Ramachandran is an independent researcher working on China’s ethnic policy.