My article on the Chinese reaction to bin Laden's death appeared in today's The New Indian Express.
China has to be careful
The New Indian Express
21 May 2011
Operation Geronimo created a geopolitics tsunami not only in South Asia, but in the entire world. Was Osama bin Laden’s elimination the end of terrorism? His death was commented, analysed and the consequences examined all over the planet. On the eastern horizon, the Chinese leadership was not indifferent to Osama’s ‘elimination’ and more particularly, to the way the operation was conducted. Beijing hailed Osama’s death as a positive step, while keeping it low key. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said: “We believe his death is a milestone and a positive development of the international anti-terrorism effort. Terrorism is the world public enemy and China has also fallen victim to it.” She was probably hinting at the 2009 Xinjiang events.
The Global Times commented that “it should have been much easier”, considering that the US and its allies are so powerful. The Communist newspaper believed that “lack of justice in Washington’s policies toward the Middle East and neighbouring regions”, was one of the reasons for the long delay in catching bin Laden. A day after the Operation, Zhang Xin, the director of the military channel at China Central Television wrote on Sina.com (China’s most active microblogging site): “(bin Laden) single-handedly confronted the world’s sole superpower, the US… He is the greatest national hero in the history of the Arab world.”
Some comments were more extreme: “Comrade bin Laden... dedicated his youth and life to the greatest undertaking in this world—struggle against American imperialism. His sacrifice will only inspire countless people who are against world hegemony to continue forth!” It has to be noted that this type of remark is not censored by Beijing’s Great Firewall; the Communist leadership is probably not unhappy to send indirect messages to Washington. Many Chinese citizens also celebrated bin Laden’s death on microblogging sites such as Sina Wibo. They believed that he was responsible for the deaths of Han people in Xinjiang.
On May 7, an article in China Review News predicted that China will be the next target of US anti-terrorism ‘war’. It argued that before 9/11, President Bush viewed China as the main strategic rival and then when “Osama bin Laden gave a vicious blow to the US, Bush became a different person and turned to cooperate with China”. The conclusion was “9/11 changed the foundations of Sino-US relations and gave China a 10-year golden opportunity to regain strength.”
Though it was not officially stated, one factor has deeply disturbed Beijing: the US commandos intervention in a foreign country without the permission, or the knowledge, of the country. China fears that one day a similar intervention (overt or covert) could occur there. What if World Power No. 1 or the ‘world community’ were to decide, like in the case of Libya, that China does not behave properly with its people (in Tibet and Xinjiang for example), can they intervene?
True, China is larger than Libya, but this explains Jiang’s reaction to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comparison between the recent turmoil in the Arab world and China’s tough response to its opponents. Jiang accused Clinton of using inappropriate language: US had no business “to put China on par with countries in western Asia and north Africa”. Beijing has always taken refuge behind the Panchsheel declaration which asserted “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.
In the immediate future, the quarrel between Washington and Islamabad leaves some place for Beijing to maneuver and reinforce its presence in the AfPak region (let us not forget that Afghanistan is extremely rich in coveted minerals). Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s four-day visit to Beijing from May 18 should be seen in this context. Stratfor strategic website affirms: “Shortly after the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden and violated Pakistani sovereignty, (the visit) is intended to send Washington a message that Islamabad has other patrons it can turn to for help.” However, to replace the US by China is not an easy proposition: “Pakistan will find its leverage over Washington dramatically reduced at a time when its dependence on China has grown, which will lead to tensions in that relationship as well.” Beijing is in a dilemma: sending army personnel to PoK and discreetly supporting some terrorist groups may only help China’s interests in the region in a short term.
Osama’s death will, however, not change the terrorist scenario in Pakistan. If Beijing decides to use the LeT or JeM to destabilise India, it may not be easy to ‘manage’ these groups in a way that their actions do not spill over into Uyghur-inhabited areas which witnessed ethnic clashes in July 2009. Ultimately, it could be to Beijing’s disadvantage, though in 2009 the CCP signed a formal agreement with the Jamaat-i-Islami in which Pakistan’s main Islamic party agreed ‘not to become involved with Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang’. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal has a similar understanding.
For Beijing, the real dilemma is that if it wants to be a responsible ‘world power’, it needs to be careful while supporting an unreliable ‘all-weather friend’; it’s a risky game which may not bring stability in the region. Is it Beijing interest? Probably not.