The past few years have witnessed a growing dialogue between India and China on countering terrorism. The issue was also discussed during the second informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Chennai earlier this month.
In the press briefing following the summit, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said that both leaders had agreed that it “was important to deal with the challenges of terrorism and radicalisation.” The MEA press release issued after the briefing added that both leaders “recognized the importance of continuing to make joint efforts to ensure that the international community strengthens the framework against training, financing and supporting terrorist groups throughout the world and on a non-discriminatory basis.”
Interestingly, the official summation of the summit from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not mention anything related to discussions over combating terrorism. The references to this from the Chinese side came in remarks by Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui and Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong.
At least as far back as the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in 2005, it has been established that both sides viewed terrorism as a common challenge, threatening peace and security and requiring comprehensive and sustained action. Apart from leader-level conversations since then, both countries have emphasised the objective of countering terror at multiple levels and forums and through different mechanisms.
For instance, there exists a long-standing bilateral Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, which concluded its eighth meeting in January this year. A few years ago, the two sides also set up a new High-Level Dialogue Mechanism on Counter-Terrorism and Security. The first meeting of this mechanism was held in July 2018. In addition, late last year saw the first meeting of the India-China High-Level Meeting on Bilateral Security Cooperation. This resulted in India’s Home Ministry and China’s Ministry of Public Security inking an agreement to “strengthen and consolidate” cooperation in the areas of counter-terrorism, organised crimes and drug control. Along with these steps, both sides are also deepening practical counter-terrorism cooperation in the form of the annual Hand-in-Hand bilateral military drills and under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation umbrella.
The above shows that there exists a certain broad congruence in terms of understanding the significance of combating transnational terrorism. Moreover, as China deepens its global engagement, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan along with conflict-prone regions in Asia and Africa, it is likely to have greater incentive to partner with like-minded states to tackle the threat from groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh. This creates a basket of shared interests for India and China to work on, whether in the Middle East or say with regard to the Rohingya issue.
Despite this, a granular assessment shows that any Sino-Indian congruence on combating terrorism is likely to yield extremely limited cooperation owing to three key factors.
First and foremost, there is a clear difference in the nature and potency of the terror threat that India and China face at home. In India’s case, its primary terrorist threat emanates from across its western border and is supported by the Pakistani state. Another key concern for the Indian state is the threat from left-wing extremism along with trans-border terrorist and separatist challenges in the country’s Northeast. In each of these cases, Beijing has a role to play. It can either amplify the problem or help contain it.
In contrast, Chinese officials tend to be far more loose-tongued when it comes to labelling incidents and perceived threats as terrorism. For instance, officials in the past have termed the Dalai Lama a terrorist and there are suggestions that protesters in Hong Kong could be tarred by the same brush. Xinjiang is where Beijing perhaps has the strongest case to make when it comes to highlighting the threat it faces from terrorism. Here too, however, by its own admission, there have been no terrorist incidents in the past three years. Moreover, the Uighur separatist cause in Xinjiang has increasingly failed to attract any meaningful international support.
Linked to this is the second factor, i.e., both India and China diverge in terms of their interests and approaches with regard to the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan. For instance, in Pakistan, Beijing’s primary objective is to ensure the safety and security of its investments, assets and personnel deployed as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), along with keeping the cross-border threat to Xinjiang in check.
From a Chinese perspective, Pakistan-based militant groups targeting India are not a priority. They are only a matter of concern on occasions when the instability they’ve fostered crosses a certain threshold that Beijing would find discomfiting or when the costs of inaction impinge on broader Chinese interests. This is a policy that is unlikely to change in the near future. Another case in point is Afghanistan where Beijing has been far more comfortable negotiating with the Taliban, whereas New Delhi has refrained from any engagement.
Finally, however flawed, India is a multi-party, pluralistic, constitutional democracy, operating on the principle of the rule of law. The People's Republic of China is a unitary governance system dominated by the Communist Party of China, guided by the principle of rule by law. Despite the challenges it faces, the Indian model to manage diversity varies from protection, preservation to assimilation. In contrast, the PRC’s approach towards minorities is increasingly focussed on sinicization. The worst of this approach is evident in Xinjiang, with the so-called re-education policy leading to mass internment of over a million ethnic Uighurs. Such policies must be abhorred by democratic societies.
It was, therefore, extremely disconcerting to watch the Indian foreign secretary draw a parallel between the diversity of Indian and Chinese societies when he spoke about the threat from terrorism and radicalisation that both countries faced following the second informal summit. The challenge that terrorism poses in diverse and open societies is indeed a question for New Delhi to ponder. However, equating the Indian scenario with the one in China does a disservice to India’s fight against terrorism.
(Manoj Kewalramani is Fellow, China Studies, The Takshashila Institution)
The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH