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China’s Calibrated Response to Osama bin Laden’s Killing

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 13, 2011

    China’s response to the killing of Osama bin Laden was cautious and marked by a degree of circumspection. Its articulations were nuanced and measured. The fact that Beijing did not respond to the news immediately and took a little while to formulate its position was reflected in its studied response. It issued a statement on May 2, which said that it is ‘a milestone and a positive development for the international anti-terrorism efforts’ and that the international community should step up its cooperation to fight terrorism. The statement added that China seeks both a temporary solution and a permanent cure for terrorism and pointed to the importance of making ‘great efforts to eliminate the soil in which terrorism relies to breed.’1 Since China itself is a victim of terrorism, its position should be seen in that context. It may be mentioned that China faces what it calls three evils - extremists, separatists and terrorists. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), perceived to be pro-Al Qaeda, operates in the Xianjing autonomous province bordering Pakistan.

    It is no wonder, therefore, that in a subtle message to the Muslim world, the Global Times, an authoritative voice of the Chinese government, hastened to add that though many hailed Osama’s killing as a milestone in the war against terror, it cannot be regarded as a turning point. In a clear message to the US, the report went on to state: ‘The world, especially the US, should think profoundly upon the bin Laden phenomenon. Why does bin Laden command such great influence? It remains unknown whether they have devoted sufficient energy to these deeply underlying questions.’2 Another opinion piece in the paper said that ‘this victory is little more than a symbolic one’ as ‘the pyramid structure (of the Al Qaeda) gave way to a more dispersed, network-based model, with regional affiliates able to launch independent attacks across the world.’3(sic)

    The killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil is a vindication of India’s consistent position that Pakistan is the breeding ground for terrorism. India has been sensitising the international community regarding this for long. New Delhi has also been impressing on Beijing to try and exert its clout on Pakistan, its ‘all-weather friend.’ Beijing’s response, however, has not been very encouraging or at best has been lukewarm or rhetorical. True, Beijing condemned the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, but its response to the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, aided and abetted by Pakistan, was muted and disappointing.

    When journalists asked the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu if China, in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, would back India’s efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, she replied: ‘China will continue to firmly support Pakistan’s formulating and implementing an anti-terrorist strategy based on national conditions’, thus avoiding a direct answer to the question.4 China’s empathy with Pakistan in the context of the latter’s estrangement from the US was very much evident in Jiang’s statement that China will further support Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism and that Pakistan has been at the forefront of the international fight against terrorism, and its government has been dedicated to the cause.

    The China Daily, in its report, said: ‘The US military assault that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideaway in Pakistan will inevitably alter Washington’s approach to Islamabad - and India may stand to gain.’ It further added: ‘But with bin Ladens’s death fuelling doubts about the viability of the US-Pakistan relationship - and removing the original reason for American military involvement in Afghanistan - Washington’s primary focus may shift back to New Delhi as the region’s economic and political heavyweight.’ The report went on to quote Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs and who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who had said: ‘This further encourages closer US-Indian collaboration, intelligence sharing and cooperation in finding ways to work with India to address regional stability issues writ large.’

    Acknowledging elements of strategic autonomy in India’s foreign policy, the report went on to say: ‘But India’s ability to benefit from strains in the US-Pakistan relationship may also be limited. While New Delhi’s ties with Washington are generally smoother than those of Islamabad, the limits of the relationship were made clear when India rejected bids from American companies for an $11 billion jet fighter deal last month despite Obama’s personal lobbying during a trip last year.’ The report concluded with a comment by Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution, who said: ‘Senior levels of the Indian government no longer take pleasure in Pakistani agony. They know that if the Pakistani house burns down, the spark will blow over to India.’5

    India and China, during their bilateral and trilateral (Russia-China-India) meetings, have discussed terrorism in very general terms. According to Zhang Li a Chinese expert on India: ‘The terrorist scourge in this region, as widely recognised, is entangled with protracted Indo-Pakistan rivalry and the Kashmir imbroglio in particular. Until recent years the complexity of the issue has limited Beijing’s reaction towards the challenge that India has had to confront.’ It should not be forgotten that in the Kargil conflict of 1999 and the 2002 armed standoff between India and Pakistan, Beijing restrained from its traditional siding with Pakistan posture and played a constructive role in defusing the tensions.6 But New Delhi expects Beijing to show sensitivity to India’s concerns and, given China’s clout over Pakistan it can certainly exert influence on Islamabad.

    • 1. Ananth Krishnan, ‘China Strongly backs Pakistan,’ The Hindu, May 4, 2011.
    • 2. World should avoid another bin Laden, Global Times, May 3, 2011.
    • 3. Cheng Yi, ‘Too early to celebrate bin Laden’s death,’ Global Times, May 3, 2011.
    • 4. Ananth Krishnan, note 1.
    • 5. ‘ India could benefit from US-Pakistan strains,’ China Daily, May 5, 2011.
    • 6. Zhang Li, ‘China-India Relations: Strategic Engagement and Challenges’, Aie. Visions34, September2010,p.21