Turn to China, Islamists Urge Pakistan Government

By Patrick Goodenough | February 20, 2009 | 5:09 AM EST

Residents of Pakistan’s troubled Swat valley welcome the arrival of a convoy of vehicles led by a pro-Taliban cleric on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Mainstream Islamists in Pakistan are urging the government to turn to China to extricate the country from “the clutches” of the United States, arguing that the two Asian countries are both targeted by U.S. conspiracies.
The call by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s main Islamic party, came on the eve of a visit to Beijing by President Asif Ali Zardari – his second in four months – and at a time the West is troubled about a controversial peace agreement struck with Taliban-linked militants in northwest Pakistan’s Swat valley.
A JI delegation has just returned from a visit to China, where it signed an accord with the Communist Party covering what the Islamist group said were the fields of justice, development, security and solidarity.
The two parties also agreed to uphold the principle of non-interference; China has been concerned that Islamists outside the country have been supporting those in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority far western region.
A JI statement quoting party leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad laid out the group’s argument for a China-oriented approach.
Pointing to U.S. unhappiness about the Swat agreement, he said the government must tell Washington to keep out of Pakistan’s affairs.
“Pakistan is trapped in a tight U.S. grip where Islamabad is not allowed to independently deal with its internal affairs,” the statement quoted Qazi as saying.
Pakistan “needs sincere friends to get rid of the U.S. clutches and China is the only answer to this problem,” he said.
“Washington has waged a war against all Muslim movements in the world and the troika of [the] U.S., Israel and India is hatching conspiracies against Pakistan. [The] U.S. has also set a trap for China in the region and under these circumstances both Pakistan and China need each other.”
Qazi pointed to Chinese help in the past – its support for Pakistani positions in the U.N. Security Council, where China holds one of five veto-wielding permanent seats; its building of a deep-water port at Gwadar; and joint development of fighter jets as an alternative to the Air Force’s aging U.S.-supplied F-16s.
Zardari’s visit to Beijing last October – his first trip abroad after taking office the previous month – brought an agreement that China would help Pakistan build two additional nuclear power plants to help meet its growing energy needs. (China has already built one nuclear reactor in Pakistan’s Punjab province, and is working on a second.)
The U.S. State Department subsequently notified both Islamabad and Beijing about its objections to the plan for two more reactors, saying that notwithstanding Pakistan’s energy needs its proliferation record would make it difficult to obtain the necessary clearance from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
China’s interests in Pakistan go well beyond economic and nuclear cooperation. The Gwadar port project offers China an outlet to the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.
Zardari’s current trip, beginning on Friday, will focus on economic and trade relations, according to the foreign ministry in Islamabad.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a briefing that the government attached “great importance” to the visit.
‘Bad guys’
The visit comes at a time when the Zardari government is under pressure from Western allies over the peace deal in Swat, which lies within what is known as the “settled” area of Pakistan, in contrast to the nearby tribal belt, large portions of which are already effectively in Taliban and al-Qaeda hands.
Proponents, including the secular party that controls the North-West Frontier Province and negotiated the accord, say it will bring an end to a costly insurgency in the scenic valley.
Taliban-allied radicals demanding the imposition of Islamic law (shari’a) have been carrying out a 18-month campaign of terror, killing policemen and others and burning down girls’ schools while successfully resisting Pakistani Army attempts to oust them.
Critics argue the agreement will surrender another portion of Pakistani territory  to extremists, allow them to consolidate and rearm, encourage further “Talibanization” of the country, and worsen security on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Previous peace agreements in Pakistan’s north-west, negotiated by provincial and federal governments, have been short-lived and – in the view of the U.S. and NATO –  counterproductive.
After an initially low-key response by the Obama administration to news of the agreement, envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke came out more firmly against the deal on Thursday evening.
“We are troubled and confused in the sense about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend,” he told PBS.
“Previous ceasefires have broken down and we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys,” Holbrook said. “The people who took over Swat are very bad people.”
The matter will likely be taken further when administration officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Holbrooke hold talks in Washington next week with senior Pakistani and Afghan delegations.
Zardari has yet to sign off on the Swat agreement, but Pakistani foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit told a media briefing Thursday that internal peace and security was the government’s top priority. Concerns expressed from outside about the agreement were based on mere speculation, he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow