Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 01, 2019
The Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus – The clash of civilizations revisited

Samuel Phillips Huntington, the eminent American political scientist made a central observation in his classic work “The Clash of Civilizations: The Remaking of World Order”: “….culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” According to this thesis, cultures with common values as is the case with Muslim societies will cohere. Very critically, he also drew attention to the importance of the relationship between culture and power and asserted a link would develop between Sinic and Islamic cultures. As it, turns out his claims are proving prophetic and prescient. As of now deposed and executed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi in the 1990s observed, “We are standing with Confucianism, and by allying ourselves with it and fighting alongside it in…on international front, we will eliminate our mutual opponent. So, we as Muslims, will support China in its struggle against our mutual enemy . . . . We wish China victory. . .” India too features as a common concern and challenge for this “Confucian-Islamist alliance.”

We will return to this point in a moment; Huntington, nevertheless, exaggerated the extent of the cohesion and unity among Muslim societies despite their common values and seeming persecution by non-Muslim societies. Two recent events, not per se linked, the increasing evidence of Beijing’s atrocities against Muslims within its borders and the Modi government’s decision to revoke article 370 that applied to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In the wake of Beijing’s crackdown against its native Uighur Muslim population in the Xinjiang region in far-Western China, the Islamic world has been deafeningly, silent about Beijing’s brutalities due to their interests with Beijing. On the other hand, article 370’ abrogation and the ensuing lockdown has evoked quiescence from most of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, there were Muslim holdouts namely Turkey, Malaysia and Iran who have adopted critical positions against India, which suggests they do not fear India as they do China.  Thus, it is not entirely accurate to conclude as some commentators have about the solidarity among Muslims States being a myth. It is only partially true that the Islamic world’s views did not fully converge with Pakistan’s over Kashmir inducing them to extend support Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Not just interests, fear too drives cooperation and official silence. Malaysia’s Prime Minister is on record conceding that Muslims states are silent about the Uighurs “…because China is a very powerful country”.  On the hand in his speech recently at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he called Kashmir an “invaded and occupied” territory. This is a revealing contrast between the Islamic societies’ official position on China’s treatment of its Muslims as opposed to India’s revocation of article 370. This is what Huntington phrased as the “Sinic-Islamic connection”, which remains strong, and its most pronounced manifestation is the Sino-Pakistani strategic compact.

The remarkable feature about the Beijing-Islamabad relationship is that despite the vicissitudes in their ties with the rest of the world, their bilateral relationship has remained stable. In the 1960s, for instance, China at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution completely isolated itself from the rest of the world, yet it maintained diplomatic ties with only one country – Pakistan.  The Sino-Pakistani strategic nexus has proved to be deep and enduring empirically confirming Huntington’ claims. The other notable characteristic, which makes China and Pakistan so similar, is how they order their societies domestically, which brings us to the link between culture and power that Huntington flagged. In the case of China, one part of it involves a hierarchical vision domestically, which it extends internationally. In “Asian bureaucratic empires” as Huntington put it, “there little room for social or political pluralism and the division of power.” Consequently, when extended internationally, China is likely to seek hegemony in Asia as part of a Confucian vision involving a tribute-based relationship rather than allow a balance of power to develop. Chinese hegemony over Asia cannot be cemented without critical proxies such as Pakistan and North Korea.

The other similarity between China and Pakistan is the extent to which they practice forced assimilation of minority communities tying into Huntington’s analysis about the relationship between culture and power domestically. China’s internment camps or “re-education camps” for Uighur Muslims represent a strong homogenizing and assimilative drive. The Uighurs are subjected to Chinese Mandarin language training, an understanding of Chinese law, work skills, changes in food habits that require the consumption of pork (prohibited under Islam) and clothing that require no visible display of overt religiosity in the form of headscarves worn by women or skull or crocheted caps worn by Muslim men. In a nutshell, it involves subordinating all ethnic and religious minorities to a dominant Han cultural identity. Resistance will certainly invite torture and even worse death. Indeed, coercive assimilation is practiced under Chinese governmental order through the Uighur-Chinese One Relative Policy.

Pakistan too exhibits the same traits as China in regards to forced assimilation. India’s Western neighbour is notorious for forced conversions of Hindu and Christian women, as well as Sikhs to Islam. To be sure, there are other persecuted minorities such as Shias, Hazaras, and Ahmediyas. Draconian blasphemy laws are enforced to persecute religious as well as non-Sunni Muslim minorities. At the time of independence in August 1947, Pakistan’s religious minorities made up 23 percent of its total population. Today, an estimated  3 percent of the total population consists of minorities.  Indeed, it is ironic that Pakistan and China have cemented a close strategic bond, despite being diametrically different countries socially and culturally. They are also strikingly similar in the way they treat, integrate and assimilate minorities. The acuity of Huntington’s analysis is undeniable. It also explains why China and Pakistan are pursuing forced assimilation not simply as an effort to reinforce their Han and Islamic identities respectively through an assertion of state power, but equally a quest to neutralise or at least significantly reduce foreign penetration seeking to exploit schisms and disaffection between majority and minority communities within China and Pakistan. Their common foe is not just the West, but India as well, which faces a significant challenge in limiting their collusion.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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