Coming down on us like a ton of BRICS

Criticism on extremist groups comes from regional summit

Coming down on us like a ton of BRICS
Has BRICS – the grouping of the five emerging economies – thrown a ‘snapping punch’ at Pakistan by naming several terrorist groups believed to be based here as a cause of concern for regional security?

The mention of terrorist groups, multiple sources in the Foreign Office confirmed, was not anticipated by the mandarins here, who were relying on China to block any Indian move to criticize Pakistan. The FO’s reaction, lashing out at India’s human rights record and the rise of extremist Hindutva ideology there, instead of raising the issue of sponsoring of terrorism in Pakistan by Indian intelligence agencies (through the likes of Kulbhushan Jadhav) showed that they were caught completely off-guard.

Luckily, unlike with the statements from the US, here Pakistan was not directly accused of providing safe havens to some of the groups named in the declaration issued at the end of the BRICS summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen, leaving enough space for the Foreign Office to share its concern about the “threat posed by terrorism and extremism in the South Asian region” instead of the formula denial.
A potentially more embarrassing situation could arise if in early 2018 China lifts its hold on Masood Azhar's listing by the UN. It would be problematic for China to continue blocking Azhar's listing after signing the Xiamen Declaration

Nevertheless, the Xiamen Declaration has started a debate whether China, undoubtedly Pakistan’s staunchest ally in the region, too was shifting its position on Pakistan-based externally focused militant groups, which have put the country in the international spotlight. China has in the past defended Pakistan against international criticism on this count and has this year twice prevented the United Nations from listing Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist. Lest we forget, China was the first country to rise in defense of Pakistan after Trump’s fury over alleged terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani soil.

The insertion that, “We, in this regard, express concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Qaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir,” raised eyebrows because China has, especially during the BRICS Goa Summit in 2016, prevented the inclusion of such language in the past at this forum.

China, as per some insider accounts, had been for some time signaling to Pakistan that it would be difficult for it to hold on to that position for long. The Chinese explanation on mention of the groups in the declaration is that they were involved in violent activities, which were affecting the security situation in Afghanistan. Moreover, the Chinese say, all groups included on the list have already been sanctioned by the UN. If it sounds like the American stance, it is!
The window for reviewing the situation and fixing the problem, wherever it is, is very narrow - a few months at the most

On the other side of the border, the Xiamen Declaration was seen as a sort of diplomatic victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has relentlessly campaigned to internationally isolate Pakistan for its alleged support for terrorist groups. It ought to be recalled that a similar list of terrorist groups was included in last year’s ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar (India), which Pakistan attended. So it would be unjust to accuse China of conceding something, which Pakistan itself could not stop from being included in the Amritsar Declaration. But, still that in no way diminishes the significance of BRICS leaders expressing their concern over violent activities of those groups.

The writing on the wall is that the international chorus on the presence of externally focused terrorist groups is growing and sooner or later Pakistan will have to address the issue. Everyone acknowledges the action Pakistan has taken to improve the situation internally, but await similar cooperation for peace in the neighbourhood.

Pakistan may have its own security concerns, a realization of which was evident in US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explainer on the new US policy, but no action against these groups is no answer. Nimble-footed diplomacy is needed to link the matter to redressal of Pakistani security concerns.

In any case, the window for reviewing the situation and fixing the problem, wherever it is, is very narrow – a few months at the most. The US is already exerting lots of pressure and has listed some of the punitive actions that it could take if the problem remains unresolved. Defense Minister Khurram Dastagir has revealed the government’s concerns that any coercive action by the US could destabilize Pakistan. He was, therefore, very clear that Pakistan would seek to amicably settle outstanding issues with the US.

But a potentially more embarrassing situation could arise if China in early 2018 lifts its hold on Masood Azhar’s listing by the UN. It would be problematic for China to continue blocking Azhar’s listing after signing the Xiamen Declaration. At the minimum such a development, if it happens, would hurt the public’s perceptions about China in Pakistan. Therefore, it is in the interest of the critical Pak-China relations that such an eventuality must be prevented.

The declaration could not have come at a more inopportune time with Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif set to visit two of the five BRICS states - Russia and China - in the coming days for consultations over Trump’s policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, before he heads to Washington to re-set the terms of bilateral engagement with the US. His interlocutors in Moscow and Beijing may offer a word of support for Pakistan, but should also be expected to ask him to address this issue as well.

The Pakistan government needs to take a broader view of the situation instead of seeing the matter as an Indian-driven agenda. Other countries too are concerned about terrorism and have their own fears, because the problem is affecting them also. It’s time for introspection for Pakistani policy makers.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at