The China-Pakistan axis and Lashkar-e-Taiba

China’s move to block sanctions on Pakistan for harbouring the notorious terrorist mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi is the latest manifestation of the growing strength of the Beijing-Islamabad axis.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made strengthening Pakistan’s 60-year-old alliance with China a top priority. India needs a subtle response. The Chinese used their veto authority to block India’s attempt to pressure Pakistan for releasing Lakhvi from jail seven years after the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267, States are required to take action against designated organisations and individuals involved in terrorism. The LeT and its cover organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), are both designated terrorist organisations by the UN. This is far from the first time China has used its veto to protect the LeT and Pakistan.

Three times before the 26/11 attack, China blocked efforts to designate the JuD as a terrorist group. The Chinese are well aware of the close connections between the LeT/JuD and the Pakistani army and intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), connections which included joint planning of the Mumbai attack.

The LeT is Pakistan’s preferred terror outlet. Just a year ago, the group attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration. More recently, the LeT has led the campaign in Pakistan to send troops to fight alongside Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Riyadh is an important source of LeT fund-raising.

The Chinese veto in the UN is only one manifestation of the growing strength of the China-Pakistan connection. It is an issue that both Pakistani civilian leaders like Sharif and Pakistan’s army leaders like Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif can fully agree on.

Beijing provides diplomatic support, economic investment and arms and technology for Pakistan. China’s support was essential to the development of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. The centrepiece of the China connection now is the Chinese commitment to invest $46 billion in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to connect Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.

The power projects, fibre optic links, roads and energy supply lines involved in the project, promise to transform the Pakistani economy if completed in the next 15 years.

It is the largest investment project ever in one country, dwarfing even the US Marshall Plan after World War Two. To protect the project and the Chinese construction effort, the two Sharifs have promised to create a special division of the Pakistani army devoted solely to their defence.

Drawing on Pakistan’s elite Special Security Group, the 10,000-man division will have responsibility for ensuring the safety of the Chinese projects especially in Baluchistan.

The economic corridor project was under consideration before Nawaz Sharif became PM. But he has been especially active in pushing for it. Sharif has made three trips to China since 2013. He also travelled to China during his previous two administrations, including at the height of the Kargil war in 1999. Sharif has concluded that China is a much more reliable ally than the United States and a much more powerful ally than Saudi Arabia.

The economic corridor will link Islamabad and Beijing even more closely and place Pakistan in the Sinosphere of influence and protection. The alliance dates back to the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. Even before the war, Indian intelligence had indications that then Pakistani military dictator Field Marshall Ayub Khan was secretly reaching out to Beijing because of Khan’s failing faith in the US.

During the 1962 war, President John F Kennedy’s greatest worry was that Pakistan would launch a second front and attack in Kashmir while India was fighting China in the Himalayas.

Shortly after the war, Pakistan and China settled their border dispute in Kashmir, setting the stage for what is now the track of the economic corridor from Kashgar to Gwadar. Prime minister Modi reportedly opposed the economic corridor when he visited China in May, although he limited his opposition to the passage and projects through Kashmir, which is, of course, crucial to the whole project.

Like India’s protests against the Chinese veto protecting Lakhvi, the opposition to the economic corridor is ineffectual. China ignores India’s protests. India-Pakistan relations under Modi have been all but frozen.

Understandably, Modi interpreted the LeT attack in Herat as a sign that the ISI is still abetting terrorism against India in general and Modi in particular. But the Herat attack would have also humiliated Nawaz Sharif since he had accepted Modi’s wise invitation to attend his inauguration.

That is not a surprise. The generals who run the ISI and its terror connections have no love for the Pakistani PM. The BBC’s report that India is funding and training the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in Karachi will only further strain India-Pakistan relations.

Although the report indicates the funding for MQM began ten years ago, the report will be used by Pakistan to make its case that Modi has stepped up Indian efforts to destabilise Pakistan.

Modi was smart to call Nawaz Sharif to convey good wishes at the start of Ramzan. He should develop a more subtle and sophisticated approach to Pakistan in general, trying to engage with Sharif to improve trade and economic ties while rallying international support to shut down the LeT.

India is smarter to compete in Pakistan with China on investment than to lobby ineffectually against CPEC. This will be difficult for certain. Powerful interests in the army will resist any attempt at cooling tensions with India. The Pakistani officer corps is still obsessed with India. Which is why it maintains such intimate ties with the LeT.

This piece was originally published by The Economic Times.