Why Did Pakistan’s Spy Chief Make a Secret Trip to China?

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Reports reveal Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency, the ISI, flew on a secret mission to Beijing for urgent talks this Monday. The visit followed swiftly on the heels of yet another round of diplomatic squabbling between Washington and Islamabad. During a heated summer of disputes, tensions between the ISI and the CIA flared most recently over the alleged Pakistani harassment of American officials stationed in the country. Pasha’s China trip has been interpreted by some as a tacit act of defiance—a reminder to his American counterparts that the Pakistanis can always look east to their “all-weather” friend across the Himalayas rather than bend the knee to the will of the U.S.

But it also may be a sign of China’s growing disquiet with Pakistan. Another top-ranking Pakistani military officer, Lt. Gen Wahid Arshad, had already conducted a considerable tour of China just weeks ago in a bid to improve ties. A few analysts have suggested that Pasha’s trip — couched in vague terms about building a “broad-based strategic dialogue” — may have been less a visit and more of a summons. After all, China claimed this week that Islamist militants trained in Pakistan were behind a violent attack in the far western city of Kashgar that killed at least 14 and injured dozens more. Like the U.S., perhaps the Chinese are now also frustrated at the dangers Pakistan has long let take root on its soil.

The latest Pakistani-U.S. spat centered over reports of Islamabad’s alleged monitoring and obstructing of CIA activities in the country, which, writes TIME’s Omar Waraich, included midnight searches, “tip-offs to local media about the movements of U.S. officials and lurid tales planted in the local press of diplomats conspiring with Pakistani politicians.” ISI and Pakistani anger over the Raymond Davis affair — which we discuss here and here — in part motivated the ongoing feuding with the CIA. Waraich reports:

The restrictions imposed by the Pakistani foreign office at the behest of the ISI appear to be just one element of a broader effort since the Davis affair by spy chief Lieut. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha to make his agency aware of exactly what every American official in Pakistan is working on, a U.S. official tells TIME on condition of anonymity. The Pakistani spymaster’s alarm was further heightened when reports emerged that the CIA had recruited Pakistani citizens to help spy on bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbottabad. The alleged harassment of U.S. personnel would clearly limit the Americans’ ability to gather intelligence in Pakistan independently of the Pakistani authorities.

“The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is complicated,” a U.S. official tells TIME on condition of anonymity. “It ebbs and flows, and it’s driven most of all by what is or isn’t accomplished on the ground. There have been recent incidents where U.S. embassy officials have been harassed by Pakistani authorities, which is a disturbing trend. The visas the Pakistanis have agreed to give U.S. embassy officials are short-term and single-entry — not the type traditionally afforded to diplomatic representatives in the country. This is a far from ideal solution.”

Of course, few know what the ideal solution would be for a relationship that sets so many eyebrows furrowing and hands wringing. But lurking ever on the sidelines of the fraught U.S.-Pakistani alliance is China, a country whose prestige in Pakistan still seems greater than its actual presence. For years, Beijing has cultivated military ties with Pakistan specifically as a counterweight to India, the only other nation in the region that presents a real geo-political challenge to the Chinese. As I (and others) have reported before, the Sino-Pakistani relationship is a marriage of convenience and, while cloaked in lofty rhetoric of neighborly fraternity, is far less substantial than the bilateral ties either nation has separately with the U.S. (But, if you read this typically delusional Aug. 3 editorial in a leading Pakistani daily, you could be fooled to think the opposite.)

In reality, it’s still unclear what leverage against the U.S. Pakistan can genuinely gain by playing the China card. Beijing’s tendency to conduct its diplomacy quietly and out of view deepens the mystery, but it also obscures what may be a rather tetchy moment between the two neighbors. As one Hong Kong-based commentator suggests to Reuters, China may be discovering how tricky (and maddening) it is to get the Pakistani military to cooperate on counter-terrorism.

Chinese officials claimed the attacks in Kashgar were authored by the shadowy East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a jihadist organization of mostly ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority that comprises the majority in the far-western Chinese region of Xinjiang. China routinely invokes the specter of the terrorist threat when cracking down on dissent in the restive region. Yet disturbances there tend to be triggered more often by social discontent — many Uighurs chafe at state policies they deem discriminatory and marginalizing — than militant connivance. Pasha’s presence in Beijing may mark Beijing’s continued efforts to root out Uighur dissidents and sympathizers beyond China’s borders, as it has already done in Kazakhstan.

If ETIM did find succor in Pakistan — like myriad other jihadi groups in South and Central Asia — the great irony is that they have little support among the Pakistani populace. The plight of Uighurs, unlike that of other Muslim minorities like the Chechens in Russia or Kashmiris in India, has little resonance among the Pakistani public, which widely admires China and its policies. That’s an affection the U.S. certainly does not garner, and which could start to wane should Beijing start adopting the same tough-love approach Washington has in recent months.

Ishaan Tharoor is a writer-reporter for TIME and editor of Global Spin. Find him on Twitter at @ishaantharoor. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.