As long as there have been kingdoms, later nations, there have been ‘axis-s’. Once upon a time, such strategic alliances were sealed by marriage, then the glue became oil.
After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President used the word ‘axis’ to describe America’s enemies even though his ‘axis of evil’ had North Korea, Iran, and Iraq—none of these countries had, in fact, attacked America. Curiously he could not get himself to name Saudi Arabia, the home country of the many of the jihadists, including Osama bin Laden.
Quite like today, China continues to block—now for the fourth time—the declaration of Masood Azhar, chief of the Pakistan-based jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist in the United Nations, despite wide support for such a resolution across an unprecedented number of countries, because of its support for its ally, Pakistan—the country where Osama bin Laden was finally caught hiding.
There might be a growing realisation that a new axis of support for terrorism, covertly and overtly, has developed and it involves China-Pakistan. This hyphenation should worry the global community and not just India.
But the curious thing in this coupling is that it hides a time bomb whose ticking is getting louder. That bomb is Turkey.
Consider this: Turkey immediately rose to support Pakistan’s version of the story after the JeM attack in Pulwama. But it spoke against Indian strikes on a JeM camp in Pakistan. It did these things in the face of almost universal global support for India’s position. It did these things when even Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ China did not seem so enthusiastic in its support.
Since both Pakistan and Turkey form key components of China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, this might be a time to start speaking about the axis that is made up of China, Pakistan, and Turkey. This story would be straightforward—China as the main rising power in the world. There are two countries, with potential—demographically (Pakistan, population 200 million) and economically (Turkey, 17th largest economy in the world)—are perfectly poised to become client states. These two countries have beleaguered leaders—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Imran Khan lead governments that are suspect for their deep Islamist connections around the world. In Turkey, Erdoğan leads a violent dictatorship that has destabilised the Middle East; and Pakistan’s Imran Khan rules in a sense at the leisure of the Army, which is the real political power in that country.
Both Pakistan and Turkey hold key links in the Belt and Road Initiative. The route starting from Kashgar in China’s far west snakes through Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan, then Multan in the Sindh and ends at the Karachi port of Gwadar. Turkey has a crucial portion of what is known as the Middle Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative, which stretches from China across Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia to Turkey, including the key bit of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line. So, the economic logic of a China-Pakistan-Turkey axis makes perfect sense.
But something more volatile is churning in this mix, which is less noticed than it should be.
China’s concentration camps to ‘re-educate’ Chinese Muslims have spilled across the world. Chinese monetary power has not been able to stop the spread of this story. What is often forgotten in that the Uighurs, who are facing the brunt of this re-education in China, are a group with Turkic origins.
In fact, if there is one country which is openly protesting what is happening with the Uighurs, it is Turkey. The Turkish foreign ministry has called China’s treatment of the Uighurs ‘a great embarrassment for humanity’.
The interesting question is—why isn’t Turkey choosing the Saudi Arabian model? For all its talk of leadership of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who is perhaps more ostracised in the West than Erdoğan) recently went to China and astonishingly openly conceded China’s right to re-educate its Muslims. Therefore, shouldn’t his much-reviled status in the West, and the importance of the Middle Corridor in Turkey, blind Erdoğan to anything that’s happening in China?
The logical answer is that Erdoğan can’t do this because of the Turkic origins of the Uighurs. This ethnic camaraderie isn’t confined to Turkey. This is an ethnic commonality that stretches across Central Asia.
The suppression of information from the Uighur areas makes the full picture unclear, but there has been enough trickle out of the news that suggests violence is growing—how long before the jihad explodes in China which with connections with Pakistan and even Turkey? Especially since – for instance – the Belt and Road Initiative in Pakistan, called the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), starts from Kashgar, deep in the Uighur region of China.
This is the ticking time bomb in this China-Pakistan-Turkey axis. How will this play out? When will this explode? Is China reluctant to support the resolution to declare Azhar a global terrorist because of its apprehensions of interconnected jihadi networks? Can India use all this to its advantage? These are the questions that deserve thought.