The partnership between the world’s largest autocracy (China) and the Mecca of jihadist terrorism (Pakistan) has been cemented on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), 55% of which the two together occupy. As revanchist states, Pakistan and China are still seeking to grab more of J&K.
Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, August 22, 2019
Like a typical school bully, China doesn’t have a lot of friends. Having joined with the US to impose international sanctions on its former vassal, North Korea, China has just one real ally left — an increasingly fragile and debt-ridden Pakistan. China, however, has little in common with Pakistan, beyond the fact that both are revanchist states not content with their existing borders. Despite China’s brutal repression of its Muslims, Pakistan remains Beijing’s tail-wagging client. The marriage of convenience between the world’s largest autocracy and the fountainhead of jihadist terrorism is founded on a shared strategy to contain India.
In the latest example, China engineered an informal, closed-door UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and then, despite the absence of a joint statement, presented to the media a phony summary of the discussions. Few would be surprised by Beijing’s conduct or by its attempt to aid Pakistan’s effort to internationalize the Kashmir issue, including by obscuring China’s own status as the third party in the J&K dispute. China occupies one-fifth of the original princely state J&K, including the areas it seized up to 1962 and the trans-Karakoram tract ceded to it by Pakistan in 1963.
China’s UNSC machinations highlight the fact that the longstanding Sino-Pakistan nexus has been cemented on the issue of J&K, where the borders of India, Xinjiang, Tibet, Pakistan and Afghanistan converge. The Chinese-built Karakoram Highway, since it opened in 1978, has epitomized this nexus. The highway passes through J&K’s Pakistan-held Gilgit-Baltistan region, just like the axis’ new symbol — China’s so-called economic corridor to Pakistan.
Not content with stationing thousands of its own troops in Pakistani-occupied J&K, ostensibly to protect its strategic projects, China is working to enlarge its military footprint in Pakistan. China’s “economic corridor” seeks to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Indian Ocean, with Jiwani (located near Gwadar and just 170 kilometres from Iran’s India-aided Chabahar port) likely to become a Chinese naval hub. China is already militarizing northern Arabian Sea: It has secured naval turnaround facilities at Karachi and 40-year exclusive rights to run Gwadar port; its submarines are on patrol; and it has supplied new warships to Pakistan.
Slowly but surely, Pakistan is becoming China’s colonial outpost, primarily aimed at checkmating India. After the Pulwama massacre of Indian paramilitary soldiers, Beijing came to Pakistan’s help by shielding it from international calls to take concrete anti-terrorist steps. For a decade, China vetoed UN action against Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar, until it could no longer sustain its obstruction. But China still blocks India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, asserting that — as happened in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — India’s entry must be counterbalanced with Pakistan’s admission.
Indeed, China has long played the Kashmir card against India. For example, in 2010, it started the practice of issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from J&K and denied a visa to the Indian Army’s Northern Command chief for a bilateral defence dialogue on grounds that he commanded “a disputed area, J&K”. It also officially shortened the length of the border it shares with India by purging the line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K. The then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, warned that, “Beijing could be tempted to use India’s ‘soft underbelly’, Kashmir”.
Although J&K is divided among three countries, only India was maintaining special powers and privileges for its portion. Even if India had maintained J&K’s special constitutional status, the Sino-Pakistan J&K pincer movement would have continued. This is why China shields Pakistan’s proxy war by terror against India, even though it has locked up more than a million Muslims in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts. In fact, like Pakistan, China wages asymmetric warfare against India. This is in the form of a “salami slicing” strategy of furtive, incremental territorial encroachments in Ladakh and elsewhere.
Turning Ladakh into a union territory will likely advance India’s effort to counter China’s hostile manoeuvrings, including increasing military forays and incursions. The J&K constitutional change also compartmentalizes India’s territorial disputes with Pakistan and China centred in that region, although India today faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of J&K because of Chinese military presence in the Pakistan-held areas.
India, however, needs to recognize the difference between being cautious and being meek: The former helps avert problems, while the latter invites more pressure. China has the temerity to talk about human rights in Indian J&K and chastise India for unilateralism, while India stays mum on the Tibet repression, Xinjiang gulag policy and Hong Kong excesses. Indeed, Beijing has sought to masquerade as a neutral party because India is loath to remind the world that China, in unlawful occupation of parts of J&K, is directly involved in the dispute. India has shunned even indirect criticism, such as reminding Beijing that those living in glass houses should not throw stones.
Worse still, New Delhi has allowed China to reap a growing trade surplus with India that has more than doubled in the past five years and now dwarfs India’s total defence spending. This, in effect, means Beijing is able to have its cake and eat it too. India must subtly change tack, or else the fire-breathing dragon will be emboldened to step up hostile acts.
The writer is a geostrategist.