The threat of a nuclear conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi might have made global headlines, but Beijing is right at the heart of the territorial dispute in the Himalayan region, Brahma Chellaney writes.
The media spotlight on India-Pakistan tensions over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has helped obscure the role of a key third party, China, which occupies one-fifth of this Himalayan region. Kashmir is only a small slice of J&K, whose control is split among China, India and Pakistan.
Sino-Indian border tensions were exemplified by a reported September 11-12 clash between troops from the two countries in the eastern section of J&K, where Beijing’s territorial revisionism has persisted for more than six decades.
Meanwhile, ever since India revoked the statehood and autonomy of its part of J&K in August, Pakistan has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric, with military-backed Prime Minister Imran Khan vowing to “teach India a lesson” and promising a “fight until the end”. Khan has even raised the threat of nuclear war with India.
The power behind Pakistan, however, is China. As Pakistan has sought to grab more J&K territory from India, China has escalated military pressure along the region’s eastern flank with India.
Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, like Pakistan, it strongly protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.
J&K is such a volatile tinderbox that the United Nations Security Council has not held a formal or open meeting on the dispute since 1971, when East Pakistan, with Indian military assistance, seceded as Bangladesh.
China in August engineered an informal, closed-door Security Council meeting to discuss India’s J&K action. However, in the face of opposition from the United States, France and several other members at the meeting, China failed to get the lowest level of Security Council action – a joint statement to the media.
Still, the political fallout from China’s machinations resulted in India asking Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to cancel his September 9-10 scheduled visit to New Delhi.
J&K indeed has helped cement a deepening Sino-Pakistan nexus. China and Pakistan have little in common other than a shared interest in containing India. In keeping with the axiom that “my enemy’s enemy is my dear friend”, the two have forged one of the most enduring partnerships in international diplomacy. Wang earlier declared that China and Pakistan were “as close as lips and teeth”. The China-Pakistan axis presents India with the prospect of a two-front war, if India were to enter into conflict with either country.
This alliance was actually founded on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan ceded a sizeable slice of its own J&K to Beijing in March 1963, just months after China humiliated India in a surprise military attack across the Himalayas and captured territory in J&K’s traditionally Buddhist Ladakh region.
Pakistan’s transfer of territory (comprising mainly the Shaksgam Valley) helped foster China’s strategic nexus with what it now calls an “irreplaceable all-weather friend”.
Beijing, meanwhile, is exerting direct military pressure on India in the J&K region, including seeking to nibble at Indian border areas in Ladakh. Chinese military forays into Ladakh have become more persistent and frequent, leading to face-offs or scuffles with Indian troops.
Politically, China has sought to question India’s sovereignty over Indian-administered J&K. In 2010, it began issuing visas on a separate leaf to Indian citizens from there. It also officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir.
More importantly, to help tie down India, China has extended major help to Pakistan – from well-documented nuclear and missile assistance to security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the UN. Such support allows Pakistan – home to 22 UN-designated terrorist entities – to use state-nurtured terrorists as a force multiplier against India.
Pakistan, in fact, has sought to replicate against India its strategy in Afghanistan, where its brutal proxies – the Taliban and the Haqqani network – have forced the US to seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit. Pakistan’s success against India, however, has been limited to J&K’s Kashmir Valley, which it has helped turn into a terrorist hotbed, forcing the deployment of a large Indian counter-insurgency force.
The predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley makes up just 15 per cent of the area of Indian-administered J&K but is home to more than 50 per cent of its population. The armed jihadists in the Kashmir Valley reject democracy and seek to establish an Islamic emirate. In one of the modern world’s most successful and swiftest ethnic-cleansing operations, the jihadists in 1990 expelled virtually the entire native Hindu community from the valley, but not before abducting and killing nearly 1,000 and gang-raping women.
It was Pakistan’s destabilising role in the Kashmir Valley that spurred India’s recent J&K action. Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against Delhi.
The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.
Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the postcolonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis said in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow a caliphate in Kashmir because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.
Brahma Chellaney is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and the author of nine books.