Shadow of Pakistan looms large over this week’s ‘informal summit’ between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping

Pakistan has been the most convenient tool in the hands of the Communist rulers of China to create myriad security challenges for India. Taking advantage of the lack of global consensus on defining terrorism since one person’s ‘terrorist’ is often regarded another person’s ‘freedom fighter’, Pakistan has been waging consistent asymmetrical warfare against India for the past few decades. It continues to avoid major punishment for making terrorism an instrument of its foreign policy.

The Narendra Modi government has been trying out a whole host of measures to change this disturbing dynamic, as reflected recently in calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff by carrying out airstrikes in Balakot in February, and changing the administrative and constitutional architecture of Jammu and Kashmir to integrate its people fully into mainstream of India’s democratic process. Coupled with this, the Modi government has also closed all doors to Pakistan’s charade of negotiations over Kashmir, besides firmly rejecting third-party mediation on the issue. Hence, both Pakistan and China are rattled with India attempting to change the rules of the game in South Asia. That is why China has become extremely critical of India in recent months.

Just a few days before Chinese president Xi Jinping is slated to visit India for the second round of ‘informal summit’ talks with Modi in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu (11 to 12 October), China’s Ambassador to Pakistan created controversy by claiming that Beijing would support Islamabad for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. He is reported to have said that China is “working for Kashmiris to help them get their fundamental rights and justice. There should be a justified solution to the issue of Kashmir and China will stand by Pakistan for regional peace and stability”.

If this is what China is endeavouring to achieve, it means the reversal of Beijing’s publicly-stated position that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan to be resolved by the two parties in question. Simultaneously, Vice-Minister Luo Zhaohui, has raised objections to India’s military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh. As per media reports, the Indian Army’s newly-raised 17 Corps is taking part in the military exercise at a height of around 15,000 feet, about 100 kilometres from the Line of Actual Control. These Chinese moves should not surprise us.

China’s willingness to block any concrete action against Pakistan, its “all-weather friend”, for supporting terrorism has constituted one of the most pressing obstacles in having smooth relations between New Delhi and Beijing. China believes that India poses one of the few potential challenges to its ambitions of Asian dominance. Therefore, the primary motivation behind China’s strategic cultivation of Pakistan has been a long-held strategy of entangling India in the subcontinental rivalry. And Beijing has been quite successful in that India-Pakistan hostility has prevented New Delhi’s power and influence spreading beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

Both Pakistan and China have been single-minded in their pursuit to counter India, paving the way for one of the strongest strategic alignments in contemporary international politics. Both frequently define their partnership as “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans”. In fast-changing geopolitical environment of South Asia, where Pakistan’s estrangement with the United States has coincided with New Delhi’s rapprochement with Washington, Pakistan has come to depend on China. And Beijing has not disappointed Islamabad so far. China’s nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan coupled with diplomatic protection at the United Nations is well-documented. For generals in Rawalpindi, maintaining nuclear arsenals is as much a matter of national pride as a robust shield to keep producing terrorists.

On the other hand, Pakistan has fully embraced China as the most important strategic balancer against India. Pakistan’s historically close relationship with China has deepened in recent years, particularly after the inauguration of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is an important component of China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CPEC consists of a number of projects spanning ports, railways, airports, highways, power plants and pipelines to connect China’s Xinjiang region to Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located on the Arabian Sea.

Just days before Xi’s India visit, Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister Imran Khan is set to visit Beijing to cement ties between the strategic allies, where he will also deliver a speech at the China-Pakistan Business Forum on Tuesday.

There is no doubt that Kashmir remains South Asia’s volatile tinderbox. Pakistan, which has frequently proclaimed Kashmir as a ‘core’ issue, has fought several wars with India over the Muslim-majority territory. But it is just pretence for the Pakistan Army to maintain its absolute hegemony over the country’s polity and society. Moreover, there is an inherent contradiction between Pakistan’s belief that Kashmir is the core problem and the simultaneous conviction that India seeks to undo British India’s Partition, which created two independent entities of India and Pakistan.

If Pakistan was somehow to seize control of all of Jammu and Kashmir, India would still be motivated to undo Pakistan, meaning that Kashmir is not the ‘core’ issue. Both individual and national memories change over time as a result of new sociopolitical experiences and technological transformations, but the Pakistan Army has a vested interest in flogging the dead horse of Partition since deep ethnic divisions within the country have prevented efforts to forge a unifying national identity without reference to India.

China itself has been the biggest beneficiary of Pakistan’s singular obsession with Kashmir. Pakistan ceded a sizable portion of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir under its illegal possession to China in 1963. Since then, China’s territorial revisionism at the disputed border with India has coincided with Pakistan’s unrelenting attempts to nibble away at what remains of Jammu and Kashmir, by hook or by crook, for more than six decades. China’s military forays into Ladakh have become more frequent in recent times.

China’s uncritical support to Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute is a clear indication of the emerging strategic alignments. No responsible country, including China, can believe that an India-Pakistan conflict could ever turn into a disastrous war with a nuclear dimension. New Delhi has a “no first use” policy, but may be tempted to mount a nuclear response in case nuclear weapons are used against it. Since supporting Pakistan produces huge strategic advantages for China, rationality is not behind China’s acquiescence to one of the biggest perpetrators of terrorist infrastructure in the world.

As per accepted international norms, the criteria for qualification as a rogue State include authoritarian rule, scant respect for human rights, persecution of minorities, sponsorship of terrorism, and attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan fulfils all these parameters without fail.

But it does not matter to China. That is why Beijing continued to veto India’s request to the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee to brand Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as a global terrorist until it became absolutely impossible in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack and rising global condemnation of China’s double standards on counter-terrorism.

However, following India’s scrapping of Article 370, Beijing supported Islamabad in a recently-held closed-door meeting of the UNSC on India’s constitutional coup in Jammu and Kashmir. But, due to stiff opposition from many members including the US and France, China could not even get the UNSC to issue a joint statement.

Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar’s recent statement that Indians hope to “have the physical jurisdiction” over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir at some stage in the future may have further accelerated efforts in Islamabad to coordinate its policies with Beijing to counter India’s diplomatic push. China cannot be expected to take kindly to what Jaishankar clarified — that India has not given up its sovereignty over Aksai Chin as India’s decision on Ladakh “has not changed the external boundaries of India”.

Since the strategic status quo in South Asia perfectly suits China, any Indian attempt to alter it will certainly meet strong reaction from Beijing. It does not matter to the Chinese diplomats that  their president is involved in personal diplomacy — through so-called informal summits — with the Indian leader to resolve contentious issues, including the boundary dispute. In fact, it is part of the well-crafted Chinese strategy to keep India guessing. Indian diplomats would do well to remember what Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, observes in his book, On China.

Kissinger writes that “Chinese negotiators use diplomacy to weave together political, military, and psychological elements into an overall strategic design. Diplomacy to them is the elaboration of a strategic principle. They ascribe no particular significance to the process of negotiation as such; nor do they consider the opening of a particular negotiation a transformational event. They do not think that personal relations can affect their judgments, though they may invoke personal ties to facilitate their own efforts. They have no emotional difficulty with deadlocks; they consider them the inevitable mechanism of diplomacy. They prize gestures of goodwill only if they serve a definable objective or tactic”.

After the Doka La military standoff in 2017, Modi and Xi have sought to improve ties between their countries by downplaying strategic competition. But in the fast-changing regional scenario characterised by deepening of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, China is exploring a new modus vivendi to counter India’s diplomatic offensive to change the ground realities in Kashmir, which, the general headquarters in Rawalpindi believes to be its “jugular vein”.

Since China is expected to do its utmost to save this jugular vein, it will be the task of India to keep hammering it constantly. Success will depend on the cleverness and diligence of India’s foreign ministry and its armed forces. However, it remains to be seen whether Xi will focus on trade and investment or Kashmir during his ‘informal’ interactions with Modi at the historical site of Mamallapuram.

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