When Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his country’s deepening commitment to Pakistan earlier this year, many Indian policy analysts welcomed his statement as offering new hope for reform and stabilisation in Pakistan.
Beijing unveiled a grand strategic design that combined nudging Pakistan towards peace with Afghanistan, while making a massive investment in building Pakistani infrastructure and China-Europe connectivity through Central Asia.
The Indian expectation was that China, with its own interests in preventing extremism, would influence Pakistan, and especially its military, to move away from supporting militant religious groups. Even if the beginning was made with Afghanistan and not India, it would gradually have an impact on all, it was felt. Moreover, if the focus of Pakistani’s government and military shifted from the political-strategic to the economic-strategic, this paradigm shift would, it seemed, help alter their present approach towards India.
Unfortunately, developments of the past six months reflect the opposite happening.
Using China’s mantle, the Pakistani establishment, from the military to the political, has begun to strengthen control over a refashioned Taliban, affirmed its support for terrorism against India by releasing the operational head of Mumbai 26/11 attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, and sought to build assets on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
To what extent do these developments impact on China’s growing global pre-eminence, and specifically on China-India relations?
At first sight the impact appears slight. As far as China’s pre-eminence in central and north-western South Asia is concerned, its far-reaching economic strategy of developing energy and trade links across Asia to Europe, Africa and South America will not be affected overall, since the routes already developed bypass Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, there are a host of other problems. The worsening insurgency in Afghanistan and postponement of peace talks with the Taliban put a question mark over whether China can effectively facilitate peace between Kabul and Islamabad. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be affected by turmoil as also Beijing’s cautious plans for Afghanistan. China’s support for Pakistan’s stance on the Lashkar-e-Taiba has caused outrage in India and embarrassment in international forums. All three developments impinge negatively on China-India relations.
The Afghanistan-Pakistan Factor
The recent announcement by the Afghan government of Mullah Omar’s death two years ago, is surprising more for the timing of the announcement than the fact of his death, which was long suspected. Coming hard on the heels of the second round of the China-Pakistan sponsored peace talks between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban in Murree, it has resulted in the indefinite postponement of the event until, and if, Emir-designate Mullah Akhtar Mansour can prevail in his ongoing succession conflict.
Several policy analysts have argued that the spate of recent Taliban attacks is linked to the succession battle. Mullah Akhtar, the analysts believe, first needs to prove his right to the position of Emir before there can be talks.
If that is the case, Afghans ask, why then is their government offering preferential treatment to Pakistan? As President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani pointed out, the offer to Pakistan was predicated on that country either delivering on talks with the Taliban or engaging in military and intelligence action against them jointly with the Afghan security forces. Neither has happened.
To put it mildly, this situation is embarrassing for Beijing, which had thrown its weight behind initiatives for an Afghan-Pakistan rapprochement. Indeed, China had the support in this endeavour from the US, Russia, Iran and India, but its influence appears to be far more limited than was assumed by observers. Islamabad has not reciprocated Afghan cooperation against the Pakistan-focused militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), and appears itself to be a weak facilitator for peace talks.
Will Islamabad’s apparent lack of will and power on the issue of the Taliban impact on the massive Chinese investment announced when President Xi visited Pakistan? The announcement was at least partly intended as an inducement or reward for a Pakistani change in strategic doctrine as well as posture. Though it comprised over 30 agreements in energy, road and rail sectors, it was wrapped up as the grand strategy of a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that would connect Pakistan to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. As such, it was welcomed by the US.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
China’s entry into regional initiatives for Afghanistan also tied OBOR to the US-initiated Silk Road intended to spearhead Central-South Asia connectivity, with Afghanistan as a hub. With few regional supporters for US leadership, the mantle passed to China, and the Chinese government were quick to realise that with a little adaptation, Afghanistan could be brought into its existing programme for China-Europe connection through Central Asia, thereby gaining international support, while taking care of its maritime and land interests.
China, however, apparently failed to adequately consider the consequences arising from the fact that a key portion of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor would run through the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, raising concerns in India. India protested to China and also to the US ( for their support of this project). The protest was not pro forma – it was repeated, including by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to President Xi.
For India, the issue presents a dilemma.
On the one hand, the Indian government has to make clear that building assets on the ground without consultation in a territory that India claims is not acceptable and violates the international position that has kept Kashmir on the UN agenda. China needs to be mindful of that, both as a party to the conflict through its occupation of Aksai Chin and receipt of the Shaksgam valley, as well as being a permanent member of the UN Security Council. India believes China violated UN resolutions by occupying Aksai Chin, and again by agreeing with Pakistan to receive the Shaksgam valley in order to build the Karakoram Highway, which will now connect it to Gwadar in Balochistan, if the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is completed.
But there were few consequences to both actions, since India under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had already been burned by the UN’s handling of the dispute with Pakistan, and had preferred to seek separate, bilateral talks with both Pakistan and China.
Since then, China’s official position has been that anything they do in Jammu and Kashmir will be without prejudice to the ultimate solution of the dispute; indeed a clause to this effect was introduced into the China- Pakistan agreement on Shaksgam.
China has repeated this assurance with regard to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, though it has not been included in any of the recently signed China-Pakistan agreements. Even were it to be introduced, it is doubtful if it would address Indian concerns. The Corridor is an ambitious scheme, with innumerable economic spinoffs that would integrate Gilgit-Baltistan into the China-Pakistan economy and drive it even further from India. To this extent it would create dependencies that would make any change in the status quo virtually impossible.
Of course, this might also lead to a situation in which Pakistan would be pressed to accept the overall status quo of divided Jammu and Kashmir, that one part would remain tied to Pakistan and another to India. At present that seems an unlikely eventuality: Pakistan has long sought to create assets on the ground that will make it impossible for anyone in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir to opt for India, should such a choice ever be posed, while seeking to divide the Kashmir valley from India. The Pakistani strategy is to combine integration of Gilgit-Baltistan with support for radicalisation in Indian Jammu and Kashmir, in the hope that this might lead to an unbridgeable rift between the people of the Kashmir valley and India. With sufficient pressure, democratic India might be forced to yield Jammu and Kashmir, or at least further parts of it, is the presumption.
Options for a Solution
The other side of the Indian dilemma is that India cannot oppose an infrastructure development project that may bring economic benefits to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, since India’s claim is not solely legal-territorial, but also aims to win hearts and minds (best summed up perhaps as a version of parens patria). Thus, India must look for a solution that upholds India’s claim, but also benefits the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Such a solution would be possible were the Corridor to extend to India. Indeed, this idea has been proposed by Indians in Track Two initiatives for nearly a decade as an alternative to the Afghanistan-India-Pakistan transit trade agreement that was initially pushed by Afghanistan and the US, but was dropped by the latter after implacable resistance from Islamabad. Given the large market that India offers Afghanistan, it was felt that one way around the transit trade problem would be an infrastructure development program under Chinese aegis which would offer a face-saving means of acceptance to Islamabad.
At that point there was little incentive for China to consider the Indian idea. China was not involved with Afghanistan and already has connectivity with Indian markets through the East. Since the idea would be unpopular with Pakistan, there was no reason for China to push it.
Today, however, with China engaged in the Afghanistan peace and stabilisation process, having partly committed to developing its copper mines at Aynak when security permits, and has tied OBOR, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Afghan connectivity into one overarching grand strategy for the region, to exclude India would be considered by New Delhi as deliberate.
Moreover, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have invested more political capital in improving India-China relations than their predecessors; and to court Indian displeasure on an issue as serious as Jammu and Kashmir would not serve Chinese interests. Yet the Chinese government is well aware that Pakistan will resist any extension of the Corridor to India.
Alternat ives to Resolve India, China, Pakista n Trade Connectivity
One way would be to work with India and Iran to ensure that both are essential parts of the emerging road, rail and pipeline infrastructure connecting South and Central Asia to Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. The International North-South Transportation Corridor(INSTC), which was initially promoted by Russia, India and Iran, would offer that option, were it to connect to OBOR. This would solve one part of the problem, but still make the route to Afghanistan from India an unnecessarily long one, which Kabul can ill afford, given the economic crisis that has beset the country since the drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Furthermore, it would still leave the Gilgit-Baltistan issue wide open.
Another way would be to make India a partner by connecting through Mumbai to Gwadar, or through Attari-Wagah, where the transit trade infrastructure has already been partially developed.
Attari-Wagah is the shortest route for Afghanistan-India-Pakistan trade and in the long run could become a game changer for the Pakistan economy, which will find its largest markets in India. However, Pakistan’s military has remained inimical to the idea, though they would be major beneficiaries, since they control a large part of their country’s economy.
A third option would be to seek connectivity through Gilgit-Baltistan to Ladakh in Indian Jammu and Kashmir. This proposal has been made by Ladakhi analysts and civil society, though their proposal suggests a direct route from Xinjiang rather than from Gilgit-Baltistan. The advantage of connecting Gilgit-Baltistan with Ladakh is that it would satisfy a longstanding Balti demand for a relationship that was severed by the division of the Northern Areas ( former Gilgit-Baltistan) from Ladakh in 1949. But the routes between the two go through Himalayan mountain passes and would not be operational all the year round.
While the first two options are the most physically feasible, the third option is the most politically beneficial, since it would also build peace constituencies on the ground in divided Jammu and Kashmir. There is also a fourth option: that India be consulted on the development of that segment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that goes through Gilgit- Baltistan. On its part the Indian government would seek greater controls over the routes by the elected representatives and administration of Gilgit-Baltistan, including over trade and revenue.
China’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy
Finally there is the issue of China’s gratuitous blocking of India’s request for action against Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi in the UN Sanctions Committee, under UNSCR 1267. In April, 2015, shortly after the Pakistani courts allowed Lakhvi, the operational head of the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, to walk free, the Indian ambassador to the UN Asoke Mukerjee wrote to the 1267 Sanctions Committee seeking action since he was on the 1267 proscribed terrorists’ list. China blocked the request saying more information was required, though India insisted all the facts were in the public domain.
What possessed the Chinese government to take such a step? Its only impact in New Delhi was that China was protecting Pakistanibacked militants who target India – surely a message that Beijing, struggling to control its own insurgencies would not want to send out.
China’s own stance towards terrorism has modified to some extent, in that it talks about the global menace while having different strategies towards different groups.
From Beijing’s point of view this allows China to seek protection against the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who threaten Chinese control in Xinjiang. Their reasoning is that by engaging with the Taliban or protecting the Lashkar-e-Taiba, China will gain some cooperation against ETIM. How far this strategy succeeds is unclear. Observers believe militant madarsas and training camps in Pakistan and sanctuaries in Afghanistan are only lightly controlled by the militant groups, and that the philosophy of militant Islamic brotherhood is stronger.
Irrespective of the rationality or otherwise of this Chinese calculus, Beijing – New Delhi believes –crossed a line when it blocked India’s request at the UN. Not only did the action alienate the majority of Indians, it also made clear that China had an instrumentalist approach towards terrorism, rather than a comprehensive one. With global ambitions and a superpower status, China cannot afford to project such an image, observers feel.
There is already some debate among Chinese analysts over this step by the Chinese government. The issue is likely to resurface before the UN Sanctions Committee in coming months, forcing China to reiterate or moderate its stance.
Three major irritants in the India-China relationship are clearly seen, and all three have Pakistan as its epicentre. Most countries have now de-hyphenated their relations to India and Pakistan, but China appears to continue with the hyphenation. This situation is not sustainable, given that India-China trade is close to USD $60 billion, with the balance heavily weighted in Chinese favour. China needs to find a way to de-hyphenate its relationship with India from its Pakistani “allweather friend”. On this depends the future course of the India-China relationship.
Radha Kumar is Director-General of the Delhi Policy Group. The views expressed here are her own.