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China’s Stance in India-Pak Dogfight: More Centrist Than Partisan

Amid tensions, will India & Pak become mature nuclear neighbours? We don’t know, but China has certainly mellowed.

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Never waste a good crisis! Because what we weathered in the last week of February 2019 was a blood-curdling dogfight between India and Pakistan that could have nuked half the global population in and around South Asia. I concede there is an element of exaggeration here, but big wars often get triggered by tiny accidents of judgement. So better to exaggerate than get tortured in a nuclear winter.

Yet a crisis of such proportions is also an opportunity to grow up, become a wiser person/country. So, will India and Pakistan seize upon this dangerous wrinkle to become mature, moderate nuclear neighbours? We don’t know, but China, widely expected to continue its incendiary support to Pakistan, has certainly mellowed.

China Backs India’s Attack on Pakistan

On Day One, after India claimed to have bombed and killed hundreds of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists at Balakot, China surprised everybody by endorsing the “non-military, counter terror, pre-emptive” skin of our attack. China could have easily reinforced Pakistan’s protest against “an act of war”.

But China chose its words with utmost diplomatic finesse: “As for India’s claim on taking action against terrorism, well, fighting terrorism is a global practice”. The very next day, after a face-to-face meeting with India’s foreign minister, China and Russia announced in a formal statement: “Terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals”.

But then the Chinese foreign minister seemed to deflect a bit of the heat by saying “we believe that Pakistan has always been opposed to terrorism”. While that seemed like a half-step backward, China deftly neutralised it – at precisely the same moment – by moving a half-step forward thousands of miles away at UNSC in New York. It agreed to sign up for a French resolution condemning the Pulwama attack and explicitly naming JeM as its perpetrator.

Yes, it did insist on dropping the “Pakistan-based” prefix for JeM, but for a country that had obdurately vetoed calling Masood Azhar a “UN-designated global terrorist” for a decade, it was a huge half-stride forward.

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China Moves Towards Centre in India-Pak Equation

For a while now, China has been visibly moving towards the centre in India-Pak ties. China is Pakistan's most important trading partner and biggest arms supplier. The $46-billion CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), which opened in late 2016, only reinforced the sense that China and Pakistan were teaming up against India. The corridor gives China easy access to the Indian Ocean and beyond, and has jump-started Pakistan's decimated economy with extensive energy, infrastructure, and industrial projects, making Islamabad even more beholden to Beijing.

But is it time for India now to stay focused on the positives? China can exert pressure on Islamabad in ways that benefit India – namely by curbing terrorism, as we have explicitly requested. 

That's one key interest we share; the Chinese fear Pakistan-based militants are inciting and abetting their own insurgent Muslim Uighur population, and have demanded tightened security along the CPEC.

At Beijing's behest, Pakistan has already banned such terrorist groups as the Islamic Jihad Union and ETIM, whose leaders it extradited to China. Will anti-India groups be the next to be named?

After militants killed 17 Indian soldiers at Uri, Beijing publicly denied Pakistan's claims that China would always back them in Kashmir (that was the first flicker of change which got strengthened in the Pulwama-induced dogfight).

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China Assuming The Responsibilities of a Global Leader

China’s slowly hardening stance bodes well for future counter-terrorism collaboration with us. The Indian Army and the PLA have been conducting annual 'Hand in Hand' counter-terrorism exercises for years.

Citing a 'growing convergence of views' on terror, they have discussed sharing best practices and even intelligence. Beijing has invested heavily to become an effective peacekeeping state, putting up seven percent of the UN peacekeeping budget—more than Canada and Spain.

The Chinese are engaged not only at a policy level, debating and designing resolutions, but also, increasingly, in on-the-ground operations, sending 'enabler' units to provide the backbone and infrastructure for missions as well as 'tip of the spear' front-line forces in Haiti, Sudan, Liberia, and Afghanistan.

Nothing is better for India's—or the world's—security than an engaged China, assuming the responsibilities of global leadership.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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