China, the Centrist Superpower in the India-Pakistan Dogfight

“China can exert pressure on Islamabad in ways that benefit India — by curbing terrorism, as we have requested.”

5 min read
China’s main strategic interest in Pakistan has been to use it as a proxy against India.

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Never waste a good crisis! Because what we weathered this week 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 Endorses India’s Unusual “Non-Military” Strike

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.

China Has Been Visibly Moving Towards the Centre in India-Pak Ties

Until now, the main stumbling block in our relationship with China has been its support of Pakistan. China is Pakistan's most important trading partner and biggest arms supplier; from 2013 to 2017, China sent 35 percent of its arms exports to Pakistan, accounting for 70 percent of Islamabad’s total weapons imports. As the US has learned, India can't ever completely embrace a country that arms our No. 1 enemy, which has shown no qualms about using imported weapons against us – even in this dogfight, Pakistan violated American conditions by using the F-16s for military offensives against India.

China's main strategic interest in Pakistan has been to use it as a proxy against India. The $46-billion CPEC, 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. Top Pakistani officials reportedly gathered in Gwadar port to greet the first convoy of Chinese trucks to arrive on the CPEC highway before sending them off for Africa in a Chinese ship.

But should India now 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 India and China 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. Anti-India groups may be next. 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 this week).

One account published in Dawn after the Uri attack — later denied by Islamabad —reported that China 'had indicated a preference for a change' in Pakistan's approach to anti-India militant groups, giving the military no choice but to enforce the ban against such groups as JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

China put Pakistan on further notice after the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, when Beijing signed a joint declaration expressing ‘concern about the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, Islamic State (IS) [...] al-Qaeda and its affiliates,’ which then went on to name specifically the Pakistan-based groups.

China’s Expanding Footprint in Counter-Terrorism & Peace-Keeping Roles

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. Top officials from both countries have met repeatedly to expand such efforts; citing a 'growing convergence of views' on terror, they have discussed sharing best practices and even intelligence. This is an area rife with opportunities for enhanced cooperation, especially in the lawless badlands of Afghanistan, where our interests closely align.

Indeed, India should be heartened by China's expanding role as a willing and capable leader in global security and peace-keeping missions. Beijing has invested heavily to become an effective peacekeeping state, putting up seven percent of the UN peacekeeping budget — more than Canada and Spain, according to Courtney Fung, a University of Hong Kong political scientist who specialises in Chinese foreign policy.

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 such locales as 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.


In Just Another Ten Days…

China will get a major opportunity to become much more “neutral” in India-Pakistan ties.

Will it again veto the UNSC resolution labelling Masood Azhar a “global terrorist”?

Or will it abstain, unimpeachably wearing the mantle of a stoic, non-partisan and responsible neo-Superpower?

The world is watching.

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