Why India-China Border Conflict Is Music to Pakistan’s Ears

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the big winner of this Sino-Indian clash is Pakistan”: Dr Claude Rakisits

Published18 Jun 2020, 11:17 AM IST
Opinion
4 min read

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the pre-industrial age-type clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh would be welcome news to the hard military men in Pakistan. As far as nuclear-armed Pakistan is concerned, any military pain – which nuclear-armed China can inflict on Islamabad’s Number One Enemy, India, the third nuclear-armed country in the neighbourhood – is very good news indeed.

I stress the nuclear-armed capability of the three countries not because I believe nuclear arms are about to be used, but to make the point that, whilst this is a clash still at a very low level, these are very heavily-armed countries which have the ability to inflict great damage to one another if these border differences are not managed properly.

Why DSDBO Road Is Of Geo-Strategic Significance to India

As I see it, there were two triggers for China’s recent move in Ladakh – a) local and b) geo-political. And both of these have ramifications for Pakistan.

While one of the reasons for Chinese military moves in Ladakh is a local issue, that is, India’s decision to build a feeder branch of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, the potential geo-strategic ramifications of the outcome of this clash have wide regional implications.

The DSDBO road has very significant strategic value for India, as it enables the Indian Army to bring by road (rather than by air) supplies, men and material, to its posts in the Siachen region – a contested area between India and Pakistan.

But if China is able to retain control of Patrol Point 14 (PP14), which dominates the heights overlooking the DSDBO road, then it would have a massive strategic and operational advantage over India. Having the military upper hand, it wouldn’t take much for China to cut-off the DSDBO road at a time of its choosing.

Why Indian Army Must Increase Military Footprint Significantly

Although in early May 2020, China did reportedly occupy Indian territory, Chinese troops have since withdrawn to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It has also brought additional troops in the rear to beef-up its military presence in the Galwan Valley, the main point of contention today.

In operational terms this means that the Indian Army is going to have to significantly strengthen its military footprint, including by bringing up artillery, armoured and aviation units, and aggressively man these in a forward posture to be able to counter any possible Chinese move across the LAC.

One shouldn’t forget that although the Sino-Indian armed clashes in the last few weeks have been quasi-medieval in their style, India has suffered its greatest losses since Kargil in 1999.

Not only will these necessary military reinforcements cost India heavily in personnel and treasure, but it also means that the diversion of these military assets will reduce India’s force capability to make any military move – were it so inclined – into Pakistan’s ‘Azad Kashmir’ and Gilgit-Baltistan. That would be good news for Pakistan.

Amit Shah’s ‘Vow’ to ‘Take Back Aksai Chin’ Is What Particularly Irked China

The second trigger for China’s move was geo-political. China, like Pakistan, has objected to PM Modi’s decision on 5 August 2019 to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution (which gave Jammu and Kashmir autonomous status) and abolish J&K as a state and turned it into two new centre-controlled union territories.

As far as China (and Pakistan) is concerned, J&K remains ‘disputed territory’. And China has a particular interest in Ladakh given that it has historical claims over parts of it.

But what must have really irritated President Xi Jinping is Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s vow to take back Aksai Chin’, territory that India lost to China in their brief but very bloody 1962 war.

So China’s move on Ladakh has put on ice Prime Minister Modi’s plan to integrate J&K into the Indian union. By annexing J&K – a disputed territory as reaffirmed in numerous UN Security Council resolutions – PM Modi has put Kashmir back on the international radar, and has brought China into the picture. These are two outcomes that Pakistan would welcome heartily.

PM Modi Must Strike Balance Between De-Escalating & Not Appearing to Kowtow to the Enemy

Prime Minister Modi will be under massive pressure to do something, or at least to be seen to be doing something, to respond to China’s belligerence – particularly after he stated that the “… the sacrifice of our jawans will not be in vain.”

Having said that, there’s no appetite for either side to escalate what is still a low-level clash.

The fact that the foreign ministers of India and China have talked over the phone is proof of that. PM Modi also knows that in any military confrontation with China, India would not do well at all. So he needs to get the right balance between de-escalating and not looking like he’s backed down in front of the enemy.

Prime Minister Modi also knows that all the hard work he put into trying to develop a friendly, workable relationship with President Xi is now looking rather wasted. At their last ‘informal’ meeting in October 2019, Xi and Modi had agreed to designate 2020 as the China-India year of cultural and people-to-people exchanges. How things can change quickly.

‘Protection’ For CPEC & BRI

So all in all, there’s absolutely no doubt that the big winner of this Sino-Indian clash is Pakistan.

Whether Pakistan had foreknowledge that China was going to make this move is really a moot point now.

China’s military move in Ladakh provides potential protection for its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) assets that run through Gilgit-Baltistan, and it neutralises India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) going through Gilgit-Baltistan.

In other words, as far as Beijing is concerned, New Delhi’s opposition to CPEC going through Pakistan-administered-Kashmir is now merely academic. This would all be welcome news for Pakistan and the top brass in Rawalpindi.

(Dr Claude Rakisits is Honorary Associate Professor in Diplomacy at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, Canberra. He tweets @ClaudeRakisits. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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