China-Pakistan Ties: A Question of Faith And Doubt for India
A Chinese daily claims that ‘Beijing has been asking Islamabad... to keep tensions at a minimum’ with New Delhi.
During the course of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in China, and days before Indian PM Narendra Modi arrived in China for his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an editorial in Daily Times titled ‘China’s re-assurance on CPEC’ made an interesting point:
If anything, Beijing has been asking Islamabad to engage with New Delhi and keep tensions to a minimum. Such an environment is also conducive to timely completion of various projects under CPEC, and transforming South and Western Asia into a high economic growth zone. Keeping the economy first is a lesson that our state has yet to learn from its big brother in the hood.
Can India-China Rethink Compel Shift in Regional Dynamics?
Given some of the steps which have been taken in the past few months, it seems as though both New Delhi and Beijing are rethinking their relationship (some analysts have dubbed as ‘reset’), the Modi visit to China was very much part of this strategy.
The key question is, can Beijing play a role in reshaping South Asia’s geopolitical dynamics, especially the India-Pakistan relationship. Before answering this question, it would be good to understand some of the reasons why New Delhi has been increasingly uncomfortable with the Islamabad-Beijing nexus.
Ever since 2014, apart from Modi’s invitation to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s swearing-in, and then the former’s impromptu Lahore visit in December 2015, ties have been largely strained, not just due to tensions across the Line of Control (LoC), terror attacks (Pathankot, Uri), but also the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through disputed territory (Gilgit-Baltistan).
Interestingly, during Modi’s recent China visit, it stated that it would not push India on OBOR. Said the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Kong Xuanyou, “We won’t force them to do something they don’t want to do.”
China has also defended Pakistan’s terror groups like the JeM (Jaish-E-Mohammed). Further, it has blocked a resolution to declare Masood Azhar, Chief of Jaish-E-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist at the UN repeatedly.
Beijing has even invited New Delhi to join the Belt and Road Initiative, though India has declined because of the CPEC project passing through the disputed territory.
India was also one of the few countries which did not attend the Belt and Road meeting in May 2017, due to its differences with China over CPEC.
Can China Be a Part of the Solution in South Asia?
While many analysts focus on the China-Pakistan axis, a number of analysts also believe that China, which too has borne the brunt of terrorism, could be part of the solution, given its economic interests in India (balance of trade is in favor of China). Interestingly, a number of US analysts, and even Donald Trump’s NSA, John Bolton, have argued that China, with its economic leverage over Pakistan, has the capacity to convince, (if necessary, even arm twist) Islamabad to take action against terror groups.
An op-ed in Global Times spoke about the need for New Delhi to give up it’s skepticism towards Islamabad-Beijing relationship:
We hope New Delhi, as a major power in the region, can realise the significance of cooperation, abandon its stereotyped view of Sino-Pakistani partnership, and correctly view the purpose of the Belt and Road initiative…. But if the Indian government regards the SCO as merely a lever to balance China and Pakistan, it will lose an important platform for cooperation and growth.
The first necessary precondition for change is a rethink on the part of Beijing, where it seeks to dispel the notion, that its ties with Pakistan are targeted at India. Apart from this, Beijing needs to prevail upon Islamabad to take firm action against terror groups targeting India, and stop state patronage to groups like LeT, JeM.
While some sections of the establishment make the right noises, the Pakistan Army is certainly in cahoots with such groups. The latest example being the Milli Muslim League (MML) a front of Mumbai mastermind Hafiz Saeed’s JuD, which has been propped up by the Pakistan military to weaken the PML-N.
Get Rid of Myopia & Look at the Bigger Picture
While there was no specific mention of Pakistan during the Xi-Modi meeting, the issue of terrorism did come up. What was interesting was the fact that India-Pakistan and China will be holding a joint military exercise in Russia, in September 2018, under the framework of the SCO.
Even in the context of economic linkages and connectivity, it is one thing for China to ask India to be part of the regional economic narrative. Some of the logistical issues which have stymied concrete cooperation between New Delhi and Pakistan need to be addressed. Pakistan, for instance, needs to at least provide India the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) status, if it is serious about improving economic ties with India.
While both the PML-N government, and previous PPP government have been keen to strengthen economic ties, the establishment has scuttled the decision. With India and China jointly working in a project in Afghanistan, it is likely that Beijing will pay more attention to this.
It is not just China of course. A lot also depends upon the political situation in Pakistan over the next few months. The military establishment has been growing stronger in the past two years, and it has found a new ally in the Pakistani judiciary.
First, former PM Nawaz Sharif was disqualified for life by the Supreme Court, from holding any public office, and then Former Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif was disqualified for life by the Islamabad High Court. A lot will thus depend upon the post May 2018 electoral verdict, and the civil-military relationship in Pakistan.
Given the global geopolitical uncertainties, and the changing nature of the India-China relationship, nothing can be ruled out. All that is required is flexibility, pragmatism and a long term view of events.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh .The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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