As Kashmir Festers, India-China Ties Wobble
N. V. Subramanian
Having angered China by stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood and calling to question its claims on Ladakh, India may attempt to placate its powerful northern neighbour and adversary at an informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit slated for next month (October 11 and 13) in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. India might also hope for a summit outcome where China pressures Pakistan to wind down its campaign against India for killing Kashmir’s special autonomy and placing its citizens in a continuing lockdown since 5th August this year.
What, though, are the chances of all this happening?
Skillfully skirting controversial matters, a Chinese foreign office spokesperson on 18 September tamped down as well the importance of the Mamallapuram summit. “As for Kashmir (being) on the agenda,” Hua Chunying of the foreign office said, “I’m not sure because this is a kind of informal summit and leaders’ meeting. I think better we need to give the leaders much time to discuss whatever they would like to discuss (sic).” While this is a standard Chinese technique of keeping the adversary on tenterhooks without compromising on their core agenda, events before and after the first Modi-Xi “informal” in Wuhan in China (27-28 April 2018) offer a clue to the future.
For over two months from June to August 2017, Indian and Chinese forces faced-off on a wedge of highland called Doklam in the Himalayas claimed by both China and Bhutan. Surprised by the Indian trespass, China disengaged before long for domestic reasons, assessed the Indian resolve in Wuhan, and returned to occupy North Doklam with permanent military infrastructure in January this year, which New Delhi has since been downplaying. Now a fact, a Chinese edge in Doklam casts a shadow over the security of the narrow Siliguri Corridor (twenty-seven to two hundred kilometres wide) connecting India to its eight North East states. In light of this experience, it is prudent to determine that China shan’t be reconciled to the unilateral Indian move on Kashmir but would conceivably act in ways and at its own pace that may not be easily countered.
What often makes China a puzzle for India is that its analysis in the country dodges its complexity and civilized character and reduces its foreign policy to unvarying hostility to New Delhi since the short and brutal Sino-Indian border war fought in 1962. As is frequently the case with reality, it is considerably more nuanced, and in this instance, it also keeps in step with the evolution of China as a Great Power. Capturing the nuances sumptuously in a paper called “China and Crisis Management in South Asia” for the Henry L. Stimson Center co-authored with Hannah Haegeland, the Chinese scholar, Yun Sun, synthesizes the analyses of a number of her other compatriot academics as well into the study to portray in stages the pattern of Chinese behaviour since 1950 in the region. Its contribution to an understanding of the present cannot be overstated.
According to Yun Sun, stage one (1950-62) was marked by a Chinese policy of “general neutrality” towards India and Pakistan. From 1962 to 1989 (stage two), China was no longer neutral and indeed “pro-Pakistan”. In stage three covering the years 1989-99, Beijing’s politics became complex. At the same time as Pakistan became the “cornerstone of China’s South Asia policy”, Beijing attempted to be “somewhat more neutral” towards India while emphasizing “de-escalation of India-Pakistan tensions”. Between 1999 and 2017 (stages three and four), China added “shuttle diplomacy” to its arsenal and firstly brought Pakistan in its scope and subsequently India. The post-2017 phase was designated the “future” and encompasses the present and what’s thought to come. The Stimson paper says that China is less likely to be neutral from now on with the stakes being greater and Yun Sun assigns a larger “third party” role for the country. If these trends sustain in the short- and medium-term, India may have to revaluate, inter alia, its Kashmir options.
Although Yun Sun and Hannah Haegeland in their study did not focus on summits hosted by China for South Asian leaders and their outcomes, their contribution to policy-making for the region is no less than extraordinary. While Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign office spokeswoman, deliberately made light of the Mamallapuram informal, its importance for China would derive from its secret aims and objectives. At the Wuhan India-China informal of April last year, the Chinese exhibited great devotion to profiling their interlocutors through long individual and delegation-level question-answer sessions conducted in a gentle and friendly atmosphere but still resembling an interrogation; no one on the Indian side escaped the artful quizzing. While New Delhi eventually got wise to the game, it did not necessarily make it easier for it or even assist it, as the post-Wuhan Doklam build-up proves. In such circumstances, even should the hosts be on guard at Mamallapuram, the Chinese will attempt to break the defences and steal the secrets, while deploying newspeak and running down the informal at the same time to keep India off-balance.
In this atmosphere of mutual distrust and misgivings, it would be perilous on India’s part to expect any genuinely positive outcomes from the China relationship in the near term. Since Pakistan is the determinant of this in large measure, Yun Sun is frank and emphatic on the point of China’s pro-Pakistan tilt. “Pakistan, rather than India,” Haegeland and she write in the Stimson paper, “is the cornerstone of China’s South Asia policy. Regardless of its internal fragility, Pakistan remains China’s main channel of ‘checks and balances’ against India. Given that lasting peaceful and stable relations between India and Pakistan are desirable but improbable in the near term, China essentially sees balancing of power between the two states as the key to stability in South Asia. The more asymmetrical the power equilibrium, the more unstable South Asia will be.”
When India has had a Great Power suitor on the rare occasion or built strengths that require tapping by China, intuition would require Beijing to bring sustainable corrections to its balance of power strategy between New Delhi and Islamabad without weakening Pakistan. In fact, the opposite may be true. Exploiting the vast Indian market has not required compromises with China’s alliance with Pakistan in all these years. And when it was apprehended that the administration of George W. Bush would partner with India against China following the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement (123 Agreement) and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s pledge to make India a global power, China made its displeasure manifest even as the China-Pakistan Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations was ratified by both sides in 2005-06 at Beijing’s behest.
In the event, India never got aligned with the United States in a significant manner. India’s policy of strategic autonomy (Non-Alignment redux), the reflexive anti-Americanism of Indian polity, and America’s own fickleness and transactional character eroded the promise of India and the United States as “natural allies” as the late prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, portrayed them.
All the same, fearful of the prospect of its success, China not only gave imprimatur to the friendship treaty with Pakistan, it also made itself more approachable to New Delhi, banking on its desire for close relations to check Islamabad. And in pure self-interest again, China moved for still closer economic relations with India, whose vast market was considered attractive and profitable. For all the pulls and pressures of geopolitics, Chinese exports to India have remained steady at about three percent of the total; and these have survived India’s current economic slowdown while perpetuating the trade deficit ($57.86 billion in 2018) which causes consternation and heartburns in New Delhi.
It begs the question, however, if these trends will continue as the Kashmir dispute flares up and throws additional spotlight on Chinese territorial claims in Ladakh where it holds 38,000 square kilometres of Aksai China captured in the 1962 war and periodically contests Indian border patrolling with hand-to-hand fighting and scuffles as happened again recently. With the Indian economy headed for an indefinite slowdown with the Modi government unwilling to admit its structural infirmities, China may feel incentivized to add to the financial strain by ratcheting up the national security pressure in Kashmir by tilting pronouncedly in Pakistan’s favour while keeping up a thinner pretence of balance with India. A joint statement of the foreign ministers of Pakistan and China on 8 September made a pointed reference to Kashmir, the “urgent humanitarian issues” involved there, and emphasized China’s opposition to “any unilateral actions that complicate the situation” inviting India’s protest. If Chinese hostility persists and grows on a firm understanding that India is weakening in comprehensive national power which no amount of ersatz gloss can conceal, the geopolitics of the subcontinent would undergo a profound transformation.
In a sense, transformation was built into the India-China-Pakistan equation when New Delhi and Islamabad became self-proclaimed nuclear powers following their respective tests in a space of a fortnight of one another in May 1998 (Pokhran II and Chagai I and II). The full spectrum of the change, however, took longer to manifest, and it might still be a work in progress. Under a nuclear overhang, Pakistan has sought to carve out space for assisting an armed rebellion in Kashmir, while India has lately attempted limited cross-border ground (September 2016) and air (February 2019) attacks whose impacts have been more psychological than military. And as with all nuclear rivalry between states, India and Pakistan are locked in an arms race in which China’s role as Pakistan’s benefactor can no longer be concealed.
Curiously, India’s first nuclear test of 1974 that brought on Pakistan’s atomic rivalry in which China has played such a central role had altogether another target at start: the United States. Unsettled three years prior by the deployment of a US carrier task force in the Bay of Bengal which saved West Pakistan from Indian conquest in the 1971 Bangladesh War, India grew to harbour a secret fear of regime change or destabilization under American auspices already put to practise in the Middle East. Possession of nuclear weapons was supposed to provide insurance against regime change. Two years before the 1974 test, in the wake of the loss of East Pakistan, the residual Pakistan state’s firebrand president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had declared that “even if we have to eat grass, we will make nuclear bombs”. His target was India. Goaded by India’s success in 1974, Pakistan’s stalled weapons’ programme produced a working device by 1987. Co-authors Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman of the book, “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation,” say this device derived from a Chinese design called CHIC-4 and was tested in secret for Pakistan by China in 1990.
“That’s why the Pakistanis were so quick to respond to the Indian nuclear tests of 1998,” Reed said in a book-promotion interview to US News & World Report. “It took them only two weeks and three days. When the Soviet Union took the United States by surprise with a test in 1961, it took the US seventeen days to prepare and test a device that had been on hand for years.” A 2001 report of the US department of defence on “Proliferation: Threats and Response” more or less confirms Reed’s assessment but in rather conditional terms. “China,” it says, “...has provided extensive support in the past to Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and some ballistic missile assistance continues.” The Chinese explanation for this is that China’s “support of Pakistan’s nuclear programme historically and today is aimed at promoting strategic stability between India and Pakistan”. In the words of the Chinese scholar, Zhang Jie Gen, “China’s goal is not to check the development of India’s nuclear power. Nor does it seek a comparable Pakistani nuclear arsenal. However, when Pakistan needs it, China has to provide the support as long as it is within the international laws and rules, so that the gap between Pakistan’s nuclear power and that of India will not become so significant (that it is destabilizing).”
According to the latest Arms Control Association data, India has about 140 nuclear weapons and Pakistan 160 while China has a stock of 290 bombs. “China, India and Pakistan are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile and sea-based nuclear delivery systems,” the Association says. “In addition, Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons’ use by developing tactical nuclear weapons’ capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats.” While Pakistan does not have a no-first-use (NFU) policy, India’s own has recently eroded, although Pakistan has never trusted India’s past professions of no-first-use either. In the event of an Indian invasion to seize Pakistan-administered Kashmir of which New Delhi is sending political signals with increasing frequency, Pakistan and India will be locked in an escalating nuclear exchange which can have no winners. Should there be a prospect of India narrowly surviving extinction, China will deliver the coup de grace. Pakistan-China relations are no longer erratic and variable as they were in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, and China’s stakes in Pakistan are of such magnitude that Beijing cannot allow its ally to sink without punishing its tormentor.
Since the 1965 war with Pakistan, India’s worst nightmare has been a collusive or collaborative military campaign by Beijing and Islamabad against New Delhi. According to a redacted Central Intelligence Agency report of the 1965 war, China succeeded in making common cause with Pakistan against their mutual enemy, India, after the 1962 conflict. In October 1964, it granted Pakistan a $60 million interest-free credit, “and last March amid considerable fanfare [Chinese foreign minister] Chen Yi signed the first protocol on the demarcation of their common frontier”. In consequence, Shaksgam Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was ceded to China in 1963.
Despite all the give and take, the two-front Pakistan-China collusive war that India apprehended in 1965 did not materialize. The CIA attributed this to the changing tides of war and the intervention of fortuitous external circumstances and not for want of intent and preparation on the part of China and Pakistan. While China had put in place “(military) forces required for sharp, limited-objective attacks” on India, the CIA report says, “[Pakistan’s] Ayub Khan may have concluded that the kind of help he could expect would be too little and too late to salvage the situation and decided to forgo assistance which would almost certainly foreclose the possibility of Western efforts to restrain the Indians and to promote a reasonable settlement.” The report added, “The Chinese were almost certainly angered by Pakistan’s last-minute request that they not intervene -- a move Peking probably sees as weak-kneed knuckling under to Western pressure -- and Rawalpindi’s agreement to a ceasefire under UN auspices has no doubt been especially galling.”
Likely chastened by the 1965 experience, China became more circumspect in supporting Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh War with India, although other factors almost certainly played equal if not greater roles. In 1968, the Soviet Union began arming Pakistan after the United States cut military aid. This did not prevent a Moscow-New Delhi alliance for the prosecution of the 1971 war which, on that account, was insulated briefly from US intervention. With its own relations with the two superpowers having undergone a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, China had no desire to take further risks in the war, although it did transmit a statement to Pakistan supporting its territorial integrity. (The New York Times of January 1972 did mention Chinese weather mapping as a prelude to limited military action in the war of the previous month but there is no firm basis for this.) Yun Sun and Hannah Haegeland in the Stimson paper make a further point that China’s “avowed support for ‘national liberation movements’ meant it was wary of appearing hypocritical by opposing the Bangladesh freedom movement during West Pakistan’s violent military crackdown. China had strong relations with the power brokers in East Pakistan and was hedging against a separated, independent Bangladesh to counter Indian influence.” At least temporarily, it would appear, collusion with Pakistan to contain India had yielded to a Chinese strategy to hoist New Delhi by its own petard.
However, following the May 1998 tests when India and Pakistan became avowed nuclear weapons’ states, China could no longer play ducks and drakes with the Pakistan alliance. The immediate provocation came from India, which blamed China and Pakistan for going nuclear in a letter to the then US president, Bill Clinton, which was leaked to the press. Indian finger-pointing was less seriously intended and more a damage-control measure for imminent US economic and military sanctions, but the effect was the same as though it were actually meant. It drew China and Pakistan closest in a long time, aided by a back history where Pakistan was used by the United States between 1979 and 1990 in Afghanistan and mostly discarded thereafter, and assisted furthermore by China’s rise as a global power which made it a matter of urgency for it to control fires in the neighbourhood such as those represented by the May 1998 tests.
There was another strand of history which made the Sino-Pakistani fellowship of 1998 and subsequently inescapable for Beijing and nearly dire for Islamabad, this being the Indian economic reforms of 1991. Faced with a severe balance of payments crisis and a seventy-one percent drop in foreign exchange reserves between August 1990 and January 1991 to $896 million because of the first Gulf War, spike in oil prices and virtual collapse of inward remittances from the Middle East, a shock had to be administered to India’s dirigiste economy. Taking the form of seven to eleven per cent currency devaluation twice in quick succession, trade liberalization and de-licensing, it surged growth in GDP (rising in nominal terms at constant prices by 2216 percent from 1991 to 2016), foreign direct investment (from $0.07 billion in 1991 to $43.41 billion in 2008), foreign exchange reserves ($360.20 billion in 2016) and so forth, and made India a $2 trillion economy within twenty-five years of the reforms.
From having no strategic competitor in South Asia to facing a potential economic powerhouse and likely geopolitical challenger in less than ten years of the end of the Cold War upset Chinese calculations while threatening Pakistan with closure of the window to wrest Indian-administered Kashmir. When Pakistan initiated the “mini-war” in Kargil in the year following the nuclear test, it was acting as much out of desperation as interrogating the outer bounds of the paradigm of limited war under a nuclear overhang. Since China could not extricate Pakistan from the mess having no leverage with India, Political Islamabad was compelled to approach Washington and the Bill Clinton administration, and the administration sought the good offices of Beijing to convince the Pakistan military to retreat. Although China does not admit to playing a direct role in the Kargil mediation, “its refusal to support Pakistan’s position”, says Yun Sun, the Chinese scholar, “backstopped the US demand for [withdrawal of its troops from Indian-administered Kashmir] and contributed to Pakistan’s decision to do so”.
But this did not prove a happy inauguration of US-China collaboration to maintain peace in the subcontinent as Beijing desired. Not only did the India-Pakistan power deferential grow on account of India’s rise, it was also aided by a tilt of three successive US administrations which removed the Pokhran II sanctions and made India eligible for civilian nuclear commerce (via the 123 Agreement) with the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). The 11 September attacks were the tipping point, ending India’s nuclear pariah status at least partially by permitting uranium imports for fuel-starved power reactors, which in turn freed domestic uranium resources for weaponization. It couldn’t get more unequal for Pakistan.
Addressing the perceived inequity since, China has “grandfathered” five pressurized water reactors for Pakistan (Chashma 3 and 4 of 320 MWe each and Karachi 2 and 3 and Chashma 5 of 1100 MWe output) following the Indo-US 123 Agreement of 2005 in defiance of the NSG. Since International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards apply to all the “grandfathered” reactors, there is little possibility of diversion of reprocessed fuel for Pakistan’s weapons’ programme, which has dedicated facilities for it. All the same, bending of rules does put a strain on regulated nuclear trade, one of the founding principles of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. From China and Pakistan’s perspective, the exception granted to India for access to the highly-controlled nuclear market for fuel and technologies under US coercion was palpably unfair, and “grandfathering” reactors to Pakistan was one way of getting even. China is assuming that the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, including its key state member, the United States, would eventually come to reason that keeping Pakistan as an NSG outlier is not worth the risk of proliferation since its civil power needs are genuine, and that exemptions equal to those granted to India are suitable concessions to make.
Since at least 2016, China has found another pressing reason to build Pakistan’s nuclear power infrastructure in opposition to world opinion, and this has less to do with India than the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC. Billed as the flagship project of the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative of Chinese strongman Xi Jinping, CPEC is a network of roads, railways, the deep seaports of Karachi and Gwadar and energy projects in Pakistan that link up with Northern and Eastern China with Kashgar City in the Xinjiang region serving as a hub. Beyond its utility in peacetime cutting distance (by two-thirds) and time (fifteen fold) from China’s sea trade and commerce with the Middle East and Africa, the CPEC is conceived as Beijing’s lifeline to the outside world should the oceans become inaccessible in conditions of extreme hostility with adversary powers. In Pakistan’s present parlous state of the economy having to borrow $6 billion from the International Monetary Fund, it cannot meet its share of CPEC investments (estimated at $7.4 billion for infrastructure and $9.43 billion for energy projects), and owes China as such $6.56 billion for the July 2018-April 2019 period according to The Economic Times. Daunting as these sums are, China is unlikely to leave Pakistan in the lurch and withdraw from its investment commitments in the country, which range beyond CPEC to include investments in civil nuclear infrastructure and fuel, conventional military investments, and so forth. All told, Beijing should be willing to absorb financial losses from the alliance with Islamabad in the expectation that medium-term geopolitical and geo-economic gains would square them off.
With such high stakes in its ally, it is only natural that China should have expanded its presence in Pakistan in all the realms that matter to it. Less by design initially, it is the case now. And the one feature that would be a source of particular concern for India facing a two-front war threat is the provenance of a majority of Pakistan’s conventional weapons. Broadly speaking, China’s share of arms exports to Pakistan rose from 58.42 per cent in 2009-18 to 69.12 per cent in 2014-18 according to an Observer Research Foundation (ORF) study of June this year. This rise is paralleled by a decline in US-Pakistan arms trade in the same period, with the fall being significant between 2016 and 2018. Of no less concern to India is that Pakistan’s overall share in Chinese arms exports is declining, which is explained by Beijing’s penetration into other markets, including those of Bangladesh and Myanmar. This increases the scope for autonomous arms transfers in the region and interoperability, a realm in which China is determined to give close competition to the United States and to create the basis for the future “encirclement” of India.
The ORF study has a sidelight which is significant in itself and for bringing into salience the collusive war threat faced by India. Determining that Pakistan’s priority imports in the past ten years are focussed on light combat aircraft, helicopters and airborne early warning and control systems, it raises the tantalizing question for readers whether this is geared towards a sovereign defence strategy or a two-front war or both. As many questions are raised by another path-breaking ORF analysis called “The sobering arithmetic of a two-front war”. Using a simple formula, with coefficients representing total deployment of major weapons’ types of India and Pakistan on one hand in conflict, and variables for China on the other for the same weapons added in support of Pakistani forces, the study is gloomy about Indian prospects in a collusive war scenario. In major weapons’ classes like main battle tanks, fighter aircraft, artillery/ rocket forces, frigates and tactical submarines, India is either outnumbered by Pakistan-China twinning or outclassed by modern Chinese systems.
The study, however, follows a common error in thinking that China will not opportunistically intervene in an India-Pakistan war and open a second front; nor that it will prosecute a collaborative war from start with Pakistan. There is the greatest likelihood, it concedes, of a 1962-like war where Pakistan becomes the third belligerent. The argument for China’s disdain for opportunism is that it is a world power with a reputation to protect in South Asia and the Asia-Pacific. It is a thin argument to base an entire military strategy on, especially as history has shown quite the other face of Beijing.
The 1962 Sino-Indian war was launched by Beijing when world attention was transfixed on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of the United States and the Soviet Union verging on Armageddon. In the 1965 India-Pakistan war, China was prepared for limited military action opposite Sikkim to take the heat off Pakistan only to be constrained by the rapid evolution of the war situation and the external environment. In 1971, it correctly surmised that Bangladesh was a fait accompli and there was greater merit in positioning it against India over the long term. In the decades since, China has bound itself inseparably from Pakistan and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor represents a considerable evolution in their relationship.
The latest Kashmir moves by India, on the other hand, represent a threat to both Pakistan and China. China believes that the United States is either unable or unwilling to sober Indian measures against Pakistan for real or imagined transgressions. Counselled against revenging the September 2016 cross-border Indian strike, Pakistan and China suspect it encouraged the Balakot attack in February this year, and that Pakistani counter-strikes overriding dissuasions restored the balance. “The United States seems to have underestimated how strongly the ghost of Uri (the September 2016 strike) was haunting Pakistan,” writes Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace for the Arms Control Association website. “Islamabad perceived danger in reinforcing a precedent set following Pakistan’s restraint during the Uri situation. It risked convincing India that it could use military force in such situations without fear of retaliation.”
In Moeed’s estimation, “This crisis experience could potentially lead the United States to revert back to unequivocal prioritization of de-escalation and a resolve to prevent any military action from either side.” But Pakistan and more importantly China are unlikely to depend on US resolve to keep the peace in the sub-continent. As long as India-Pakistan tensions did not profoundly alter the status quo and did not affect Chinese interests, Beijing made the best of a bad situation. But revoking Article 370 and Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and splitting it into two Union territories, one of them being Ladakh whose eastern chunks China claims, is beyond toleration for China. It undermines its southwest frontiers and jeopardizes the China Pakistan Economic Corridor on which so much of China’s geopolitics and geo-economics pivots.
This partly explains China’s support for Pakistan against the recent “reorganization” of Kashmir and it will likely survive threats of denial of the Indian market if made and equally remain unpersuaded by blandishments of extraordinary access to it. Save fundamental transformations in the external environment, India-China relations are headed towards deterioration.