As India considers a range of policy options for acting against Pakistan after the dastardly terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri, it becomes even more important to talk about and discuss the elephant – actually the dragon — in the room: China.
As a country that illegally holds the strategically-important Aksai Chin — all 37,240 square kilometres of it — area of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, China is an equally important part of the Kashmir problem and its ‘taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey’ friendship with Pakistan plays an important role in complicating the security triangle in the Indian subcontinent.
In recent years, China has sought to further prop up Pakistan. Nothing demonstrates Beijing’s commitment to upholding the ties with Islamabad more than the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), connecting the Xinjiang province with the warm water, deep-sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. As an ambitious and the flagship project of an even more ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, it is anybody’s guess why Beijing would pour $46 billion in the CPEC, which is slated to pass through one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world — second only to the Levant region consisting of Syria and Iraq. The Chinese side is hoping that it will be able to buy peace by throwing money at the discontented population of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, Pathans in Khyber-Paktunkhwa and the Mengal, Murri and Bugti tribes of Balochistan.
For all these plans to succeed, however, China would like to see peace and order — or at least some semblance of it — in those parts of Pakistan, which are traversed by the CPEC. Hence, logically speaking, as the country that invests a considerable amount of money in Pakistan, China should have been highly disapproving of Pakistani actions of supporting cross-border terrorism in India, which spark tensions between the two South Asian neighbours. Yet, geopolitics and statecraft are such strange things that China continues to turn a blind eye towards Pakistan’s active complicity in harbouring and encouraging the terrorist groups of all types — from the Al-Qaeda and Hizbul Mujahideen to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in its territory. Perhaps, in the thinking of the Chinese leadership, countering terrorism is secondary to its desire to contain India’s rise in the global power matrix.
In fact, over the years, China has increasingly taken a very limited view of the terrorism problem in Pakistan by making sure that Pakistan cracks down on the Uighur militants without paying attention to the surrounding environment, in which not only the Uighur militants but also other terrorists including anti-India terrorist groups thrive. China’s repeated blocking of moves to designate the Pakistan-based terrorist leaders — Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad — as 'terrorists' at the United Nations, despite India's reiteration of its concerns and sensitivities, is but one manifestation of that tendency.
Interestingly, Beijing has managed to carry on with this façade, even as it aligned its struggle against the Uighur separatism in the larger context of the ‘Global War on Terror’, which was launched after the 11 September, 2001 attacks in the United States. However, as India more forcefully highlights Pakistan’s persistently flagrant actions in supporting terrorism at the international level, and as the world opinion crystallises against the terrorist safe havens maintained by Pakistan, Beijing will find that its position on the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan is increasingly becoming untenable. For the sake of not jeopardising its investments in the CPEC and thereby endangering the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, it would do well for the leadership in Beijing to acknowledge the gravity of the problem and undertake course-correction.
Logically speaking, as the country that invests a considerable amount of money in Pakistan, China should have been highly disapproving of Pakistani actions of supporting cross-border terrorism in India, which spark tensions between the two South Asian neighbours
In the event of a conflict between India and Pakistan, arising out of the terrorist attack — Uri or any other subsequent terrorist attack, it is a foregone conclusion in New Delhi’s security establishment that China will muddy the waters at a minimum and at a maximum, extend wholehearted support to Pakistan by opening another front with India, so as to divert Indian military’s attention. What options has India has to counter China, notwithstanding the capability gap between the two countries?
To begin with, New Delhi will have to translate its willingness in talking about the Chinese threat in the security realm to the threat posed by China in the economic sphere. In the event of a potential conflict, creatively using the burgeoning trade deficit of $40 billion and more, which benefits China, to its advantage and impose costs on Beijing, could be one way in which India can pressure China.
Targeting Chinese companies that do business in Pakistan and making them ineligible to do business with India, can be another way that economic pressure could be applied on China. Upsetting trade relations with China will surely cause some pain in India in the short term and most likely invite opposition from the companies that source cheaper goods from China, however in the long term, if there is a change in Chinese behaviour with regard to Pakistan, it would certainly be beneficial for India. Another option could be to withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which India is the second largest stakeholder. The threat of a withdrawal by India will surely raise some concerns in Beijing, which is eager to showcase its power in creating non-western financial institutions.
India will have to stand up to the Chinese dragon, as it sorts out its problems with Pakistan. What is needed is the capacity to think creatively on managing relations with China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has demonstrated that capacity earlier by responding to China’s repeated border incursions in Ladakh in a forceful manner, which has brought the problem to a manageable level.
Hopefully this time too, his government shows the same tenacity.