India-Pakistan standoff after Pulwama attack boosts China's strategy of containing New Delhi, dominating Islamabad

For China, Pakistan is a borrowed knife to undermine or slow the rise of India in Asia as a competitor.

Palden Sonam March 28, 2019 17:48:38 IST
India-Pakistan standoff after Pulwama attack boosts China's strategy of containing New Delhi, dominating Islamabad
  • China’s strategy in South Asia is a remarkable strategic vision

  • For China, Pakistan is a borrowed knife to undermine India

  • China does not want the rivals to develop friendly relations

Following the Pulwama terror attack, tension soared between South Asia’s two nuclear rivals: India and Pakistan. However, another aspect deserves some attention: How China tried to capitalise on the tension. Though Beijing thoughtfully called on India and Pakistan to “turn the crisis into opportunity”, it turned out that China was also interested in turning the same crisis into an opportune time to spur its influence in South Asia as the new regional power: a geopolitical scenario looming over its horizon that New Delhi loathes.

After India’s air strike, Pakistan actively tried to bring in China as a potential mediator despite fully knowing that New Delhi would not accept any third party, much less China. Barely two days after India’s air strike on Balakot, the Pakistani foreign minister called his Chinese counterpart to help defuse tension with India on 27 February. On 6 March, Chinese deputy foreign minister Kong Xuanyou visited Pakistan and praised Islamabad’s management of the crisis with restraint and calmness. There was no mention of the deadly terrorist attack on India in his statement. China also informally indicated its interest to send its envoy to India, but New Delhi declined.

IndiaPakistan standoff after Pulwama attack boosts Chinas strategy of containing New Delhi dominating Islamabad

Security forces personnel arrive for reinforcement during a gunbattle in Pulwama. PTI

It seems there is a carefully calibrated strategy coming from Beijing and Islamabad where the latter portrays the former as the new big, but benevolent power capable of maintaining order in South Asia and the former also projecting a similar image yet in a subtler way through official statements and international visits.

Pakistan also tried to utilise the same crisis as means to internationalise the Kashmir issue and China’s support even if symbolic, is crucial. While Kashmir is an important factor in India-Pakistan relations, however, it is necessary to note that Islamabad cannot use Kashmir as a smokescreen to cover the use of its territory as safe havens for terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack in Kashmir. In the same vein, India also cannot blame everything happening in the Valley on Pakistan as ground realities are more complicated than the headlines. Caught between India-Pakistan rivalry, Kashmiris suffer the most. That’s the sad reality both sides do not admit.

As long as Pakistan fails to stop the proxy terror groups and their activities against India; peace between the two arch-rivals will likely come at a much larger cost. However, Pakistan’s increasing dependence on China as a source of political and economic support means that it’s not easy to detach itself from Beijing’s long-term strategy. China’s massive investment in Pakistan under the Belt and Road Initiative has Pakistan further trapped in Beijing’s debt diplomacy. According to political science, a country’s huge economic dependence on another can reduce its political choices, including foreign policy. The implication for Islamabad is that it will find it difficult to pursue an India policy that is different from Chinese strategic interests in the subcontinent.

In this context, China continuously blocking the designation of JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seems to be more about China’s own interests than Pakistan’s. Beijing’s protection of Masood is to defend the Islamabad’s strategic use of proxy terror groups against India as a foreign policy tool. The potential blacklisting of Masood as a global terrorist on UNSC list means more international pressure on Pakistan to act adequately against the terror groups and curtail their activities. The Chinese mandarins do not want to see their friends in Rawalpindi under any international scrutiny because any international pressure on Pakistan will also pain China. Of course, it’s not owing to their all-weather friendship, but having their hands in the same glove.

Due to India’s diplomatic efforts, some international pressure is already felt in Beijing and Islamabad. After China blocked Masood for fourth time, there was strong feeling in India about China’s double standards on terrorism. Senior Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir came to defend Chinese position by comparing India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama to China’s protection of Masood. This issue-linking strategy is to divert international attention from Pakistan’s strategic use of terror and blaming India for sheltering the Dalai Lama. In this context, Hamid’s tweet is an unofficially official statement from Islamabad and Beijing.

For China, Pakistan is a borrowed knife to undermine or slow the rise of India in Asia as a competitor. It is Sun Tzu’s strategy of using a third party to defeat one’s opponent. International relations realists argue that if a State has to project power beyond its region, attaining hegemony within its region is a must. As realist as they are, the Chinese strategists made sure Pakistan is equipped with enough strength to keep India muddled within South Asia. Whether its support for Pakistan’s nuclear programme or shielding of Masood; Beijing’s strategy in the region has been based on the realist calculation of containing the Asian Jumbo within its jungle. But why India? Why not Russia?

To put it straight: China’s strategy in South Asia is a remarkable strategic vision. In the long term, despite its prowess in the production of weapons, Russia’s potential to challenge China’s power is much less than what India potentially can do. Both rooted in rich and long civilisations; India and China share lots of similarities in strengths as well as weaknesses. Billionaires in population, large in size, fast growing economies, rising military powers and great ambition. To fuel their competition, they have two highly contested frontiers; Aksai Chin in the West and Arunachal in the East.

Returning to the India-Pakistan crisis, it deserves to be analysed in the theoretical framework of realism. China’s call for the two sides to deescalate tension is especially in the interests of China. Beijing does not want its friend and foe to fight a war as it can drive Pakistan’s present financial crisis into bankruptcy. It’s good to have Pakistan in its web of debt, but definitely not bankruptcy. Beijing can find many means to get Islamabad pay its debt. For example, it can takeover the Gwadar port for 99 years. At the same time, China does not want the rivals to develop friendly relations as it will reduce a tremendous strategic and security burden on India. For the Middle Kingdom, a cold peace between India and Pakistan is an ideal situation.

The author works on the China Research Programme at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

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