Retracing India-China's tumultuous relationship and the proverbial thorn Pakistan

India's relationship with China can perhaps best be described as a balancing act, with angst against China's bonhomie with Pakistan placed against trade and other financial dealings with the Communist state. But the recent face-off in Doka La general area in Sikkim and the US-India-Japan Malabar naval exercise seem to upset the delicate arrangement.

As a consequence of the tensions on the border, China has suspended the annual Kailash Manasarovar yatra, adding fuel to the rift. It said that the decision to suspend the pilgrimage was due to a border stand-off and alleged that the Indian troops had crossed the Sikkim section of the Indo-China border.

The catalyst for the ongoing stand-off seems to be India's objection to China building a road in the Sikkim sector of the border. While India alleged that the area comes under its jurisdiction, China, on the other hand, said that the area "undoubtedly" is located on its side of the border as per the 1890 Sino-British Treaty.

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Getty Images

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Getty Images

The tri-nation Malabar joint naval exercise, a series of drills to test different naval strategies, threatens to complicate matters further. Senior officials in the Indian Navy have dismissed reports that the exercise is being targetted at China, while also de-linking the naval war games from the ongoing Sikkim standoff.

And though China has played down concerns over the exercise, the timing of it and its implications are sure to have irked the nation.

But at the root of the problems between India and China is the Red Dragon's military and strategic relationship with Pakistan. Soon after the Partition, Chinese influence in the subcontinent started to have a bearing on India-Pakistan relations. China quickly assumed the role of Pakistan's 'all-weather friend' and in their nearly seven-decade long strategic partnership since India has often featured as a crucial point of discussion.

China-Pakistan bonhomie

China-Pakistan relations took off in 1950 when Pakistan severed diplomatic ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan and recognised the People's Republic of China.

Since then, both nations have maintained extremely close and supportive ties and have regularly held high-level strategic meets.

As Nirupama Subramanian writes in The Indian Express: "It was only after India’s defeat in the war with China in 1962 that the Pakistan-China relationship really took off. If Beijing had by then identified Pakistan as a country through which it could contain India, home since 1959 to the 'splittist' Dalai Lama, China’s tacit support for Pakistan in the 1965 war was a turning point — the beginning of their enduring defence and, some would say, nuclear, cooperation."

"Despite the money and military hardware the US pumped into Pakistan over the years, Pakistanis see China as a far more reliable ally," Subramanian wrote.

China, on the other hand, provides Pakistan with military hardware, financial aid and infrastructure – take CPEC for example.

CPEC is perhaps the embodiment of the two nations' strategic partnership. It is a collection of infrastructure projects worth $62 billion that are under construction throughout Pakistan. CPEC is intended to rapidly modernise Pakistani infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of modern transportation networks, numerous energy projects, and special economic zones.

Workers sit on ground as they repair a bus' brake shoes, displaying the Pak-China friendship sign, along a road in Karachi, Pakistan May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro - RTX38940

Representational image. Reuters

Pakistani media has hailed the CPEC project as a 'game changer'. But the corridor, that also runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), has made many in India uncomfortable.

The CPEC reflects the growing friendship between China and Pakistan. India, on the other hand, is trying to balance the scales with Pakistan by trying to make its own inroad in China through the development of a road spanning Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) which is a 2,800 km-long corridor that starts from Kolkata and passes through Bangladesh and Myanmar before ending at Kunming in China.

Not to mention China’s growing profile in other illegally-occupied Indian territories — Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. China’s infrastructure projects in this area have been touted by Beijing as a showpiece of the ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ project, as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. This growing presence — economic and some say military too — has been taking place even as India has repeatedly flagged its security concerns and opposed any sort of international presence in the region.

China's push for a 'diplomatic' solution

China has said that it is willing to play a "constructive role" in improving relations between India and Pakistan, especially after the increased hostility along the Line of Control, saying the situation in Kashmir has attracted "international" attention.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said India and Pakistan are important South Asian countries but the "situation in Kashmir has attracted the attention of the international community."

India maintains that the Kashmir issue is a bilateral matter with Pakistan and that there is no scope for third party mediation. But just like Pakistan, China also illegally occupies a part of Jammu and Kashmir — 37,240 square kilometres of Aksai Chin in Ladakh. China may consider this territory that it received from Pakistan through a bilateral agreement in 1963, as a done deal.

However, from India’s point of view, this illegal occupation of Aksai Chin is very much part of the Kashmir problem. Therefore, it is a bit rich on Beijing’s part to offer mediation to resolve the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan using China to hit back at India

As Sandipan Sharma argues in his Firstpost piece, Pakistan has been piggybacking on Beijing's sabre-rattling to get back at India. "Two belligerent neighbours are mocking India in a common voice, raising the spectre of a war on two-and-a-half fronts. How will New Delhi respond?

Nobody can say if Pakistan and China are coordinating their statements against India. But, the timing of Pakistan's decision to test fire its low-range missile Nasr and Chinese media's call for Sikkim's "independence" suggests the two neighbours might be simultaneously reminding India of their potential for mischief."

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RTX35MBM

File image of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

It is believed that China has repeatedly thwarted India's NSG bid on Pakistan's behest. China reiterated recently that there was no change in its stance on the admission of non-NPT states into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), marring India’s chances of entering the 48-member elite club at its crucial meeting next month. China's support is crucial for India as new membership in the NSG is guided by the consensus principle.

China has also consistently defended its decision to block the US' proposal in the UN for designating Pathankot attack mastermind and JeM chief Azhar as a global terrorist, saying the "conditions" have not yet been met for Beijing to back the move.

As Subramanian explains, "In India, each Chinese rap on the knuckle for Pakistan, or each episode of Chinese protection for its client, tends to be viewed as representative of the whole of their relationship. In reality, the China-Pakistan relationship is greater than the sum of these parts, one that has endured nearly seven decades of changes in the geopolitical and strategic interests of both countries."

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 17:54 PM

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