China Appears to Understand the Risks in Kashmir More Than India or Pakistan

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Qingdao, June 10, 2018 (AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko).

Candace Rondeaux Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

It’s too early to say what India’s breach of the status quo in Kashmir will mean for long-term stability in South Asia. There are, of course, many fears of where revoking the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir could lead—from another retaliatory insurgency by militants in Kashmir backed by Pakistan, or worse still a destabilizing war between the two nuclear-armed rivals. Ultimately, though, it is China—not India or Pakistan—that will likely tip the balance in a region teetering yet again on the brink.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party view downgrading Kashmir’s status from a state in India to a union territory directly governed by New Delhi as a decisive blow to Pakistan’s claims over the disputed territory. But everyone stands to lose if regional tensions escalate further, starting with the 8 million residents of the Kashmir Valley now living under a total Indian security lockdown and communications blackout. China, more than any other player in this dangerous game of Risk, seems to understand that best.

Clashes between India and Pakistan over the Line of Control in Kashmir, the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistan-administered territories, have been so frequent that it is sometimes easy to overlook China’s role elsewhere in the region. But Beijing also has competing claims over parts of Kashmir and has contributed to long-running frictions. In recent years, however, it is the uneasy semi-détente between China and India over the Line of Actual Control—which separates Chinese-controlled territory from Indian-administered Kashmir—and the so-called McMahon Line on Kashmir’s northerly flank that has kept India-Pakistan tensions in check.

Previously subtle signs of China growing into its role as a regional arbiter in South Asia have become more pronounced recently. In June, Beijing publicly acknowledged that Foreign Ministry representatives met with leaders of the Afghan Taliban in China. The Chinese government has also held steady as a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, a key plank of stability in the wider region. While Beijing protested India’s unilateral move in Kashmir last week, its response has so far been measured, despite having legitimate concerns about its own territorial claims.

At issue for China this time is what will become of the border area it calls Aksai Chin, a vast high desert that comprises part of a far western stretch of China’s troubled Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, and that India historically has laid claim to as part of Ladakh, a district of Indian-administered Kashmir. New Delhi’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s semiautonomous status would effectively appear to put India in charge of the fate of Aksai Chin, at least on paper. 

Logic and restraint are likely to prevail, at least where China’s interests are concerned in Kashmir.

Beijing has challenged that very notion since the 1950s, including in a short war with India in 1962. China has repeatedly pressed India to drop its claim to Aksai Chin in exchange for Beijing’s agreement to cede another contested area along the McMahon Line known as Arunachal Pradesh to New Delhi. Despite small, occasional military incursions from both India and China, the two countries have signed on to a series of confidence-building measures since 1996 that have largely succeeded in dampening the risks of escalation. 

Yet tensions still escalated in April 2015 when China’s Xi Jinping signed a $46 billion deal for several big-ticket infrastructure projects collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, a portion of which runs through Kashmir. India sees the multifaceted project, which includes extensive new networks of highways, railways and energy pipelines across Pakistan and is part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, as perhaps the greatest challenge to its influential position in South Asia.

Some analysts have argued that the joint Sino-Pak venture may fuel India’s fears of encirclement by a key economic competitor and a hostile rival. There may be a grain of truth in that assessment, but India’s claims to arguably more important maritime trade routes in the oil and gas rich Indian Ocean probably hold far more weight in its calculations. Plus, last year’s informal summit in Wuhan, China between Modi and Xi, after a different border spat near Bhutan, and the subsequent appointment of Indian and Chinese special envoys to deal with border disputes, seems to have helped reframe how both parties view the Kashmir question. 

This may be one reason why Beijing seems to be flashing mixed signals in response to the latest flare-up in Kashmir. Within hours of the Indian Parliament’s decision on Aug. 5 to annul Kashmir and Jammu’s statehood, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson issued a statement saying that the move “hurt Chinese sovereignty by unilaterally changing domestic law.” Yet a week later, in a meeting with his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to suggest that Beijing was prepared to exercise a kind of strategic restraint, framing the crisis as a matter to be settled by peaceful means. Although China’s statement was issued as Pakistan vowed to bring its fight to the U.N. Security Council, it seemed phrased to signal to India that Beijing would try to stand firm on prior confidence-building guarantees on Aksai Chin and build on the goodwill generated at Wuhan. 

Nevertheless, China faces a different challenge from Pakistan, with Prime Minister Imran Khan pressing Islamabad’s claims to Kashmir through a combination of ethnonationalist polemics and diplomatic maneuvering. Khan’s stream of statements on Twitter about Kashmir have been full of hyperbole about India’s power grab and Hindu nationalism, which he has described as “inspired by Nazi ideology,” likening “Hindu Supremacy” to “the Nazi Aryan Supremacy.” Modi, for his part, has only added to the vitriol, vowing in an provocative speech on India’s Independence Day on Aug. 15 to restore Kashmir to its “past glory.” 

Despite all the heated rhetoric, neither Pakistan nor India hold the kind of sway that China does at the U.N. Security Council. China’s chief counterparts, the United States and Russia, have indicated that they have little appetite for the kind of brief air war over Kashmir that erupted after Pakistani-backed militants mounted a suicide attack on an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in March. Plus, China has its hands full with Hong Kong. So there is little chance of Beijing backing Islamabad’s bid to get the U.N. involved. Instead, logic and restraint are likely to prevail, at least where China’s interests are concerned in Kashmir.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. She has documented and analyzed political violence in South Asia and around the world for The Washington Post, International Crisis Group, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the U.S. Institute of Peace and a host of international publications. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

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