China and Pakistan ‘want dialogue’, but make it unacceptable to India
Now that the two nations have talked about building more projects in PoK, with possible extensions to Afghanistan, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it may be time for India to consider geopolitical strategies to stall/counter them, without compromising the traditional position of non-interference and involvement by third parties in the larger ‘Kashmir issue’. As expected, Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has condemned the joint statement issued after the Beijing meeting between the Chinese leadership and Pakistani counterpart Shebaz Sharif, New Delhi may also have to look at applying diplomatic pressure in ways that do not hurt Indian interests.
Whether acceptable or not, with 140 signatory-nations and 32 international organisations, BRI has the second largest participation after the UN with 193 members. Not all of them see eye-to-eye with China on many geo-political, geo-strategic and even geo-economic issues. In the past years after the founding of the BRI, some of the so-called beneficiary nations have rescinded on committed projects in their land. A few among them have mentioned the ‘Chinese debt trap’ as the reason for their pull-out, belated or not.
Given his consummate skill and confidence, External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar and his team can evaluate the need and results of asking some of the BRI signatories friendly to India to tell Beijing that they would not be part of any arrangement that involved contestable issues and territories lest it should set an unholy precedent in their case, later even if not now. It may be a shot in the wild, but some initiative is better than none.
The Indian reservations to adopting such a course is understandable. New Delhi is as firm as ever in not allowing third parties into what remains a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Blind-eyed to the truth, Pakistan has also been asking India to follow the UN resolutions in the matter. Though unacceptable to India even then, the UN resolution clearly asked Pakistan to vacate PoK and also acknowledge a role for Indian security forces on the law and order front, before talking about any plebiscite of the kind Islamabad has been talking about at times of its choosing — but not this time round in Beijing.
Sharif was the first foreign dignitary to visit Beijing after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s re-election for a third five-year term. The choice of Pakistan’s leader for the maiden visit after the CPC congress is significant. Incidentally, it came in the background of recent Indian assertions, starting with defence minister Rajnath Singh, to take back PoK, including Gilgit and Baltistan. Here, Pakistan added to its illegality in 1963, by gifting away Indian territory to China.
That the minister Rajnath Singh’s reiteration of the Indian resolve of the past decades came on the anniversary of King Hari Singh signing the Indian Instrument of Accession in 1947 (27 October) did not go unnoticed. With such iterations, India has now put Pakistan’s claims to the ‘unfinished task of Partition’ on its head.
It is in this background, Xi’s promise to Sharif, when they met in Beijing, that ‘China will continue to firmly support Pakistan in safeguarding its sovereignty, territorial integrity, development interests and dignity, and in achieving unity, stability, development and prosperity’, assumes greater significance.
From a Chinese standpoint in Xi’s third term, fresh reference to CPEC in the joint statement issued by Sharif after his meeting with his outgoing counterpart Li Keqiang has equal criticality. It is indicative of China having ‘convinced’ Pakistan to revive the CPEC, from which the previous Imran Khan government in Islamabad was being seen as wanting to walk out. It looks as if reviving CPEC was a condition precedent for further Chinese economic assistance, to help pull Pakistan out of the post-Covid morass, partly attributable to Beijing’s ‘debt diplomacy’.
China’s keen interest in CPEC flows from the corridor’s use to transport minerals from Africa — and now Afghanistan, too — with Pakistan’s Gwadar as the landing-port. The strategy seems to make CPEC a fait accompli if the two nations together are able to strike a peace deal with India, or defy India.
Likewise, post-CPC congress, China has named bridges on Tibet-Xinjiang highway after 11 Galwan soldiers, ‘as a way of commemorating them, as they had ‘become the epitome of Chinese people’s ever-growing patriotic sentiment’. It is possibly the first time Beijing has acknowledged that they died at Galwan though unofficial figures put the number of Chinese casualties upward of 40. More importantly, Beijing seems inclined to present it all too as a possible fait accompli, thus stalling the possibilities for any meaningful dialogue to end the Galwan impasse.
Wooing Western Europe?
Like Sharif, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the first Western and G-7 leader to meet Xi at Beijing in his third term. Both sides talked about geopolitics, agreeing on the need to avoid the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine War. Scholz asked Xi to use his ‘influence’ on Russia to stop what the latter refused to acknowledge as ‘invasion’.
But it goes beyond Ukraine and Russia, as Xi and China emerged from the CPC congress. Giving up vague terms from the past, when China needed greater western accommodation for its own growth, prosperity, geo-political and geo-economic out-reach, the congress was unequivocal in a desire to contain the US, starting with the Indo-Pacific, where India too is located.
Between the two, China at least had a political agenda for the Scholz meeting, where Xi asserted how it was ‘important’ that the two nations ‘respect each other, accommodate each other’s core interests’. They should ‘adhere to dialogue and consultation, and jointly resist disturbance from bloc confrontation and attempts to see everything through the prism of ideology’, he added. Whether Scholz agreed with such a construct, and if so, if Germany was agreeable to extending it to other tension-prone areas like South Asia, with particular reference to India-Pakistan equations, is not known.
These needed watching as there is considerable concern in Germany, centred on national security issues, as a Chinese company is expected to pick up a stake in the Hamburg port. A leading German newspaper went as far as to describe Scholz’s China visit as a ‘day trip to a minefield’.
From the immediate, Indian context, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock seeking UN intervention on Kashmir at a recent meeting with visiting Pakistan counterpart Bilawal Bhutto did cause eyebrows to be raised in Delhi. There will be certain clarity when Baerbock visits Delhi, possibly in December. In between German Ambassador Philipp Ackerman said that Kashmir was a bilateral problem for India and Pakistan to settle between themselves. Whether Germany’s call for a UN role on ‘Kashmir issue’ was a one-off affair, or if Berlin actually felt that way, or was there more to it than meets the eye, are all for India to ponder over.
In between, India should be constantly reading West European mood and methods after the commencement of Ukraine War. This is especially so after EAM Jaishankar sort of ticked off West Europe for their criticising India on importing Russian oil, defying their sanctions, while they themselves were continuing to buy huge quantities of natural gas from Moscow.
Regional, national realities
Sharif’s Beijing visit has borne immediate fruits. Pakistan has now received additional $ 9-billion aid from China. It has also obtained $ 4 billion aid from Saudi Arabia, the other traditional ally of the same. It is an interesting piece of diplomacy how nations like Pakistan use their religious identity to obtain economic support from Saudi Arabia, and also exploit their locational advantage to woo irreligious China, from the other side of the ideological spectrum. It comes naturally to them. When India effectively balances the US and Russia in these past months of the Ukraine War, it makes news.
The question is if the current war-of-words between India on the one side and China-Pakistan duo on the other, with an unknown number of others standing by, would lead to more suggestions/demands for UN or other third-party intervention for a negotiated settlement on Kashmir. The Li-Sharif statement referred to such a course. It called for a ‘sincere dialogue’ to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir dispute, and said that the resolution should be based on the ‘UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements’.
It is anybody’s guess how and why China and Pakistan together referred to ‘bilateral agreements’. Those available for ready reference are the Shimla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Accord of 1999. China was not a party to either, but India and Pakistan alone were. Both underlined the need for and exclusivity of bilateral talks to resolve the issue, to the exclusion of third-parties, whether of individual nations or group of nations or the UN. Though unmentioned, from an Indian angle, it was not only about third-party facilitation, but also of China seemingly wanting to be part of India-Pakistan negotiations, citing PoK areas in its illegal possession.
Since the early 90s especially, Indian prime ministers have armed themselves — and also thus restricted their own discretionary powers, if any — with the parliamentary resolution that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, including PoK, is an integral part of India, and no part thereof could be alienated. The constitutionally-approved re-alignment of Jammu and Kashmir State into two Union Territories (UT), namely Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, does not alter the ground realities or the legal position.
Hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, swearing by a new brand of ‘nationalism’, would find it more difficult than his predecessors to enter into any serious dialogue with Pakistan for formally apportioning PoK. Track-II discussions during the time of another BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee, had considered converting the existing Line of Control (LoC) into International Border (IB). Though on paper, it looked good for some people in both nations, for a variety of reasons, it did not move forward. Today, given the regional and national realities, especially post-Galwan (though involving China, and not Pakistan), reopening such proposals won’t take off the ground, on the Indian side.
MEA’s Arindam Bagchi said as much, in his reaction to the Li-Sharif statement: ‘The Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh are and always will be integral and inalienable parts of India. No other country has locus standi to comment on the same,’ he said. Needless to point out, Bagchi also condemned the references, particularly to the UN Security Council resolutions, which India has ‘consistently’ rejected. Bagchi said India ‘resolutely rejected attempts to change the status quo’. Any attempts to involve third parties in activities such as CPEC are ‘inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable’, he added.
Apart from MEA’s Bagchi, EAM Jaishankar gave what tantamount to a personal retort to the China-Pakistan joint reference to CPEC, though without naming names. Yet, it was said at the SCO Council of Heads of Government meeting. With China chairing the meeting, and Pakistan as a fellow-member, Jaishankar, said that ‘connectively must not undermine sovereignty’ (but of India’s). The joint statement of the SCO meeting did not mention the Ukraine War but rejected (western kind) ‘unilateral sanctions’ (against Russia) and also ‘bloc, ideological and confrontational approaches to solving global problems’ — a line otherwise outlined by Xi in his meeting with the German Chancellor.
Sometime earlier, in a farewell meeting with outgoing Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong, Jaishankar ‘emphasised that the development of India-China relations is guided by the Three Mutuals. Peace and tranquillity in the border areas is essential’. He also underscored that the ‘normalisation of India-China relations is in the interest of both countries, of Asia and the world at large’.
This was after Amb Weidong had stressed the need for the two nations to resolve their differences and uphold the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. He added that ‘the common interests of the two countries are greater than differences’. It is thus anybody’s guess how and why should China talk about CPEC, which passes through what patently and blatantly is Indian territory — and expect India not to react, but to cooperate!
The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views expressed are personal.