The first joint patrolling undertaken by Chinese and Pakistani troops along the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) border has been propped up considerably by Beijing and Islamabad. Although Chinese troops are known to have conducted patrols in the area since 2014, joint patrols by China’s PLA and Pakistan’s border police force along the stretch connecting PoK and Xinjiang outwardly remains the first of its kind. What is more critical to note is that there is still no clarification from either side, whether such patrolling was being done for the first time, or, is it just that the patrol has been reported publicly for the first time.
The state-run and controlled media in Beijing published dozens of photographs of armed Chinese and Pakistani troops marching along the border and conducting drills. The caption provided alongside the pictures read, “… frontier defence regiment of the PLA in Xinjiang, along with a border police force from Pakistan, carry out a joint patrol along the China-Pakistan border.”
China, seemingly, is sending multiple implicit signals to India by virtue of this latest move. The Chinese strategy vis-à-vis PoK is headed toward gaining tacit control of the region—both militarily and politico-diplomatically. That Beijing is pursuing an aggressive engagement strategy in the region cannot be more apparent. It has been long known that by means of sponsoring and investing in numerous “infrastructure development projects” inside Gilgit-Baltistan, the Chinese Construction Corps—a highly organised paramilitary force, has established its presence in the region. With the latest joint patrols by the frontier defence regiment of the PLA, the presence and potential future deployment of regular Chinese army inside Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir remains a foregone conclusion.
I wrote way back in December 2011 that notwithstanding the debate surrounding the actual number of Chinese PLA troops present in PoK at that point, the fact of the matter remains that China had firmly perched itself in PoK alongside the 772-km long Line-of-Control running between India and Pakistan. With the reported stationing of a unit of PLA soldiers near the Khunjerab Pass and Chinese military officials frequenting the Field Command Office of Gilgit, which happens to be Pakistan’s military headquarter in the region, a pervasive Chinese intent of establishing its military edge in India’s northern sector cannot be negated, or ignored, anymore.
What perhaps is of greater consequence from an Indian standpoint is Beijing’s objective of expanding and buttressing its reach, which is only likely to complicate any potential long-term resolution to Kashmir. In the past too, Beijing has indulged in crass moves aimed at questioning the status of J&K vis-à-vis the Indian Union, by issuing stapled visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir, rather than stamping the visas on their passports, as is the norm. All these decisions taken by the Chinese leadership point towards a flagrant reality—that China is not likely to be a “neutral party” to the Kashmir dispute anymore.
Calling for a “proper settlement of Kashmir clashes” in July 2016, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stressed that China’s position on the Kashmir issue has been consistent. Nothing could be further from the truth than this duplicitous and outrageous statement. In fact, Beijing has shifted its position on Kashmir, gradually, yet firmly, with each passing decade. Recall China’s response during the 1999 Kargil conflict with its commitment to a policy of neutrality, which compelled the Nawaz Sharif government, who was already under immense international pressure, to look for an honourable retreat from Kargil. Following that came the “stapled visas” phase, wherein China began providing diplomatic support to Pakistan’s stated position on Kashmir.
More recently, in April 2016, the official news agency, Xinhua, has been filing one report after the other on Kashmir, stating “…a separatist movement and guerrilla war challenging New Delhi’s rule is going on in Indian-controlled Kashmir since 1989.” This was followed up by another spate of perilous reportage coming from Beijing that narrated “…trouble in Indian-controlled Kashmir … and Kashmiri protesters throwing stones at Indian police and paramilitary troopers during a protest in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.” All this while, China has been publishing tourist maps depicting Kashmir as an entirely separate entity. How can China possibly justify its self-styled “consistency” on neutrality over Kashmir?
Amid the broader historical backdrop of China’s customary pro-Pakistan policy agenda, any expectation of Beijing maintaining a neutral posture on Kashmir, in terms of diplomatic and military posturing, should not be counted on any longer by India. The power elite in China is accruing its strategic agenda for the region, one, that is becoming far more interventionist, and expansionist, and needs to be countered resolutely at every given step by New Delhi.