The recent and latest standoff, in a series of many, between the Indian Army and Chinese border guards, over laying of a water pipeline for irrigation purposes at Demchok in Ladakh near the Line of Actual Control, demonstrates, yet again, of the complex and intractable nature of the Kashmir issue. Any imminent resolution continues to remain elusive, thereby placing South Asia on the tenterhooks of a looming conflict and its consequent escalation.
China’s Kashmir policy, and the underlying rationale behind it, needs to be gauged within the broader contexts of China’s evolving South Asia policy. The graph of China’s declared positions, specifically on Kashmir, evolves through five distinct phases, beginning with the 1950s, when Beijing upheld a more or less neutral position on Kashmir. Thereafter, as Sino-Indian relations dipped in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a perceptible shift in the Chinese position by means of publicly supporting Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. By early 1980s through till 1990s, however, when China and India moved towards normalisation of bilateral relations, China’s position became unequivocal that Kashmir was a bilateral issue.
The geo-strategic equations changed dramatically by the late 1990s when the regional balance of power in South Asia started seeing the steady emergence of India, and the concurrent decline of Pakistan. More so, during the outbreak of Kargil conflict, China was increasingly aware of the danger of a potential large-scale conflict that would deal a severe blow to China’s strategic goal of maintaining a stable periphery. The fifth and present phase of Chinese strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK), I argue, is seemingly headed toward gaining tacit control of the region—both militarily and politico-diplomatically. This objective got further buttressed with the advertisement of the first joint patrolling undertaken by the frontier defence regiment of the PLA and Pakistan’s border police, along the stretch of the border connecting PoK and Xinjiang, in July 2016.
This points towards a consistent and crystallising policy stance taken by Beijing in which it has firmed up its position on Kashmir, gradually and firmly, with each passing decade. Amid the broader historical backdrop of China’s traditional pro-Pakistan policy agenda, any expectation, including that by India, of Beijing maintaining a neutral posture/position on Kashmir, in terms of diplomatic and military posturing, should not be considered a guarantee anymore.
Leading scholars from China including Hu Shisheng at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations have argued that China cannot wait for India and Pakistan to settle the Kashmir issue before going ahead with the transit and transport project that passes through PoK. Comparing the venture to developmental projects in Arunachal Pradesh, Hu responded that India can “oppose the project passing through PoK in the same way China continues to oppose schemes in the eastern disputed area” or Arunachal Pradesh. By means of sponsoring and investing in numerous “infrastructure development projects” inside Gilgit-Baltistan, the Chinese Construction Corps—a highly organised paramilitary force, has firmly established its presence in the region.
China-sponsored “development projects” in Gilgit-Baltistan render the region’s strategic calculus far more unstable. This is, in addition to the rather over-ambitious 3,000-km China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), wherein Chinese companies are reportedly kick-starting with coal-fired, hydro, wind and solar energy projects in Pakistan—quite a few of which will be situated in the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir region, which is under Pakistan’s occupation illegally. The CPEC and its centrality to Xi Jinping’s ostentatious One Belt One Road project has drawn the Chinese even more intrinsically to the regional geo-strategic arithmetic vis-à-vis Kashmir. Growing Chinese stakes in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir by virtue of heavy economic investments and the presence of Chinese personnel (civilian workers, paramilitary and Construction Corps of the PLA) makes China, an “indispensable factor” in the Kashmir debate.
China’s current position on what its media quotes as “...recent events in Indian-controlled Kashmir...” calling for “a proper settlement of Kashmir clashes” in July 2016 reminds one of September 1965 when China publicly endorsed “... Kashmir people’s war of self-determination” in a piece published in Renmin Ribao, arguing that “the Kashmir people will surely realize their desire for national self-determination.”
All this while, China has been publishing tourist maps depicting Kashmir as an entirely separate entity. It would be extremely difficult for China to defend and justify its self-styled “consistency” on neutrality over Kashmir in the above-mentioned backdrop. The power elite in China has been accruing a strategic agenda for the region—one, that is becoming far more interventionist, and expansionist. Serious cognisance needs to be credited to the reality that China is not likely to remain virtuously “neutral” in the quintessential sense, both diplomatically, and militarily, in the event of a limited or protracted India-Pakistan conflict in the near or, distant future.