The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has the potential to be both an opportunity and a threat to India’s security interests. Once the project becomes operational, it may be feasible for Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) armour and artillery to move within days into strike positions on the India-Pakistan border. War between India and China would damage the core interests of both sides for decades. Hence, it is unlikely that President Xi Jinping would act any differently from his predecessors during the 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars that Pakistan had with India. During the 1965 conflict, the PLA did make a few threatening noises over some goats and sheep that were claimed to have been stolen by the Indian side. Several goats and sheep were thereupon marched by herdsmen to the border with China, which was asked to accept them rather than go to war for their sake. The livestock, which remained in India while Chinese troops kept within their side of the frontier. In 1971 as well, despite hopes in Rawalpindi and Washington that Beijing would intervene in an effort to rescue the Pakistan army after it was attacked by the Mukti Bahini-Indian Army alliance, the PLA did nothing. Indeed, the US under the foulmouthed Richard Nixon did much, much more, even sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal in a futile effort to overawe Indira Gandhi, who refused to halt her troops until (what is now) Bangladesh was rid of a frankly genocidal Pakistan army. In this, she differed from Jawaharlal Nehru, who agreed to entreaties from Louis Mountbatten to cease fire on 1 January 1949, before the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir had been liberated by General Cariappa’s forces. Much later, during the 1999 Kargil episode as well, the Chinese military did nothing. The reality is that the leadership in Beijing sees the east Pacific coast as the probable location for a future war, and is not eager to get involved in a conflict with India on its west, no matter that this would be welcomed by GHQ Rawalpindi. Also, the Chinese leadership is aware that there is substantial potential for Sino-Indian commercial ties, and that this would benefit the Chinese economy.
Now that the US has finally created daylight between itself and Pakistan in the matter of strategic policy, it should not take long for the military brass in Rawalpindi to acknowledge that China is not going to come to their aid in the event that the ISI’s meddling leads to a war between the two countries. Such a conflict would hurt Pakistan far more than it would this country. An accurate calculation of geopolitical interests indicates that peaceful and cooperative relations with India are much more to Pakistan’s advantage than to India’s. Peace between Delhi and Islamabad would ensure that the Pakistan military be enabled to deal a knockout blow to the many groups engaged in armed struggle against the Pakistan state and its army. Such groups are continuing to operate in many locations within Pakistan in large part because much of the army is deployed not against them, but on the border with India. This despite the fact that our country has for long been uninterested in another border war with Pakistan. This could be the reason why some of the brass at GHQ Rawalpindi are in favour of inviting India to join in developing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The odds are that this idea is also favoured by the Chinese side, and if so, the changed stand indicates that the gargantuan lobby of commercial interests in that country may slowly be pulling ahead of the PLA in the matter of influence over India policy. Indeed, the PLA’s infatuation with Pakistan serves the interests of GHQ Rawalpindi and not that of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).
Economic fundamentals favour close cooperation in the commerce between India and China, the way the world’s newest superpower has established substantial business and other linkages with the US, the EU and even traditional foe Japan. This is despite the fact that at least the first and third of this trio are strategic rivals of China in a much more pronounced way than India is, and could in the future be at war with China in East Asia or the South China Sea. While India may provide logistical assistance to Washington and Tokyo in such a conflict should there be formal obligations to do so as a consequence of the expected strengthening of formal US-India military ties during the Donald Trump presidency. This would be analogous to the way China has assisted Pakistan on occasion without getting directly involved in actual fighting on behalf of its ally.
Should the offer of elements of GHQ Rawalpindi to India to join in the CPEC be genuine, it may be a good idea to accept it, provided access along the CPEC is on terms similar to that provided to any other country, including China. Goods from India should have land access through the corridor, including into Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is the reachout by India to Afghanistan that most riles GHQ Rawalpindi. However, the reality facing Pakistan is that its economic strength is not sufficient to once again effectively make much of Afghanistan its colony. The first time around, in the 1990s, this was accomplished through the backing of the US, a force multiplier that is absent now. As for the Chinese, they are unlikely to want to invest too heavily in a renewed Pakistani bid to regain its Taliban-era influence over Afghanistan. Should such a reality get recognised by the generals in Pakistan and access be offered to India through Pakistan into Afghanistan and thereafter Central Asia, there would be merit in joining the CPEC project without prejudice to any stand on legal borders. Policymakers in India said “nyet” to Gwadar port, a permanent UN Security Council, membership of ASEAN and several other offers that it would have been advantageous to accept. Reason, and not emotion, should dictate India’s response to a serious offer to participate in the CPEC.