When Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif early this year delivered his strongest warning yet and said “Kashmir is an unfinished agenda of partition. Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable”, he did so in the absolute confidence that he had China’s unwavering support.
The announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad in April 2015 showed China’s deep commitment to Pakistan and underscored that the strategic interests of both countries are closely aligned. Within weeks of Xi Jinping’s visit, senior Chinese leaders and officials were describing Pakistan as China’s “only friend”. The relationship was publicised when Prof Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute for International Relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and an influential Chinese strategic analyst close to Xi Jinping, told the New York Times on 9 February 2016 that “China has only one real ally, Pakistan.”
The CPEC, with its 51 proposed projects valued by Pakistani analysts at US$46 billion and comprising a rail, road and dedicated fibre-optic link stretching from Xinjiang in China through Balochistan to Gwadar port in Pakistan, power plants, economic zones, helipads, airports etc., signalled China’s long-term commitment to Pakistan. With this, Xi Jinping also dispelled the decades-long ambiguity that had masked China’s stance on Kashmir and, disregarding India’s sovereign and territorial sensitivities, accorded de facto legitimacy to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of a large portion of Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. Steps to formally integrate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit and Baltistan into Pakistan, reportedly to protect Chinese investments in the region, have already begun.
Independent credible information additionally reveals that Beijing informed Islamabad last month that it is “raising” a division-strength “private army” for deployment in the PoK, Gilgit and Baltistan areas to protect Chinese construction sites and personnel. This is in addition to the force being provided by Pakistan. The Pakistan army, which solidly backs the CPEC, has already raised a 10,000strong division comprising elements of the Frontier Corps, police and Levies under Major General Abdul Rafiue to protect Chinese personnel and Chinese aided projects in Balochistan. China has also put in place the necessary legal framework permitting deployment of troops and security personnel for safeguarding Chinese national interests abroad.
The Chinese army’s newly-created Western Theatre Command, which incorporates the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions and has one-third of China’s total military strength, will include the CPEC in its operational jurisdiction. It will add military muscle to China’s strategic objectives in the region.
There have since been other indications of China’s commitment to Pakistan and their convergence of strategic interests. Of particular interest was the scheduled meeting between Xi Jinping and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the nuclear summit held in Washington this March. Though Nawaz Sharif ultimately cancelled his visit, the Chinese had earlier informed Islamabad that Chinese President Xi Jinping would discuss “extending diplomatic or other substantive support” to Pakistan to counter US insistence that Pakistan go slow on development of its tactical nuclear weapons.
This overture carries forward the collusion between the two at the UN to frustrate—unsuccessfully—the conclusion of the India-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement and ongoing efforts to prevent India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Both are also working to ensure that India does not enter an expanded UN Security Council (UNSC) as a Permanent Member with full veto rights.
Pakistan’s bureaucracy and especially the diplomatic corps are strong supporters of close strategic ties with China. In an article in Dawn on 17 April 2016, prior to the meeting between the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan, former Pakistan ambassador Munir Akram echoed General Raheel Sharif’s views on Kashmir. He said, “So long as India persists in its reported support for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, and the Balochi Liberation Army, Pakistan would be unwise to give up the option of supporting the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people for freedom and self-determination.” Calling for “much closer ties with China”, he described strategic cooperation with China as critical. Earlier, just weeks before Xi Jinping’s arrival in Pakistan, former Pakistan ambassador Riaz Khokar had written in China’s Global Times that the two countries must identify hostile elements operating in Balochistan.
In this backdrop and despite its apparent readiness to discuss counter-terrorism, China has placed holds at the UN Sanctions Committee on India’s request to list Syed Salahuddin of the United Jihad Council; to investigate the source of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed’s funds despite financial sanctions; and to ask Pakistan how LeT commander Lakhvi posted bail and Pakistan let its courts set him free. Most recent evidence that China remains unlikely to dilute support to Pakistan is the hold it has put on the case of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, although the Indian Prime Minister personally earlier raised the case of Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.