Beijing’s expansion of its reach across PoK will only complicate any potential resolution of Kashmir issue.
China’s Kashmir policy and the underlying rationale and strategy behind it need to be gauged within the broader contexts of the present phase of China’s presence and approach vis-à-vis Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). I wrote in The Sunday Guardian in November 2016 that China seemingly is headed toward gaining tacit control of the region—both militarily and politico-diplomatically. The assessment of the rising politico-diplomatic influence appears to be coming to fruition. Chinese envoy to India, Luo Zhaohui, speaking in June 2018 at a public event in New Delhi, suggested that China, India, and Pakistan may have some kind of trilateral summit on the sidelines of the SCO. Conspicuous is that while Luo made this statement being the Chinese envoy, he smartly attributed the same as a “suggestion of some Indian friends”, without elaborating any further.
Although the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was quick to rebuff the statement as a “personal opinion of the ambassador”, Luo did not make a flippant remark and should not be ignored. In May 2017, the same Chinese envoy commented publicly, “China supports the solution of disputes through bilateral negotiations… Take the Kashmir issue… we supported a settlement through bilateral negotiation in line with the Shimla Agreement.” Comparing the statements of May 2017 and June 2018 clearly highlights the incongruity and points towards a crystallising policy taking shape in Beijing—that of China very gradually firming up its position on Kashmir, in terms of diplomatic and military posturing.
The power elite in China are known to have been accruing a strategic agenda for the region, and, in line with this policy, Beijing is attempting to build up its case in PoK. Militarily, this is being done by means of joint patrolling by the frontier defence regiment of the PLA and Pakistan’s border police, along the border stretch connecting PoK and Xinjiang (declared officially in July 2016). In my column way back in December 2011, I had argued that notwithstanding the debate surrounding the actual number of Chinese PLA troops present in PoK, the fact is that, today, China had firmly perched itself in PoK alongside the 772-km long Line-of-Control running between India and Pakistan.
The Belt and Road Initiative of China not just poses a direct challenge to India’s sovereignty through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it simultaneously pulls Beijing more intrinsically to the regional geo-strategic arithmetic vis-à-vis Kashmir. Chinese stakes in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir are at an all-time high with heavy economic investments and presence of Chinese personnel (civilian workers, paramilitary and Construction Corps of the PLA).
Given that most projects in Pakistan are being financed by China via loans, the emerging reality is a Pakistan that has been reduced to being a client-state with rising debts. By July 2019, Pakistan will owe Beijing an estimated $19 billion, in addition to sky-high interest rates. The total figure shall amount to 0.5% to 1% of Pakistan’s total GDP. Needless to say, China will be a silent, yet, indispensable factor in contemporary debates on Kashmir.
While Luo Zhaohui is rather proactive at giving India unsolicited and veiled suggestions, his views on the possibility and scope of having similar such summits pertaining issues surrounding Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong would be far more welcome. Foreign Minister Wang Yi time and again rejects interference in China’s internal affairs by stating categorically “…all countries should respect China’s sovereignty…” While Wang does so, his envoy in India chooses to defy the very basic principle that governs international relations. China needs to be rebuked in its attempts to question the fundamental principles of India’s sovereignty in terms of power, authority, and jurisdiction over the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Beijing’s objective of expanding and buttressing its reach across PoK shall only complicate any potential long-term resolution to the Kashmir issue. Its diplomatic offensive on Kashmir is aimed at questioning the overall status of J&K vis-à-vis the Indian Union. This includes strategies such as publishing Chinese tourist maps depicting Kashmir as an entirely separate entity. During the summer of 2016, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, filed successive reports on Kashmir that “…a separatist movement and guerrilla war challenging New Delhi’s rule is going on in Indian-controlled Kashmir since 1989”.
The rabid tone echoes of September 1965 when China publicly endorsed “…Kashmir people’s war of self-determination” in a piece published in Renmin Ribao that said “…the Kashmir people will surely realise their desire for national self-determination”. Thus, statements made earlier by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that China’s position on Kashmir has been consistent are self-contradictory. As time goes by, China’s self-styled consistency on “neutrality” over Kashmir will only get further uncovered.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).