People have observed for decades that India is in a rough neighbourhood. Pakistan and China have been especially troublesome and share the common objective of constraining India’s growth and keeping it boxed within South Asia. Their collaboration has assumed bolder overtones and become more overt after India’s Parliament amended Article 370 and abolished Article 35A of the Constitution with an overwhelming majority on August 5 last year. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China and spread across the globe, killing tens of thousands of people, overwhelming medical capacities and devastating economies, has not deterred either of them from instigating provocative or unfriendly actions against India.
Credible reports, further confirmed recently by the Indian Army Chief’s disclosure that the Indian artillery is destroying terrorist launchpads inside Pakistan, state that religious “jihadi” groups have gathered along Pakistan’s borders, awaiting infiltration into India. At least three such well-armed groups that sneaked into India in recent weeks were neutralised in encounters with Indian Army and paramilitary forces. More are said to be assembled in camps on Nepal’s border with India.
Other reports from responsible quarters state that Pakistan nationals who have tested Covid-19 positive have been transported to camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Instead of providing medical treatment to these individuals and in disregard of humanitarian considerations or Islamabad’s oft-articulated concern for the Kashmiri people, the authorities in Islamabad plan to send these infected persons across the border into Kashmir.
In a sign of increasing India-Pakistan tension, the Print (April 14) reported that Mooed Pirzada, a Pakistani journalist known to be close to Pakistan’s military establishment, on April 14, retweeted a video clip taken in 2011. The video clip was of the Pakistan Navy warship PNS Babar engaging in a dangerous manoeuvre and nearly “bumping” the Indian Guided Missile frigate INS Godavari in international waters in the Gulf of Aden.
Beijing too has chosen this time to demonstrate its close ties with its “iron brother” Pakistan. On April 8, China’s envoy to the United Nations, Zhao Jun raised the Kashmir issue in the UNSC for the fourth time since August 5, 2019. The statement released by his office said that China “pays close attention to the current situation” in Kashmir. “The Kashmir issue is a dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the Charter of the UN, Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.” It added that China “opposes any unilateral actions that complicate the situation”. Any reference to the Shimla Agreement was deliberately omitted. Also, China uses the phrase “as per UNSC resolutions” when China-India relations are under strain.
China’s support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue assumed bolder overtones after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in April 2015 and Indian Parliament amended the Constitutional provisions regarding Kashmir with an overwhelming majority last year. Since 2015, Beijing has consistently urged India at official, think-tank and private meetings to resume talks with Pakistan and resolve the Kashmir issue before relations with China can be normalised. After August 2019, Beijing has, on four occasions, directly aided Pakistan in trying to get the Kashmir issue discussed at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The appointment of Munir Akram, known for his almost visceral hatred of India, as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, would point to heightened Pakistan-China collaboration, particularly on Kashmir. The tenor of China’s official media has similarly been generally critical of India, complemented by the increasingly “nationalist” trend in China’s tightly controlled social media. The South China Morning Post, on April 18, for instance, revealed that Chinese authorities had deleted more than 150 social media accounts carrying articles suggesting some neighbouring countries “long to be reunited with China”. The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily claimed WeChat—China’s most popular social media platform—had deleted more than 227 posts and suspended 153 accounts carrying “offensive” articles. Among them were two, which claimed the “state of Manipur in India, was looking to return to China” and that “Manipur’s links to China dated back to 202BC”. It said, “Even though they are physically in another nation, they have long been looking forward to returning to the motherland”. On April 21, it was disclosed that China’s official Digital Map had been updated and boundaries of seven counties in Tibet bordering India amended. It said of 79,253.53 square kilometres of Shannan region’s total land area 31,329.59 square kilometres are “occupied” by India. In apparent escalation of the dispute, the map depicted this area as “India-occupied” area, instead of the earlier “Indian-controlled”.
Military pressure on India is also being exerted. Particularly since India’s air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp at Balakot in Pakistan, China’s official military media has regularly published articles hinting at Chinese and Pakistani air forces collaborating against India, and China enhancing material support to Pakistan in event of conflict. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA Rocket Force have held at least five “live fire” exercises in Tibet since March. Most recently on April 21—incidentally, PLA Navy’s 71st anniversary—several helicopters of the PLA Tibet Military Region conducted high-intensity cross-night and day flight training at an altitude of over 3,700 meters around Lhasa for ten hours “without interruption to improve domain combat capability”.
India is not the only country with whom China has recently flexed its military muscle. When countries are fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, a PLAN warship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat; PLAN vessels encroached contested territories in the South China Sea provoking official protests from Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan; and the PLAN aircraft carrier “Liaoning” led a flotilla of eight warships through the Taiwan Strait on April 22. Beijing also designated Sansha and Xisha as two new districts for administering the South China Sea. The big question is whether India can trust such a country.
Jayadeva Ranade is former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.