‘China’s policy towards any country that it views as a potential peer competitor like India and Japan, is to encourage their immediate neighbours—with whom that country has tensions/conflict—and to encourage that tension.’
China has been backing India’s perennial irritant in the backyard—Pakistan—for long from behind the scenes, while not coming in direct conflict with New Delhi. Be it scuttling India’s “genuine stakes” to the UNSC membership or backing Pakistan on the Kashmir issue at international fora, including the last UNGA in September and even raising the issue of Article 370 covertly, the list of deceit and diplomatic breach on Beijing’s part is long and unending.
But since last week, rattled at being cornered from all sides in the Indo-Pacific and in its own den in the South China Sea region, coupled by its “silent defeat” in the border clash with India in Galwan Valley in June and now with the US threatening to strike the Dragon and torment its “superpower status in Asia”, China is feeling threatened. It has come out in the open to “disturb and destabilise” India by treading the same old route—use an embattled and beleaguered Pakistan as its new pawn as it has used Nepal recently against a new India, which is even getting prepared to fight a two-front war, if that becomes a reality—one against China on the eastern front and the other against Pakistan on the western front.
Diplomacy and strategic affairs experts in Washington DC think tanks strongly feel that India’s surge is a cause of “genuine worry” for the China-Pakistan combo. New Delhi must find new friends and strategic allies, while strengthening its ties with the United States and Japan, to keep the Dragon in check as the latter will not stop provoking Pakistan against India.
A new strategic war game is on the cards, prompting India to play its game perfectly.
Aparna Pande, South Asia expert and Director in Hudson Institute says, China’s policy towards any country that it views as a potential peer competitor like India and Japan, is to encourage their immediate neighbours—with whom that country has tensions/conflict—and to encourage that tension.”
Calling it Beijing’s “India Card”, which the former plays to neutralise New Delhi’s growing influence, Pande told The Sunday Guardian: “So in South Asia, China has long played the ‘India card’ with all of our neighbours. With Pakistan that policy has been easy for China, with others, like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, it has gone up and down.”
Nepal, of late, got into the global limelight, much to Beijing’s pleasure, for first raising the territorial issue with India and then the map controversy, which threatened the centuries’ old relationship between New Delhi and Kathmandu, which is purely based on cultural roots, long shared heritage and people-to-people relations. China had threatened to use Kathmandu against Delhi and it is doing so still. But that didn’t become too much of a worry for India as it kept its surge ahead with its tech-enabled maritime security blueprint in the Indian Ocean Region earlier this week.
China is wary of this fact that India controls nearly 80% of the International Sea Lines—much of which are crucial to Beijing’s energy and oil supply chains, pass through Indian jurisdiction. India along with the US, Japan and now with the PM hinting at expanding strategic and maritime trade and ties with the ASEAN countries to realise New Delhi’s Act East policy, puts a formidable front against China. Beijing looks to Islamabad as the only way out to keep India engaged and diverted from taking the centre-stage in the new geo-political dynamics emerging in the Indo-Pacific region.
For China, Pakistan is important not just against India, Pakistan is China’s access to the Muslim world, the Persian Gulf, and one of the ways to avoid the Malacca Strait dilemma. “The more access China has to the Gulf through Pakistan, it helps China build ties with both Iran and the Sunni Gulf states. Just earlier this month we read about something many analysts have long known, that China (and Pakistan) have helped Saudi Arabia build its nuclear program,” Pande told The Sunday Guardian.
The time calls for India’s steady and strategic expansion in the region, while finding the best partners and allies to counter the Dragon’s threat. Professor Walter Andersen, a former US diplomat and South Asia expert in Johns Hopkins University says, “Pakistan is of course important to China as a window to the world—and that has been true for some time. Added to that is the strategic value of Pakistan. But China is worried about India getting incrementally closer to Japan and the US. That, to a certain extent, is a restraining factor.”
Pande echoes Andersen on India’s new strategic relations in the region holding key. She said: “India shares land/sea borders with all its South Asian neighbours. Good relations with them are important for our strategic interests. At the end of the day, while convincing Islamabad may be impossible, Delhi has to make sure that its relations with the other South Asian neighbours, including Nepal are strong enough to withstand what China does and further to ensure that if there are any issue like the one between India and Nepal recently, India solves the disputes at a local level so that we don’t face a situation when not just Islamabad, but also Kathmandu is upset with us at the same time when PLA is standing at our border.”
Many like Andersen see the China-Pakistan friendship even before the current strong Indo-US ties as Islamabad sees the relationship with Beijing as “their major balancer toward India, though the Chinese have limits on what they will do—they will, for example, not go to war with India to back up Pakistani objectives.” A Pakistani realisation of this is one of the major reasons it developed a nuclear weapon, Andersen told this newspaper.
Pakistan’s “over-dependence on Beijing” is something India must watch and strategise accordingly. Pande says, “For Pakistan, China is the most dependable of allies, on the military, economic and diplomatic fronts, even more than the traditional allies like Saudi Arabia. The recent decision by Saudi Arabia to stop (at least temporarily) the oil facility to Pakistan and also demand repayment of $1bn from the original $6bn loan—which Pakistan paid by obtaining the money from China—demonstrates this.”
And Pakistan is obliging China by paying a heavy price—multi-billion investments in CPEC projects while Islamabad’s own coffers are running empty. Even China’s infrastructure related investments in Pakistan are primarily to provide access to Chinese goods to the Gulf and the Middle East. “However, these highways and ports are strategically useful—to counter any American and allied moves to block China in the South China Sea at Gwadar and Djibouti,” says Pande adding, “investment in CPEC will continue, mainly because Pakistan has long been a renter state: a country that uses its location to obtain revenue/loans/grants. So Pakistan will continue its policy of borrowing from one to pay the other, banking on the fact that no country and no IFI (international financial institution) would like a nuclear weapons country of 200 million people (which also has jihadis) to collapse.”
China may increase arms supply to Pakistan, cautions Andersen, saying, “It (China) can provide more arms as it already is the major arms supplier, not because its arms are the best, but because of general financial terms. This is particularly relevant to the air force and navy. Strategically, it could cooperate more closely to harass India, but must be careful not to unleash Indian countermoves. The Chinese don’t want Pakistan to shape its foreign policy.”
Andersen offers the strategic mantra for India. “US retains some influence and the continuing troubles in Afghanistan give the US some incentives to influence it…India of course sees such links in strategic terms. If it has to restrain China, the possibility is with moving closer to the US and Japan.” Added Pande: “India must undertake the second generation of economic reforms (so as to attract foreign investment and technology, especially in manufacturing and defence), move forward with military modernization, and focus on the future, not the past.”
Diplomacy experts are also sceptical about Pakistan’s latest investments in the CPEC projects and that it will really help Islamabad strategically. Andersen said: “The CPEC is Xi’s major way to assert influence, and Pakistan is desperate for such economic assistance. For a relatively small investment, China gets tremendous returns. It is not at all certain that Pakistan will really repay the loans…India of course sees such links in strategic terms.”
It seems it’s a big gamble for Pakistan to be continuing to take on CPEC loans at such a painful economic moment. For Pakistan, the ideal option would be to renegotiate loan terms with Beijing so that the investments are more economically feasible. This would make sense for both countries, as CPEC can only succeed if it’s economically viable for Pakistan. But that is far from reality, currently. In that scenario, New Delhi’s strategic surge along with allies and friends will act as a “surgical counter” to the China-Pakistan threat!