Beijing and the India-Pakistan conundrum

During the course of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in China, and days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in China for his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, an editorial in Pakistan’s premier English-language daily (Daily Times) titled ‘China’s re-assurance on CPEC‘ made an interesting point:

If anything Beijing has been asking Islamabad to engage with New Delhi and keep tensions to a minimum. Such an environment is also conducive to timely completion of various projects under CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] and transforming South and Western Asia into a high economic growth zone. Keeping the economy first is a lesson that our state has yet to learn from its big brother in the hood.

Zardari’s recommendation in 2012

Interestingly, during his meeting with former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, in April 2012, former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan People’s Party — PPP) had also stated that Pakistan and India should seek to follow the Pakistan-China model of engagement. Zardari meant that, like India and China, India and Pakistan too should follow an incremental approach, with more frequent high level interactions and a heavy focus on economic cooperation.

It might be mentioned that between 2012 and 2013 some important leaps were made in the economic sphere between both countries, with the most noteworthy development being the setting up of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Attari (Amritsar, India). The ICP’s motive was to accelerate bilateral trade through the only land crossing (Attari-Wagah) between India and Pakistan. During this period, a number of high level delegations interacted, including the Commerce Ministers of both countries.

Pakistan also seemed prepared to grant India MFN status, but a change of government (along with domestic opposition from certain business lobbies as well as hardliners) in Islamabad (2013) and then New Delhi (2014) meant that this decision could not go ahead. Since then, relations have been tense, and there has been no opportunity to make any progress on this.

Tensions in the past 4 years: CPEC and terrorism emanating from Pakistan

Ever since 2014, apart from Modi’s invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing in, and then the former’s impromptu Lahore visit in December 2015, ties have been largely strained, not just due to tensions across the Line of Control (LOC) and terror attacks (Pathankot, Uri), but also the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through disputed territory (Gilgit-Baltistan).

China has also defended Pakistan’s terror groups like the JeM (Jaish-E-Mohammed). China has repeatedly blocked resolutions at the UN to declare Masood Azhar, chief of JeM, as a global terrorist.

Beijing has even invited New Delhi to join the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) Initiative, though India has declined because the CPEC project passes through disputed territory. India was also one of the few countries that did not attend the OBOR meeting in May 2017, due to it’s differences with China over CPEC. Interestingly, during Modi’s recent China visit, Beijing stated that it would not push India on its OBOR initiative. Said the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Kong Xuanyou: ‘We won’t force them to do something they don’t want to do.’

India-China rethink, can it compel a shift in regional dynamics?

Given some of the steps which have been taken in the past few months, it seems as though both New Delhi and Beijing are re-thinking their relationship (some analysts have dubbed it as ‘reset’), and the Modi visit to China was very much part of this strategy. The key question is: can Beijing play a role in reshaping South Asia’s geopolitical dynamics, especially the India-Pakistan relationship?

Can China be a part of the solution in South Asia?

While many analysts look at the China-Pakistan axis bleakly, a number of analysts also believe that China, which has borne its fair share of terrorism, could be part of the solution, given its economic interests in India. Interestingly, a number of US analysts, including Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, have argued that China, with its economic leverage over Pakistan, has the capacity to convince, and if necessary arm twist, Islamabad to take action against terror groups.

An op-ed in China’s Global Times spoke of the need for New Delhi to give up it’s skepticism towards the Islamabad-Beijing relationship:

We hope New Delhi, as a major power in the region, can realize the significance of cooperation, abandon its stereotyped view of Sino-Pakistani partnership and correctly view the purpose of the Belt and Road initiative […] But if the Indian government regards the SCO as merely a lever to balance China and Pakistan, it will lose an important platform for cooperation and growth.

The first necessary pre-condition for India to be less skeptical with regard to the Beijing-Islamabad nexus would be a genuine recalibration in Beijing’s South Asia policy. Beijing needs to prevail upon Islamabad to take firm action against terror groups targeting India, and stop state patronage to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and JeM. While some sections of the Pakistani establishment make the right noises, Islamabad’s army is certainly in cahoots with such groups. The latest example being the Milli Muslim League (MML), a front of Mumbai mastermind Hafiz Saeed’s JuD, which has been propped up by the Pakistan military to weaken the PML-N.

While there was no specific mention of Pakistan during the Xi-Modi meeting, the issue of terrorism did come up. What was interesting was the fact that India, Pakistan, and China will be holding a joint military exercise in Russia, in September 2018, under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Even in the context of economic linkages and connectivity, it is one thing for China to ask India to be part of the regional economic narrative. Some of the logistical issues which have stymied concrete cooperation between New Delhi and Pakistan need to be addressed. Pakistan, for instance, needs to at least provide India with MFN status if it is serious about improving economic ties with New Delhi.

While both the current PML-N government and the previous PPP government have been keen to strengthen economic ties, the establishment in Pakistan has scuttled the decision. With India and China jointly working on a project in Afghanistan, it is likely that Beijing will pay more attention to this.

Internal situation in Pakistan

It is not just China of course, as a lot also depends upon the political situation in Pakistan over the next few months. The military establishment has been growing stronger in the past two years, and it has found a new ally in the Pakistani judiciary. First, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified for life by the Supreme Court from holding any public office (rather unfairly), and then former Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif was disqualified for life by the Islamabad High Court. A lot will thus depend upon the post-May 2018 electoral verdict, and the civil-military relationship in Pakistan.

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