The China factor

In the wake of India’s repeal of Article 370, it is not only Pakistan that has cause for concern, writes Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

While India was squaring off with Pakistan over its recent announcement revoking Article 370 of its Constitution – which gave its northernmost state of Jammu & Kashmir a degree of autonomy and split the state into two federally administered territories – a third factor came into play: China.

China not only voiced ‘serious concern’ about the move but took the issue to the United Nations Security Council for a closed-door discussion, much to the consternation of India. The move fell through as western powers and Russia, who are permanent members of the UNSC, did not wish to place India on the mat over Kashmir. However, for the Indian diplomatic and political establishment the scare was real enough.

This UNSC move happened despite a quick dash by India’s foreign minister Subrahmaniam Jaishankar to Beijing to present India’s case and increase cooperation between the two Asian giants in a bid to thwart US President Donald Trump’s attempt to strip them of the trade privileges they enjoy as ‘developing nations’ at the World Trade Organisation.

China has enough to hide in Tibet and Xinjiang, not to mention Hong Kong, and let’s not forget the $80 billion in trade it does with its southern neighbour. Normally, therefore, it would hardly have been expected to rake up Kashmir at any forum in a bid to thumb its nose at India, a country which it has been carefully wooing to keep it away from a US-led coalition against it.

However, the fact remains that it did. China’s strident intervention on Kashmir seems to have stemmed from two major concerns.

Firstly, the fact that when India declared the Buddhist majority district of Ladakh as a new federally administered territory, the wording introduced in the Constitution and the maps it flashed all over the world showed India’s claim-line in Ladakh that includes the icy desert-land of Aksai Chin, which China had surreptitiously taken over way back in the 1950s.

A fact that people tend to forget is that the original princely state of Jammu & Kashmir is divided not just between India and Pakistan; China occupies one-fifth of the original Jammu & Kashmir state.For China this was a reminder that India has never recognised its covert annexation of Aksai Chin in the 1950s and that its border dispute with its southern neighbour was still alive. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s statement on the occasion was telling – she made it clear that the decision to create a separate territory for Ladakh was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘undermined’ China’s territorial sovereignty.

China not only holds Aksai Chin but also continues to lay claim to several other areas in Ladakh. And to underline these claims the Chinese military has intermittently made incursions into Ladakh, much to the consternation of the Indian authorities.

The claims it makes in Ladakh are all in areas which look down upon the strategic Karakoram Highway, and this is the second reason why China is troubled by India’s Kashmir moves. China wants safety and security of its hold over Gilgit and Pakistan occupied Kashmir, through which its strategic Karakoram Highway and oil and gas pipeline passes, winding its way to Gwadar on the Persian Sea.

India’s statements in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 – that the only dispute that remained in Kashmir was Pakistan occupied Kashmir – may well have alarmed China. Chinese commentators have time and again pointed out that their grand project to link Xinjiang with the warm waters of the Persian Sea cannot wait for India and Pakistan to settle their differences over Kashmir.

DISPUTED BORDER: Map of Aksai Chin and surrounding region
Chin and surrounding region

Hu Shisheng of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations argued some time back that India can continue to object to China’s projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir while it objects to infrastructure projects in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, parts of which China claims, but work cannot be sacrificed on the Karakoram project.

China’s interest in the project is partly strategic as this is a way to bypass the obvious naval choke point at the Strait of Hormuz where, in the event of conflict, the US fleet stationed at Diego Garcia or the Indian Navy stationed off Karwar on the west coast could well block all Chinese shipping through the narrow strait, through which over a fifth of the world’s oil is shipped. The only two navies which count in this region are the American and Indian, with the Iranians a distant third.

China has in the past also supported Islamabad’s position on the Kashmir issue, mainly to demonstrate solidarity with its ‘all weather’ ally during the period when Sino-Indian ties were at their lowest ebb following India’s border clash with China in 1962.

However, since the 1980s China and India have moved steadily to try and normalise bilateral relations and China has adopted a policy of treating Kashmir as a legacy of history rather than a live conflict between India and Pakistan in which it felt India was in the wrong. By the 1990s, China’s Kashmir policy became even more nuanced, with China often choosing silence in any war of words over Kashmir.

All this changed in this millennium, when China became interested in the Karakoram to Gwadar infrastructure project. The project and concerns for its security saw China send PLA engineers into Gilgit by 2010 and 2016, and to start joint patrolling with Pakistani troops in the area.

India declared the Buddhist majority district of Ladakh as a new federally administered territory

By April 2016, China’s official news agency Xinhua was reporting on Kashmir, labelling the militancy in the region a ‘guerrilla war challenging New Delhi’s rule’. Obviously the stakes have changed and with it the messaging.

China seems to be underlining that Indo-Chinese border negotiations have entered a new phase as India tries to consolidate its control over Ladakh and its de facto border with China at the blurred point where the Ladakh and Aksai Chin regions meet. In some senses this harks back to the 1950s, when the two sides started their border stand-off after China had surreptitiously built its highway linking Sinkiang with Tibet.

China’s prickliness is understandable as it seems to feel that India is trying to take a leaf out of its playbook. It is also concerned about the legal status of its Karakoram-Gwadar highway and petroleum pipeline project and the economic corridor that will emerge along with it, given India’s new assertion that the only unresolved issue is Pakistan held Kashmir, of which it will try to gain physical control.

Though China may consider such assertions to be mere rhetoric, the fact that India is unwilling to relent on this core is alarming for Beijing, which, despite being a firm believer in bending rules to suit itself, is also a believer in legalese. This is why even when China was historically weak, it never agreed to or signed its acceptance of the McMahon Line as the border between India and Tibet.

Ideal for China would be a situation where India recognises Chinese occupied bits of Kashmir which, besides Aksai Chin, also includes two parcels of land gifted to itby Pakistan – the Shaksgam Valley and the Yarkand River valley – and also recognises Pakistani suzerainity over Gilgit and Skardu and the tiny portion of Kashmir which it occupies.

However, for Indian politicians this would be a no-no, given Indian perceptions. While, as a status quo-ist power, India may be willing to silently accept the status quo, it would be impossible to tolerate the situation through a treaty on the ground at this stage, China’s alarm notwithstanding.

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is a senior Indian journalist and commentator on current affairs 

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