India must take note of the China-Pakistan nexus | Opinion – analysis
Within days of the beginning of the new year, China made clear that its attitude towards India will not change. The all-spectrum China-Pakistan compact will stay intact and get further consolidated through closer diplomatic and military coordination. At the same time, China will retain, as cosmetic window dressing, the semblance of cordiality in bilateral relations with India through summits and official-level meetings, which have yielded negligible results. Additionally, there will be the dissimulation that it is under compulsion to support Pakistan. Beijing will simultaneously strive to advance its commercial interests by blending economic incentives with threats, as it has in the case of Huawei and the bid for 5G. Beijing would have interpreted India’s recent decision to allow Huawei to participate in the 5G trials, at the risk of introducing vulnerabilities in national security, as succumbing to China’s pressure.
Just look at three of China’s recent actions. One, Beijing attempted, for the third time in barely five months, to convene a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to discuss the Kashmir issue. This was blocked by the United States (US), France and Russia and, for the first time in a seeming change of policy, by the United Kingdom. This will not be the last such attempt.
Two, it publicised the first large-scale military exercises in 2020 by Chinese troops in Tibet. Official Chinese media reports — helpfully in English — pointed out that new high-powered weapons suitable for use in high altitudes were used by forces of the Tibet Military Region. The Tibet Military Region is under the direct operational control of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing headed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Three, it held the first nine-day joint “Sea Guardian” exercises with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea, starting on January 6. For the first time, these included warlike air defence systems, anti-missile technology, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and live-fire and joint marine training drills, as well as submarine rescue and amphibious landing operations by 60 Chinese Marines from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Southern Theatre Command. The PLA Navy did add the ritual anodyne comment that the exercise “wasn’t targeted at any third party”.
Together, the two sets of exercises reflect the land and sea-based threats to India.
These have been preceded by other statements in China’s official military media that underscore the extent of China-Pakistan cooperation in military matters. Late last year, reports proposed the sale a few years later of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to Pakistan. The discussions suggested that the sale would help rectify the existing imbalance in maritime power between Pakistan and India, be more affordable for Islamabad, and financially benefit China.
Later, following the Indian airstrikes at the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist training camp at Balakot inside Pakistan, the Chinese military media reported extensively on the performance of Pakistan Air Force pilots and aircraft. They lauded the performance of the Chinese-made JH-7 jet aircraft, saying its performance would be good for the sales of Chinese military products. At the time, China’s media also discussed further assistance to Pakistan. One suggestion was that China’s air force should position its “electronic” JH-7 jet aircraft on the Sino-Pakistan border to “loan” it quickly to Pakistan when conflict breaks out. The report was recommending deployment of these aircraft in the South Xinjiang Military District, subordinate to the PLA Western Theatre Command, which exercises operational jurisdiction over the areas opposite Ladakh and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan, and which is tasked to protect the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
China has, since April 2015, when it announced the CPEC, been exerting pressure on India to improve its ties with Pakistan. Beijing has been insisting in official and Track 1.5 and Track-2 discussions that India commence talks and ease tensions with Pakistan, resolve the Kashmir issue, and only then look to improving ties with China. At that time, the CPEC projects were valued at around $49 billion and now they are officially estimated by Pakistan at almost $64 billion. For China, the stakes are undoubtedly high. To increase pressure, China has revived reference to the UNSC resolutions while referring to the Kashmir issue. Beijing has, in the past, referred to UNSC resolutions when its relations with India were under strain.
At this juncture, for India to host a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is a China-sponsored and controlled organisation, will afford Beijing another opportunity to exert pressure on India. This time, China could try and muster support from sections of the Indian media, civil society and others to persuade India to soften its stance on Pakistan and Kashmir.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
The views expressed are personal