The last fortnight saw India-China engagements at fairly high levels. The foreign minister interacted with her Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Russia-India-China summit. The defence minister was in China for five days and interacted at various levels with both the military and civilian hierarchy. The NSA interacted with his counterpart in Beijing as part of the nineteenth round of the Special Representative talks. A common agenda point in all three meetings was the issue of the Chinese veto on the UN attempt to ban the JeM leader as an international terrorist. The action by China was seen as a rebuke to the growing Indo-Chinese relationship. India was compelled to retaliate by granting a visa to the World Uyghur Congress leader who China dubs a terrorist.
For China watchers, who have seen Beijing support Pakistan in every international forum, irrespective of the reason, this action was no surprise. Close bonhomie has always existed between the two. In all Indo-Pak wars, Chinese support to Islamabad has remained steadfast. The reason is obvious. It is based on an old but familiar maxim, 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. This relationship, nurtured over the years, has prompted India to develop military capabilities to counter a possible 'two-front war'.
China sees Pakistan as a counter-balance to India in the South Asian strategic space. Presently a larger Indian military deployment exists against Pakistan than against the Chinese, where India plans only defensive actions to deny China the ability to penetrate deep. Majority of India's military commands are directed towards Pakistan, while only one of each service faces China. India's main strike capabilities are deployed to counter Pakistan, where we always aim to maintain a conventional military edge. The Indian mountain strike corps, directed towards China, is still years away from being operational in the true sense. It was an ambitious project that was stalled due to financial constraints. For China this is ideal, as it continues to enjoy the strategic advantage of superior force, as Indian military concentration remains westwards. Therefore, it makes strategic sense for the Chinese to continue to arm Pakistan.
Pakistan gains its ability to continue with its anti-India policy due to diplomatic support from China. China in spite of facing insurgency in Xinjiang, an outflow from Taliban actions in Afghanistan, has never openly criticized Pakistan for its selective terrorism policy. While the Taliban continues to wreck carnage in Afghanistan, China remains quiet, never criticizing. Its recent action in vetoing the ban on the JeM chief, automatically gave Pakistan the green signal to 'bash on regardless' with its state-sponsorship-of-terrorism policy. China provided Pakistan with ballistic and nuclear technology support, which enabled it to balance India's conventional military power. While the US provides arms to Pakistan under the anti- terrorism banner, China provides the same to enable it to strategically balance India. This unhindered supply of military hardware provides Pakistan's military with the ability to continue its anti-India stance and stop any elected government from commencing peace dialogue with India.
China is presently investing $46 billion on developing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This is linked to the Chinese development of Gwadar port in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. The corridor would link Gwadar to the Chinese region of Xinjiang. This would give an economic boost to Pakistan, while opening avenues for enhancing Chinese trade. For Pakistan protection of the corridor assumes high importance, as Chinese investment is based on conditions of security. Chinese nationals working on projects in Pakistan have been specifically targeted in the past and increase in such incidents could affect Chinese investments. The CPEC provides Pakistan with an opportunity to play the anti-India card, claiming that Indian support to the Baluch movement is fuelling militant action on the corridor. China would never permit its investment to be affected or disrupted by any hostile militant actions, hence there could be pressure on India, which would only benefit Pakistan.
China also seeks to play a major role in Afghanistan's future, thereby enhancing its hold over South Asia. Close links with Afghanistan would help it curtail the rising militancy in the Xinjiang province, as also economically open Afghanistan's natural resources for exploitation. It therefore has to keep India away. With Pakistan being a key player and possessing leverage with the Taliban, India was pushed out. The core group for talks with the Taliban presently comprises of the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
If recent interactions between India and China and subsequent statements are analysed, it becomes clear that while China is desirous of developing ties with India, as also resolving border issues, it would never be at the cost of its 'all-weather friend' Pakistan. The Chinese statement after India objected to the veto was that it acted on the facts provided. This reveals nothing, nor does it indicate any likely change in their stance.
For Pakistan, military hardware flows from both the US and China. But US-provided equipment comes with riders. Diplomatic support continues from China. Economically, the CPEC has given it more Foreign Direct Investment than the sum total of the last ten years. Development along the corridor could be a game-changer for an economically starved nation. Therefore, support from China provides Pakistan with confidence, enabling it to continue to target India.
For India, it is a wait and watch period. While it seeks to enhance its relations with China, it would always be wary of Chinese support to Pakistan. Terrorist strikes on the CPEC, casualties to Chinese workers or disruptions at Gwadar, could affect Pakistan-China relations. Greater economic cooperation between India and China would only bring us closer and only then could we even hope to attempt to limit their support to Pakistan. Till then, we need to continue to maintain a two-front capability.
Harsha Kakar is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army