Page 1 of 2 Beijing playing its Kashmir card
By Mohan Malik
Even as the Chinese navy signals its intent to enforce sea denial in the "first
island chain" in the East (comprised of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and
the South China Sea of the Pacific Ocean), the People's Liberation Army (PLA)
is reportedly on the move along China's southwest frontier in Pakistani-held
In late August, media accounts reported the presence of thousands of Chinese
troops in the strategic northern areas (renamed Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009 by
Pakistan) of Pakistani-held Kashmir, bordering Xinjiang province.
A Western report suggested that Islamabad had ceded control of the area to
Beijing, prompting denials from both capitals. Chinese Foreign Office
spokesperson Jiang Yu denied the story, saying
the troops are there to help Pakistan with ''flood relief work.''
Nonetheless, credible sources confirm the presence of the PLA's logistics and
engineering corps to provide flood relief and to build large infrastructure
projects worth US$20 billion (railways, dams, pipelines and extension of the
Karakoram Highway) to assure unfettered Chinese access to the oil-rich Gulf
through the Pakistani port of Gwadar. As China's external energy dependency has
deepened in the past decade, so has its sense of insecurity and urgency.
'The Kashmir card'
While China and India have long sparred over the Dalai Lama and Tibet's status,
border incursions and China's growing footprint in southern Asia, a perceptible
shift in the Chinese stance on Kashmir has now emerged as a new source of
interstate friction. Throughout the 1990s, a desire for stability on its
southwestern flank and fears of an Indian-Pakistani nuclear arms race caused
Beijing to take a more evenhanded approach to Kashmir, while still favoring
Yet, in a major policy departure since 2006, Beijing has been voicing open
support for Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatists through its opposition to the
UN Security Council ban on the jihadi organizations targeting India, economic
assistance for infrastructure projects in northern Kashmir, and the issuance of
separate visas by Chinese embassies to Indian citizens of Kashmiri origins.
Amid the current unrest in the valley, Beijing has also invited Kashmiri
separatist leaders for talks and offered itself as a mediator, ostensibly in a
tit-for-tat for India's refuge for the Dalai Lama. Yet China is actually the
third party to the dispute in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). While India holds
about 45% of J&K territory and Pakistan controls 35%, China occupies about
20% (including Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam Valley, ceded by Pakistan to China
The denial of a visa in July 2010 to the Indian Army's Northern Commander,
General B S Jaswal – who was to lead the fourth bilateral defense dialogue in
Beijing – because he commanded "a disputed area, Jammu and Kashmir", was said
to be the last straw.
Consequently, a new chill has descended on Sino-Indian relations. India
retaliated by suspending defense exchanges with China and lodging a formal
protest. New Delhi sees these moves as part of a new Chinese strategy with
respect to Kashmir that seeks to nix its global ambitions and entangle India to
prevent it from playing a role beyond the region. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
told Indian media: "Beijing could be tempted to use India's 'soft underbelly',
Kashmir, and Pakistan to keep India in 'low-level equilibrium'."
Resurrecting old issues and manufacturing new disputes to throw the other side
off balance and enhance negotiating leverage is an old tactic in Chinese
statecraft. The downturn in Sino-Indian ties since the mid-2000s may be partly
attributed to the weakening of China's "Pakistan card" against India,
necessitating the exercise of direct pressure against the latter.
Beijing fears that an unrestrained Indian power would eventually threaten
China's security along its southwestern frontiers. One Chinese analyst
maintains that "Beijing would not abandon its 'Kashmir card.’ The Kashmir issue
will remain active as long as China worries about its southern borders." China
and Pakistan have been allies since the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. This
enduring alliance was formalized with the conclusion of the China-Pakistan
"Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation and Good-Neighborly Relations" in April
Likewise, the sharper focus on Tawang is part of a shriller claim over
Arunachal Pradesh in the east, which Beijing now calls "South Tibet" (a new
Chinese term for Arunachal Pradesh since 2005), ostensibly to extend its claim
over the territories.
It is worth noting that prior to 2005, there was no reference to "South Tibet"
in China's official media or any talk of the "unfinished business of the 1962
war." Nor did the Chinese government or official media ever claim that the
PLA's "peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1950 was partial and incomplete" or that
"a part of Tibet was yet to be liberated.''
Taking a cue from the Pakistanis, who have long described Kashmir as the
"unfinished business of the 1947 partition,'' Chinese strategists now call
Arunachal Pradesh, or more specifically, Tawang, the "unfinished business of
the 1962 war." China also sought to internationalize its bilateral territorial
dispute with India by opposing an Asian Development Bank loan in 2009, part of
which was earmarked for a watershed project in Arunachal Pradesh.
Chinese strategic writings indicate that as China becomes more economically and
militarily powerful, Beijing is devising new stratagems to keep its southern
rival in check. Some Chinese economists calculate that within a decade or so,
India could come close to "spoiling Beijing's party of the century" by
outpacing China in economic growth. From Beijing's perspective, India's rise as
an economic and military power would prolong American hegemony in Asia, and
thereby hinder the establishment of a post-American, Sino-centric hierarchical
order in the Asia-Pacific region.
The past decade has, therefore, seen the Chinese military bolstering its
strength all along the disputed borders from Kashmir to Burma (aka Myanmar).
Beijing also prefers a powerful and well-armed Pakistani military, as that
helps it mount pressure, by proxy, on India. China continues to shower its
"all-weather" friend with military and civilian assistance ranging from
ballistic missiles and JF-17 fighter aircraft to nuclear power plants and
Having "fathered" Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, China is now set to
"grandfather" Pakistan's civilian nuclear-energy program as well. Chinese and
Pakistani strategists gloat over how Beijing is building naval bases around
India that will enhance the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
However, the best-laid plans might come unstuck if Pakistan fails to pacify
Balochistan province, where Gwadar is located. The growing Balochi independence
movement, which has repeatedly targeted Chinese engineers since 2004, makes the
Chinese nervous about implementing their proposals for investment in the
construction of a petrochemical complex, a pipeline and a railway line.
Mutual suspicions, geopolitical tensions and a zero-sum mentality add to a very
competitive dynamic in the China-Pakistan-India triangular relationship.
Beijing and Islamabad are concerned over the growing talk in Washington's
policy circles of India emerging as a counterweight to China on the one hand
and the fragile, radical Islamic states of Southwest Asia on the other, viewing
a potential US-Indian alignment with horror.
The US military bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India's growing
footprint in Afghanistan cause alarm in Beijing and Islamabad. Some Chinese
strategists worry about the destabilizing consequences of a prolonged US
military presence in "Af-Pak" for the future of Sino-Pakistani ties, as well as
on Pakistan's domestic stability. While the remarkable upturn in
Indian-American security ties has exacerbated the security dilemma, the
post-9/11 US military presence in Pakistan has sharpened the divide within the
Pakistani military into pro-West and pro-Beijing factions.