Modi is out on a limb with China over Pakistan

Peter Lee October 17, 2016 8:43 PM (UTC+8)
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Though you’ll only find discrete murmurings on the subject, especially in the inflamed Indian press, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gambit to “internationalize” Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan in his August 15 Independence Day speech and in contemporaneous private but widely reported remarks to the BJP does not appear to be some of his best work.

His pious declarations of solidarity with the people of Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan not only provoked Pakistan’s anxiety over an India threat to its territorial sovereignty and virtual existence; it also put the PRC on notice that Modi was inviting further instability at both the northern and southern ends of the cherished China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which enters Pakistan at G-B in the north and terminates at Gwadar Port in Balochistan in the south.

And so the PRC has put its marker down on Kashmir in Pakistan’s favor, despite a spate of terror attacks against Indian forces in Kashmir.

Pakistan apparently did not stand idly by after August 15, as it seems likely that the deadly attack at Uri on September 18 in Jammu and Kashmir was a riposte to Modi’s more aggressive anti-Pakistan tack.

A retaliatory cycle was, predictably, the order of the day.

A plausible timeline of events is Modi’s speeches begat Uri which begat the cross LoC raid which begat the October 2 attack on Baramulla which will beget…?

An interesting subtext to the increased tempo of militant attacks in Kashmir is that the Indian military is getting freaked out.

First Post reported the Baramulla incident, an unsuccessful attack this weekend that nevertheless killed one BSF (Border Security Force) soldier, like this:

The file clips that television channels kept showing during Sunday night’s attack on armed forces camps in Baramulla did not begin to do justice to what was actually happening. Those who saw it at ground zero say that it was like Diwali [the Festival of Lights].

The divisional headquarters is right across the river from the Rashtriya Rifles and Border Security Force camps that were attacked. Apparently, army men opened up with whatever they had, firing from all directions. Some of those who heard the gunfire from up close say they must have heard the sound of no less than 3,000 bullets, and perhaps a dozen much louder blasts — no doubt from mortar shells.

There were also preliminary reports, later indignantly rebutted, that some Indian casualties were due to friendly fire.

Other than issues of fire discipline, there is also the matter that Baramulla is not a military camp near the Line of Control. It’s a sizable town with a population of over 100,000 about 35 miles from Srinagar, inviting speculation that the attack was staged by a sleeper cell in town and not via a border infiltration.

Edgy troops plus a persistent large-scale resistance movement plus cross border attacks plus internal subversion in Kashmir is a combustible mixture.

And it looks like Pakistan is probably interested in flicking a few matches at the problem. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif convened a meeting of the parliamentary parties on October 3 to demonstrate a united front — including seemingly sincere declarations of solidarity from his many enemies including the PPP — on the issue of Kashmir.

Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who was part of the meeting, said: “Despite our differences with the government on multiple issues, we are with you, Prime Minister.”

The PPP supports Sharif and the party has taken “a clear stance on these issues”, Zardari said, telling the leaders that current tension between the two countries “is a turning point in Pak-India relations.”

The leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party referenced Modi’s Baloch gambit, stating: Qureshi added that the situation in Balochistan should be kept separate from the ongoing situation in Kashmir. “Kashmir is an internationally-recognized dispute whereas Balochistan is a part of our sovereign nation,” he said.

The meeting was a convincing rebuttal to the claim that Pakistan’s fiddling in Kashmir is solely a preoccupation of Pakistan’s deep state apparatus composed of Pakistan’s military, the ISI, and its bespoke jihadi assets.

I would conclude that Modi’s plan to escalate the confrontation with Pakistan –by raising Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, by pushing to have Pakistan designated as a terrorist state, and by threatening to revisit the Indus Waters Treaty– has had the unwelcome side effect of uniting Pakistan’s civilian and military establishment against what they perceive as a burgeoning existential Indian threat to Pakistan’s territorial and political integrity.

Therefore, in my opinion there is a high degree of unity in supporting of exploiting the primary Indian weakness accessible to Pakistan — Kashmir — with a strategy that previously would have seemed unacceptably reckless: encouraging unrest in IOK to distract, punish, and bleed India.

India does not display the same degree of unity and determination of purpose.

The Uri raid triggered national outrage, and India’s retaliatory “surgical strike” across the Line of Control was a source of national exultation after years of diffident responses to terrorist outrages. Modi’s prestige and popularity has increased, and the BJP and the nationalist press have been boosting the current aggressive line…but finding it necessary to police individuals who display inadequate enthusiasm.

Beneath the current fervor, there is a moderate, accommodationist strain that would like to see a new normal of “tit-for-tat” proportional retaliation between two nuclear-armed states with a manageable level of hostility, not pursuit of a grand strategy to escalate confrontation until Pakistan is somehow compelled to reform its regional security infrastructure to a point that satisfies India or face extinction.

This also appears to be the current stance of both the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

The United States, while supporting to a certain extent India’s drive to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, categorically denied support for Balochistan independence.

As for China, it took the opportunity offered by Pakistan and India sending security officials to Beijing to make its feelings known.

India’s envoy, R.N. Ravi, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was in Beijing to discuss cooperation on counter-terrorism. If his goal was to convince the PRC that Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir was a matter of paramount concern justifying a global united front against Pakistan as a terrorism-sponsoring state, apparently it was no sale.

The PRC appears to have been more receptive to a visit from a Pakistan special envoy for Kashmir who met with a Vice Minister from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on September 28. The envoy gave an exclusive interview to Chinese state media with the message:

Bakhtyar alluded to Vice Minister Liu as saying that Kashmir was a historical issue and that China valued Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. He said that Liu urged both India and Pakistan to handle the differences through dialogue, improve their bilateral ties and protect the region’s peace and stability.

At a subsequent press conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson responded to a query with a striking reply that characterized Kashmir as “a left-over from history”:

China has been following the Kashmir situation and takes seriously Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. China believes that the Kashmir issue is a left-over from history which shall be resolved by relevant parties through dialogue and consultation. China hopes that Pakistan and India will strengthen channels for dialogue, properly handle their differences, improve bilateral relations and together protect the regional peace and stability.

One message, I think, is that the PRC is anxious to see the Kashmir issue resolved to remove an impediment to the passage of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor through Gilgit-Baltistan. It’s also probably a public signal to Pakistan that it should abandon its dreams of wresting IOK away from India and instead claim the alphabetic consolation prizes G-B, POK, and the CPEC.

However, the key message was not a rebuke of Pakistan, in my opinion, but a pointed affirmation of the statements made by the Pakistan envoy concerning bilateral talks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed PRC was on the same page with Pakistan and repudiating Modi’s strategy of trying to ostracize Pakistan.

Thanks to Modi putting Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan “in play”, the PRC probably regards Modi’s push against Pakistan as a two-edged sword, attacking Pakistan to please the Pakistan hawks and balking China to please the China hawks, and is in no mood to condone or enable further Indian militancy.

In my opinion, as long as Modi fulminates against Pakistan, the PRC will tend to be bloody-minded on Kashmir, considering the unrest there — including the cycle of retaliatory attacks between Pakistan militant assets and Indian security forces — as a suitable rebuke and encouragement for India to switch to a negotiated track.

As long as containment is maintained — the retaliatory strikes by both sides stay inside Kashmir i.e. across the Line of Control but not inside Pakistan or India and are proportional — the PRC will tend to view them with relative equanimity.

In other words, the PRC is not likely to throw Pakistan under the bus, as the India hawks profess to believe, for the sake of excellent relations with Mother India.

And if India makes concrete moves threatening Balochistan, the southern segment of the CPEC, then the PRC probably regards whatever horrors get dished out within India and not just IOK as regrettable but understandable collateral damage of a misguided and adventurist Indian policy.

Perhaps Modi understands that he has few favorable degrees of freedom left in pushing forward his foreign policy and it might be prudent to wind down the cycle of retaliation. Let’s hope so.

However, it will be difficult if not impossible for Modi to deescalate to negotiations, simply because he has now staked his foreign policy on international ostracism of Pakistan as a renegade state sponsor of terrorism, and has based his ambitions for Indian “rise” on marginalization of the PRC and its local friends and the acknowledgement of India as the hegemon in South Asia.

And since Pakistan now has a strong incentive to disregard any PRC calls for restraint and instead persist with “price tag” mischief in Kashmir, the recurrence of incidents that inflame Indian public and political opinion — and demand retaliation — is likely.

History may judge that Modi bit off more than he could chew with his August 15 speech and the drive to humble Pakistan.

However, if modern history has taught us anything, relatively high-functioning superpowers like India can usually impose flawed and unpopular policies — or at very least persist in them even when they aren’t working.

Smaller, unpopular, and dysfunctional powers like Pakistan are usually unable to get things to go their way even when their policies are effective in theory and command a high degree of national support.

Modi is a bit out on a limb. But he probably thinks it is thick and sturdy enough not to break under his weight, and that China and Pakistan are not going to saw it off.

So he does not have to climb down.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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