diplomacy | US and China won’t take sides in India-Pakistan fracas

US and China won’t take sides in India-Pakistan fracas

M.K. Bhadrakumar September 29, 2016 1:11 PM (UTC+8)
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The decision by the Indian government to “isolate” Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism is nothing new. The good part is that a potential ‘hot war’ is giving way to a diplomatic brawl.

What is going to be critical for Indian diplomacy will be the attitude of big powers, especially China, which has an “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan – and the United States, with whom India claims a ‘defining partnership’.

China and India ought to enjoy convergence since both countries face terrorist attacks, and for both it is the so-called Af-Pak (Afghan-Pakistan) region that is in their cross-hairs as the revolving door for extremists. Indeed, both condemn terrorism “in all its manifestations”.

Yet, Sino-Indian convergence remains elusive. China has taken a neutral stance in the current India-Pakistan tensions following the terrorist attack on the Indian military camp at Uri on September 18.

Curiously, there are strong similarities in the respective stanceS of Beijing and Washington. Both the US and China refuse to take sides as regards the Uri attack. India alleges that Pakistan masterminded the attack, while Islamabad points a finger at the heightened unrest in the Indian state of Kashmir.

On balance, the advantage goes to Pakistan insofar as neither China nor the US targeted it over the Uri attack. Both expressed concern over the upheaval in the Indian state of Kashmir and both advise India and Pakistan to resolve their differences through talks.

Both the US and China strongly reiterated their commitment to friendly relations with Pakistan at the two meetings in New York Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last week.

The US state department readout said Kerry met Sharif on September 19 “to discuss our strong, long-term bilateral partnership and to build upon the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue”. Kerry was effusive in praising Pakistani policies and made it a point to differentiate between Pakistani state and “non-state actors”, apart from commending “recent efforts by Pakistani security forces to counter extremist violence”.

Most significantly, the US readout reflected a Kerry-Sharif consensus over Kashmir developments, saying they “expressed strong concern with recent violence in Kashmir – particularly the (Uri) army base attack – and the need for all sides to reduce tensions”.

Islamabad could draw satisfaction that Kerry endorsed their stance that the Uri attack needs to be seen in the broader context of the two-month old upheaval in Kashmir Valley. In earlier remarks, the US state department spokesmen also marked a careful distance from the Indian stance on the situation in the valley.

To be sure, Pakistan takes the high ground by highlighting India’s reluctance to resume formal dialogue to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Again, Chinese Premier Li told Sharif at their meeting on September 21 that Beijing stands “ready to deepen all-round practical cooperation with Pakistan and is willing to make joint efforts with Islamabad in injecting new impetus into the development of bilateral relations.”

Li said: “As all-weather strategic partners of cooperation, China and Pakistan have always firmly supported each other and their friendship is unbreakable… China is willing to maintain close high-level contacts and continue to strengthen coordination with Pakistan on global and regional affairs.”

The Xinhua report on Li’s meeting with Sharif made no reference to Kashmir. The Chinese are walking a fine line.

The Pakistani press cited the Chinese Consul-General in Lahore as saying last week that Beijing will extend “full support” to Islamabad in the event of “any foreign aggression”, while also voicing the opinion that the “aspirations” of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account in resolving the Kashmir dispute (which, by the way, vaguely echoes the US position also).

Furthermore, the diplomat has been quoted as saying, “We’re and will be siding with Pakistan on Kashmir issue… There is no justification for atrocities on unarmed Kashmiris (in the Indian state)”.

Of course, Beijing has a way of indulging in diplomatic doublespeak. Beijing’s man in Lahore couldn’t have put his foot in his mouth by mistake.

Nonetheless, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman keeps repeating the old mantra: “China’s position on the relevant issue is consistent and clear… As neighbour and friend to both Pakistan and India we hope the two countries will properly address their differences through dialogue and consultation, manage and control the situation and jointly work for peace and stability of South Asia and the growth of the region”.

The bottom line: Beijing may have introduced an element of strategic ambivalence to its stance on Kashmir issue.

If so, it can be attributed to two main factors – one, India’s unhelpful stance on South China Sea disputes and the overall drift in Sino-Indian relations due to a perceived Indian approach toward poking at China deliberately over a number of insignificant issues that should not have crowded the centre stage of the relationship in the first instance, and, two, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, etc. and a perceived need to balance the emergent US-Indian axis in Indian Ocean region.

No doubt, China’s stance on Kashmir bears watch. For the present, though, what has stunned Indian policymakers is the US-Pakistani project to catapult the notorious Mujahideen leader living under protection of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to mainstream Afghan politics.

Hekmatyar is an incorrigibly anti-Indian Mujahideen leader nurtured by ISI, who has publicly articulated his support for the insurgency in Kashmir. His resurrection by the ISI with Washington’s acquiescence at a highly sensitive juncture when Kashmir Valley is in turmoil cannot but worry Delhi.

What will make Delhi sit up is that the covert US-Pakistan deal on Hekmatyar was solemnized with a warm message from White House on September 22, hardly four days after Uri attack.

Didn’t Washington know Hekmatyar’s background or his longstanding hostility toward India? Of course, it did.

But Washington feels compelled to appease Pakistan by removing Hekmatyar (‘Butcher of Kabul’) from its wanted list of notorious terrorists as quid pro quo for Islamabad’s cooperation to keep Afghan situation under control just when Obama administration is entering the lame duck period.

All in all, Pakistani diplomacy has brilliantly succeeded in neutralizing Washington on India-Pakistan issues. Only recently, India had signed (after a decade of vacillation) a logistics agreement with the US, which was widely interpreted as signifying a quasi-alliance between the two countries.

In essence, Washington effectively ‘de-hyphenates’ its ties with India and Pakistan. Obama keeps bonhomie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which the latter finds greatly flattering, while Kerry remains chummy with Sharif and transacts serious business to advance US strategies in Central Asia. Such personalized diplomacy works to Washington’s advantage.

Similarly, once fault lines began appearing in India-China relations after Modi started identifying Indian policies with the US’ rebalance in Asia, and the normalization process between the two countries consequently became uncertain, the new dialectics seems to work splendidly to Pakistan’s advantage.

India is the bad loser in this paradigm. With both China and the US becoming stakeholders in strategic partnership with Pakistan, Delhi’s campaign to ‘isolate’ Pakistan has no future to speak of.

On the other hand, war with Pakistan is a non-option not only because a nuclear flashpoint may arise, but also because a war can only end unhappily for India on the diplomatic and political plane, with international all but certain to insert itself to decide on Kashmir’s future.

Modi will not want such a dismal scenario with uncontrollable consequences to be his historical legacy. Sooner than later, therefore, India will be compelled to engage Pakistan.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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