There is now a formidable fresh basis for Pakistan’s renewal of belligerence towards India over a sustained period. China’s recent avowal of the deepest friendship for Islamabad goes well beyond the bland ‘all-weather friends’ rubric we were familiar with.
The new metric of Beijing’s political love for Islamabad’s military-—which, indeed, has defined the State of Pakistan for decades—is again best summed up by the People’s Republic’s own official description of its proximity to Pakistan: that the friendship of the two is “higher than the mountains, deeper than the ocean, and sweeter than honey”.
The Chinese are clever with this sort of propagandist wordplay. But being a creative slogan of the Xi Jinping era, these are not mere words. They are bolstered by China’s Belt and Road initiative, whose centrepiece is the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which links China to Pakistan’s Gwadar port in coastal Baluchistan near the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Chinese power appears set on establishing a naval base there, astride the sea lanes through which much of the world’s oil trade passes.
The CPEC’s incalculable importance— and, as a consequence, Pakistan’s value—in China’s eyes, is best understood when it is seen that the corridor is the brainchild of Xi, who was placed on the same pedestal as Chairman Mao Zedong by the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China last October. The current leader’s ‘Thoughts’ have been sanctified in the same manner as Mao’s ‘Thoughts’ were in an earlier era. In the field of geopolitics, the CPEC is the most eye-catching manifestation of Xi’s strategic thinking and vision. It deals, above all, with the dynamics of radiating regional authority, and in constraining along-term natural rival, India.
So, henceforth, it is no longer just Pakistan that New Delhi must deal with, but the pair of Pakistan and China acting in tandem to confront Indian interests. That is why the Dokalam standoff in the eastern Himalayas last summer had a deeper meaning for regional perceptions than we imagine.
China to the Rescue
The Pakistani terrorist leaders and groups whose credo is to attack India are now defended in world fora by China. We are also now directly face to face with China’s politics and tactics in dealing with the Kashmir question, since the CPEC passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
When in his first tweet of 2018, US President Donald Trump hit out at Pakistan for its “lies and deceit” toward the US after accepting $33 billion in aid to fight terrorism, China publicly gave Islamabad cover, lauding its “sacrifices” in combating terrorism. This is a patently false construct, of course, as the Afghans and the Iranians, and not just the Indians, will testify.
It is precisely on account of the unembarrassed and no-holds-barred emergence of the Sino-Pak compatibility quotient in the regional theatre that makes Beijing give succour to South Asian terrorists, besides seeking to assume a large role in helping mind the Taliban along with Pakistan, a role that the US alone once appeared capable of. All this makes the Narendra Modi administration face a very different Pakistan today than the one faced by the governments of Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.
Vajpayee could get Pervez Musharraf to give an undertaking in 2003 that Pakistani soil would not be permitted to be used by terrorists against India.
This was because being the kingpin behind Pakistan’s botched Kargil incursion during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, when he became president upon seizing power, Musharraf had come under pressure from the US to mend fences with New Delhi.
The US has always feared a possible nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan if certain conventional military thresholds were crossed. Washington under Trump still proclaims to harbour that anxiety. Islamabad tries to play on those fears in order to internationalise Kashmir.
However, as of today, on account of Islamabad’s deepened Beijing links, Washington has ceded leverage in Islamabad. Although its continuing long-term salience can hardly be in question, for now it is unlikely that Washington can persuade Islamabad to normalise ties with India through the simple expedient of reining in the terrorist brigades.
Besides anxieties relating to nukes, after Kargil, US President Bill Clinton may have worried about the Indian Army crossing the Line of Control (LoC) in retaliation, seizing territory inside Pakistan to enhance its military leverage. He, therefore, urgently accepted Sharif ’s entreaty at the Blair House meeting in Washington to get the Vajpayee government to de-escalate.
In contrast, Pakistani generals today have a very different playbook. They are all too conscious of Chinese munificence, and of an active Chinese counterweight that may shrink India’s military leverage in relation to Islamabad. Dokalam demonstrated this. In this scenario, the US could woo Pakistan in crucial ways to reduce Chinese influence.
Self-help is India’s best bet. Step one must be to engender a favourable domestic political climate in Kashmir in order to neutralise a key Pakistani instrument. The Modi government has been short-sighted on this. Step two is to enhance India’s goodwill and political space in Afghanistan, which closes the circle in the context of Pakistan-inspired terrorism and the Pakistani army’s revanchist aspirations.