As security tensions spiked between India and Pakistan following an attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir on 18 September, the question should be asked whether China would intervene if war broke out between the two nemeses.
What has been said officially? Premier Li Keqiang was in Pakistan last week, describing the two countries as “all-weather strategic cooperative partners” that “always firmly support each other and share an unbreakable friendship”. Would that friendship extend to China going to war on Pakistan’s behalf? On September 21, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing was “deeply concerned” about the strained relationship between India and Pakistan.
“We urge relevant parties to exercise restraint and avoid fueling the tension.” He added, “Both India and Pakistan are significant countries in the region. We hope that the two countries will step up communication and dialogue, properly deal with their differences and jointly contribute to regional peace, stability and security.”
These comments indicated that China would like, first of all, to play some kind of peacemaker role. It urged cool heads.
China has indicated a more robust stance during a meeting of the Chinese consul general in Lahore and the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, according to a Dawn newspaper article. Yu Boren was quoted as saying, “In case of any (foreign) aggression, our country will extend its full support to Pakistan.”
The article continued quoting Yu, “We are and will be siding with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. There is no justification for atrocities on unarmed Kashmiris in (India)-held Kashmir, and the Kashmir dispute should be solved in accordance with aspirations of the Kashmiris.”
While these comments can be construed as strong support for Pakistan, they fall far short of a declaration of war! Indeed, Yu cannot be considered as possessing much authority in terms of Chinese foreign policy.
Indeed, we must consider Beijing’s long-held foreign policies. China proclaims a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other nations. For example, in President Xi Jinping’s first trip aboard, he said in Moscow, “Matters that fall within the sovereign rights of a country should be managed only by the government and people of that country.”
It is true, however, that the country’s snowballing overseas interests and investments are putting this policy under pressure.
A report by the Center for a New American Security, ‘More Willing & Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism’, commented, “With more at stake in various military, economic, and diplomatic matters around the world, what happens inside other countries’ borders is increasingly important to Beijing. Key Chinese interests overseas are now vulnerable to civil war, domestic terrorism, state failure, anti-Chinese sentiment over environmental and labor concerns, and other sources of internal instability.”
The publication quoted Pang Zhongying, a professor at Renmin University, “Dependence on overseas resources, markets and energy will oblige China to adjust its foreign policy by, de facto, abandoning some of its ‘nos’ such as ‘non-interference’ and ‘not taking the lead’.”
A complicating factor is that part of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through the disputed region of Kashmir. It appears Chinese interests are selfish rather than altruistic, for ultimately the CPEC gives China access directly to the Indian Ocean and will bring in financial returns.
It is unlikely that investment will ever approach the above figure. China is investing in individual projects on a piecemeal basis, with increasing security costs and risks a matter of acute anxiety to Chinese investors. China would wish to protect its investments and the best way to do that it to advocate peaceful relations between India and Pakistan.
China is very concerned too about militant Islamists emanating from or hiding out in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belts, this as it conducts its own struggle to put down Islamic extremism in Xinjiang Province. Consider too that the ideological divide between the two countries. The atheistic Chinese Communist Party does not really care for Islam, so stepping into a war at Pakistan’s behest is very unlikely.
Notably, Pakistan and China do not have a formal security agreement such as those mutual defense treaties that the US has with a number of Asia-Pacific allies.
China is glad to have Pakistan as a stalwart buyer of military equipment, but it would be an extreme minority in Beijing who would advocate for intervention in any Pakistan-India conflict. Would China be willing to put all its eggs in one basket by backing Islamabad to the hilt in any war?
The focus for China is on Taiwan and its maritime periphery in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Its primary strategic competitor is the USA, not India. It is unlikely Beijing’s leadership would allow China to be drawn into a conflict so far removed from its key strategic goals.
Though the chances of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) going to full-scale war in support of Pakistan are so remote, there are other ways China could show backing to Islamabad. Indeed, Chinese support embolden Pakistan considerably, which would complicate Delhi’s decision-making process.
China could conceivably conduct special protection missions to secure important assets or infrastructure in Pakistan. Its financial investments in the CPEC could become raison d’être financially to deploy special forces and the like to Pakistan territory. It could do so with or without Pakistan’s invitation, but the former would certainly fortify the deterrence effect. Even if the possibility of PLA troops engaging in fighting is minimal, this move by itself would constitute a serious statement of intent.
China lacks suitable platforms for long-range power projection. It has only one training aircraft carrier, for instance, and just four landing platform dock ships are currently in service in the PLA Navy (PLAN). Under the pretense of securing sea lines of communication, the navy could conceivably create expeditionary task forces of several LPDs protected by destroyers and a screen of submarines to sail into the Indian Ocean, but it would amount to a show of force only. Such a task force with overextended lines of communication would be vulnerable to Indian strikes far from home.
The PLAN could put a number of submarines into the Indian Ocean, although it would rely on Pakistan ports to resupply them for a long-term deployment. These could harass Indian naval vessels, but again the PLAN does not have the wherewithal to support a large number of vessels in distant seas. Airlift capacity in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is low for such a large military, so air bridges of supplies to Pakistan would be limited. The Y-20 has only just entered service, and air-to-air tankers are few in number. Interestingly, airpower was not widely utilized in the 1962 war between China and India, but the PLAAF is relatively well placed to perform well against India.
Instead, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles would offer more of a deterrent threat against India. The Center for a New American Security report stated, “With improvements in space architecture, over-the-horizon targeting and adaptation to existing sea-based launch platforms, such missiles could be repurposed to constitute a potent, if narrowly focused, force projection tool.”
Cyberwarfare is definitely an area that China could use most forcibly against India as it offers plausible deniability and does not put lives directly in the firing line. China also has the capability to attack space-based satellites of hostile nations, although this would be a far more controversial move that is extremely unlikely.
Although not referring specifically to an Indian conflict, the aforementioned report concluded, “The leadership appears committed to investing in critical enabling capabilities to expand the effective range of China’s military might. In different combinations and contexts, a panoply of these capabilities could allow China to undertake a range of military activities outside its immediate environs.”
Any confrontation between China and India is likely to involve ground forces rather than sea power, and what India fears most is a simultaneous two-front war. This would stretch the armed forces to breaking point. The Sino-Indian border is already a flashpoint, and this is the sphere that the PLA would be most likely to exploit, for instance in the Aksai Chin or Arunachal Pradesh.
Mutual mistrust is already rampant. Larry M. Wortzel, writing in ‘PLA Contingency Planning and the Case of India’, published last year by the National Defense University Press in the USA, highlighted, “Each side anticipates hostile action from the other and possesses a heightened sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the other. Moreover, when an incident or border violation occurs, the tendency is to assume malicious or nefarious intent on the part of the actor.”
China appears to have adopted a policy of keeping India on edge via a series of pinprick incursions and infrastructure development. By ramping up small-scale incursions along the frontier, China could begin to coerce Indian strategy.
China can build up forces in Tibet by moving troops by road and rail from areas like Chengdu. The PLA could move numerous divisions into the border area by rail and road, quickly overwhelming Indian forces numerically. India still has strategic vulnerability as it plays catch up on extensive infrastructure that China has constructed on its side of the border.
Of course, there is the distinct possibility of a rapid escalation with such border infractions. A small action could swiftly lead
to unintended consequences if one country overreacts.
What did China learn from the 1962 war and how might it respond to a preemptive Indian thrust across the border? According to Wortzel, its “first order of business was to deal a ‘painful blow’ to Indian forces that had intruded into China. Surprise and speed in the counterattack were deemed to be extremely important to PLA success, and in both sections of the border, east and west, the PLA emphasized swiftness of operations. The PLA sought to follow up on combat successes and to pursue Indian forces that had abandoned border positions. Establishing and maintaining good logistics bases and lines of transportation were deemed critical to the PLA’s success.”
Beijing could up the ante by moving conventional missile launchers of the Rocket Force assets closer to the border. Moving them forward is likely to be quickly picked up by Indian intelligence, but again this would serve as deterrence for India. With the Rocket Force now better integrated into theater commands, their tactical use as part of a conventional war should be more effective than ever. However, the actual firing of a missile would be an enormous escalation.
Over all this looms the dark shadow that all three antagonists are nuclear powers. China maintains a ‘no first use’ policy of nuclear weapons, while India knowns it has outgunned by China. The wildcard, then, is Pakistan, especially if nuclear weapons got into the hands of extremist elements. Nevertheless, the specter of nuclear weapons should limit a conventional clash.
Many commentators assume China has a well-developed art of escalation management. However, this has not really been proven in practice. China’s total miscalculation in the Permanent Court of Arbitration case in the South China Sea demonstrates that.
It is hoped that Beijing’s intent is to reduce, rather than increase, tensions between India and Pakistan. The USA also plays an important restraining role in deescalating any India-Pakistan conflict, just as it did in Kargil.
One thing is for certain in the region’s complicated geopolitics, Pakistan is set to play an even bigger role in Delhi’s relations with Beijing.