How credible is the China threat if India acts tough against Pakistan?

By: and | Updated: September 28, 2016 3:57 PM

The fact that Modi government is now talking about the atrocities that Pakistan commits on people of PoK also has strategic implications for China.

The fact that Modi government is now talking about the atrocities that Pakistan commits on people of PoK also has strategic implications for China. (Reuters)The fact that Modi government is now talking about the atrocities that Pakistan commits on people of PoK also has strategic implications for China. (Reuters)

The Narendra Modi government is not only in focus but also under immense pressure, to give a befitting reply to Pakistan after the Uri attack which claimed the lives of 18 Indian soldiers. Several options are being weighed by the government, but the emphasis of India’s response seems to be towards isolating Pakistan internationally, exposing its atrocities in Balochistan and PoK, and reviewing key economic agreements such as Indus Waters Treaty and MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status. While experts have already pointed out that India’s options for a military retaliation are limited, they also feel that one of the biggest factors playing in the mind of the Modi government would be China.

The fact that Modi government is now talking about the atrocities that Pakistan commits on people of PoK also has strategic implications for China. Around $46 billion investment has been pledged by China for the CPEC that runs through that area. CPEC or the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will link the Xinjiang Province, through PoK, to the Gwadar Port in Balochistan. The corridor is expected to hugely contribute to the development of China’s Western province. But, to what extent would the Modi government weight China’s response? Or, is the strategy to highlight problems in Pok and Balochistan a way to block the CPEC? And what is China’s reaction likely to be? Will it take an aggressive stand against India if the latter decides to launch a major offensive against Pakistan? Experts have mixed views, and while some are of the view that China is unlikely to do much to hamper its trade ties with India, others feel that the Modi government may be losing its patience with China.

To what extent will China go to support Pakistan?

According to Defence and Strategic Affairs expert Maroof Raza, China has its own equation with India to consider. “Pakistan has been using the China bogey for a while now because it assumes that China will deliver on its expectations. To an extent I believe that the 1962 narrative is a little wrong. I believe that China was forced into aggression by our foreign policy and the approach of the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru. China has many big considerations, it would not want to been seen as a country that upsets the global mood,” Maroof Raza tells FE Online.

Raza is of the view that unless India pokes directly into issues that are close to China, such as the South China Sea, the country will not want to spoil ties. “…and while China has pledged $46 billion for the CPEC, any work has hardly begun. In my view, China would like to focus on other international issues that relate to Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam,” he says. Raza adds that of China tries to support Pakistan too much, then Russia may put pressure on it as well. “So, China will keep making noises, they may even try to block any sanctions on Pakistan, and fund the country in case sanctions are imposed, but it would not want to do anything that would spoil the trade balance with India,” he feels.

Professor Phunchok Stobdan, Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses says that presence in PoK is critical for China. “Since 2014 there has been a concerted move made by Pakistan and China in the PoK area. Certainly, it has a strategic connotation linked to military, development, water and China’s expansion into the South of the Himalayas. We can clearly see a pattern of China at least rhetorically started standing up to Pakistani position,” Stobdan observes. “For China, presence in PoK is critical for its control over Islamic Xinjiang. China wants to exploit all the grey areas in the Himalayas through asymmetrical means. Which means they have full confidence over the situation inside – Xinjiang and Tibet,” he tells FE Online.

China’s drive to engage with Pakistan is motivated by self-interest, says Shaheli Das, Junior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “CPEC is one of the key reasons due to which Pakistan holds a key position in China’s foreign policy agenda. Also, China continuously uses Pakistan as a bargaining chip against India,” she tells FE Online.

Watch: India, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh pull out of SAARC Islamabad summit

What is the Modi government thinking?

Maroof Raza is of the view that India seems to be losing its patience with China and its use of proxies. “The Modi government is expected to have a strong response to Pakistan after the Uri attack. In 1999, the situation was different, we were still relative strangers on the international high-tables. But now, we have more leverage. Also, China needs India for MTCR membership, and India is seeking Chinese support for NSG. The Modi government knows that its soft initiatives with China have not worked. So in that sense, it is also looking to target the CPEC, since it runs through PoK,” he says.

Professor Phunchok Stobdan agrees that the government has to respond firmly, despite or because of China’s interest in PoK. He is of the view that while PM Modi has to respond firmly, India’s options are limited. “I think our renewed change of position on PoK and Baluchistan is more about countering China – scuttling the CPEC before it gets fully implemented,” he opines.

On the other hand, Shaheli Das is not very optimistic about India’s desire of isolating Pakistan and sees China as a major factor in India’s response. “This is largely unrealistic as the country shares ties with major international actors such as the US, Russia and China. China remains a constant factor that restricts a coherent response from India towards Pakistan. India does not seek to infuriate China, as the country intends to secure a seat in the UNSC, does not want to disrupt its trade ties with Beijing, or up the tensions at the border (LAC).  Although India is making an endeavour to secure international consensus against Pakistan, yet its approach towards the resolution of the issues of constant perpetration of terrorists from this neighbouring is largely constrained by the China factor,” she says.

Watch: India suspends Indus water commission talks

Sreeram Chaulia, the Dean of Jindal School of International Affairs and a renowned Strategic Affairs expert believes that while China has its own bilateral ties to handle with India, the country should not look at abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty. “As far as the Indus Waters Treaty goes, one has to be cautious. We have been crying foul on the Brahmaputra issue with China. So, if we abrogate the Indus treaty, we have no way of checkmating China over the Brahmaputra issue. I don’t think it is a wise strategy to get China into the picture. China has traditionally projected that India is the aggressor with regards to Pakistan. China is the so-called ‘all weather friend’ of Pakistan,” he tells FE Online.

Instead, Chaulia advises covert warfare against Pakistan, saying that China would not raise too much fuss on that. “We should have done that (covert warfare) a long time ago. If we blow up a few jihadist camps in Pakistan, then China would not say much. After all, it has its own problem with jihadists in Xinjiang. China has its larger strategic interests to watch. Hafiz Saeed is a public figure in Pakistan. He is very commonly seen giving sermons on Fridays. We should just take him out, kill him. And this will happen sooner or later,” he says.

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