On the brink

Print edition : March 20, 2015

Indian soldiers keep watchon the border with China at Bumla in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of their meeting in New Delhi on September 18, 2014. Photo: AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

An Indian Border Security Force jawan patrols the border with Pakistan about 25 km from Jammu on October 10, 2014, after days of cross-border firing. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

The relations between India, China and Pakistan are poised on the cusp of complex and shifting equations. But India seems bent on repeating the mistakes of the past.

“NO country can choose its neighbours, and a distant relative may not be as helpful as a near neighbour,” Prime Minister Li Keqiang said in his speech to the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi on May 21, 2013. Its theme was “Seize the New Opportunities in India-China Cooperation”.

The greatest challenge that India has faced since Independence is not so much its relations with the United States or Russia as its relationship with its neighbours. Jawaharlal Nehru, besotted on a global role, ignored this truth. His successors did no better. Most important among the neighbours are Pakistan and China. They have been in a tacit alliance for half a century. With each India is locked in a major dispute that is very susceptible to a fair solution without the slightest detriment to its national interest. The Four-Point formula on Kashmir is based on the State’s membership of the Union of India. On the boundary dispute, each side has its vital, non-negotiable interest securely in its exclusive control; India has the McMahon Line and China has the Xinjiang-Tibet highway. Yet, there is little sign of movement on either dispute. As ever, India expects the “other side” to climb down.

New situation, same mindset

It is little realised that India faces very nearly the same situation that it did in 1959, when Nehru was the Prime Minister, and the signs are that the mistake he made then might well be repeated in 2015. When, on February 22, 2014, Narendra Modi said at a party meeting in Guwahati that “China should shed its expansionist mindset and adopt a policy of development” ( The Hindu; February 23, 2014), he revealed only his own mindset and, incidentally, the limitations of his own understanding in such matters. China needs no patronising lectures on “development”.

Shortly after the issues in the boundary dispute were joined in January-March 1959, and well before they erupted in public in August 1959, China’s Ambassador Pan Tsu-li read out to Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt a formal statement couched in language so unusual, with proverbs and all, as to suggest Mao Zedong’s draftsmanship: “We cannot have two centres of attention, nor can we take friend for foe.… Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting part of our two sides.” He ended with his “best regards” to Nehru who replied in a manner appropriate to his Headmaster at Harrow. On May 23, Dutt read out a statement, drafted by Nehru, upbraiding the Ambassador for breach of “diplomatic usage and the courtesies due to friendly countries”. He sharply attacked China (White Paper I; pages 73-78). India drove China into Pakistan’s embrace with lasting consequences. This need not have happened.

Significant changes in situation

The situation has changed in significant respects. Now, China seeks friendly engagement with the U.S. while pursuing its major disagreements with it. It is no longer hostile towards Pakistan but embraces it as an ally. But it seeks also, as it did in 1959, conciliation with India. In 1959, India had close relations with the Soviet Union. It now seeks a virtual alliance with the U.S. After the successive visits of Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to India, many feel that India is all set for a virtual alliance with the U.S., which lost no time in presenting a set of agreements with strategic military implications for India to sign. The reference to the South China Sea in the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision Document of January 25, 2015, was ill-advised. It was in the U.S.’ interest to secure India’s concurrence as it confronts China there. It is certainly not in India’s interest to go along with the U.S. on such an issue. Do we, indeed, have a joint strategic vision with the U.S.? Think alike?

No two situations are identical. China needs India’s friendship. India needs friendship with China as well as with the U.S. Non-alignment has become a dirty word because Nehru, the author of the credo, is hated by the Sangh Parivar for his espousal of secularism and is derided by foreign policy “experts”. Voluble Ministry of External Affairs retirees and their friends in the media share the feeling because they wrongly imagined that this quintessential hardliner and unilateralist, to boot, was an “idealist” and a “romanticist”. The policy that Nehru pursued ignored Pan Tsu-li’s warning with disastrous consequences that are still with us.

Neurotic response

India’s response to the Sino-Pakistan entente is a blend of the neurotic and the slick. It refuses to accept the reality of an entente that it did no little to establish, and it tries to weaken, if not break it, by stratagems too clever by half. Only a starkly realistic approach can yield good results. The “all-weather friendship” of old, “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans”, is much the weaker for wear and tear. But it remains strong because it is stuck by the most enduring cement—national interest. It would be foolish to try to split the two by flaunting the card of terrorism.

This book exposes the fault lines and sheds light on a nuanced friendship. It begins with a quote that sums up the truth fittingly: “The Pakistanis love China for what it can do for them, while the Chinese love Pakistanis despite what they do to themselves” (emphasis added, throughout). Why? Because China needs Pakistan as an ally. A strong Pakistan is a vital interest of China. Its policy towards this troublesome ally is “a blend of tempered support, gentle scolding and steely pragmatism”, the author writes. It began largely as an India-centric policy but acquired other dimensions over time. China has become “Pakistan’s only reliable diplomatic, economic and military backer”. The nuances emerged in the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971.

China revised its stand on Kashmir in India’s favour since 1996, for which it receives little credit. It no longer supports “the U.N. resolutions”. Its stand on Kargil was even-handed. Every dialogue between India and Pakistan is warmly applauded. China’s prime concerns in South Asia are peace and internal stability.

It suits Pakistan to gloss over the nuances. India reacts with shrill, mindless denunciations, whether on the boundary pact of 1963, on the Gwadar port, China’s military help to Pakistan, or its economic investments. The author accurately describes these neurotic outbursts. “Much of the contemporary analysis of the China-Pakistan relationship is mediated through a series of distorting prisms. In India, the circulation of leaks and rumours about nefarious Sino-Pakistani activities is virtually a cottage industry.

In Pakistan, political leaders have often been eager to dress up tentative plans between the two sides as firm agreements, and to portray Chinese backing for their position as far stronger than exists in reality. In China, articles on topics such as the nuclear relationship are designed to mislead, not to enlighten. At times it seems that almost any questionable claim can quickly gain traction, be recycled, and take on the status of accepted truth. China’s supposed plans for military bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan’s supposed intentions to lease China a tenth of its territory, and the purported presence of 11,000 Chinese troops in Pakistan’s north are only a few of the most recent on a long list.

“The mysteries and distorted claims about Sino-Pakistani ties have sometimes made it difficult for outside observers to reach accurate assessments. It would be one thing if every wild story turned out to be a myth, but some of the most outlandish-seeming claims have proved to be entirely accurate.”

This book is vastly superior to the fare that has been served of late on the subject. It is intended to be “a starting point for thinking through the issues”. The blurb tells us little about Andrew Small. As well as taking intensive interviews in the Foreign Ministries in Islamabad and Beijing, he went around, bearded and dressed like a local, in places like Kashgar and Gilgit Baltistan to understand the problems of the entente in the bordering regions. It is a work of stupendous research, rich in fresh insights. Extremely well-written, it, however, does not make for an easy read. This is thanks to the virus that has crept into book-publishing in recent decades. Footnotes have become end-notes. A serious reader has to turn to them, cited more than once on a page, to know the source. He is well rewarded. For, evidently, the mandarins in China’s Foreign Office in Beijing opened up to the author.

“By the time I was finishing my research, almost everything was on the table, from debates in Beijing about whether to launch nuclear strikes on India if Islamabad came under threat, to China’s complaints about the Pakistani intelligence services’ ties with Uighur militants. Yet in the study of both Chinese and Pakistani foreign policy, it remains an unusual case. The pathologies of China and Pakistan’s most difficult relationships have been exhaustively explored, and do much to shape our understanding of the two countries—but a very different perspective is opened up when we look at how they deal with their friends.” Why cannot the references be placed on the page itself immediately after the statement it is intended to support? This writer has tried that and heard no complaint on that score.

Truth about an agreement

Let us get one myth out of the way on which mendacity has still not exhausted itself in India. It concerns the Agreement of March 2, 1963, between Pakistan and China. “Beijing laid claim to 3,400 square miles of Pakistani territory in Kashmir, encompassing tracts of the old principality of Hunza, whose rulers, the Mirs, had traditionally recognised Chinese suzerainty. When the British seized control of the kingdom in 1891, the Mir fled to China. During Partition, the Kuomintang, China’s ruling party at the time, conducted secret negotiations over restoring Hunza’s status as an independent state under Chinese fealty, before the Mir finally decided to accede to Pakistan. Sporadic Chinese border violations around Hunza were being reported from 1953, and in 1959 Ayub Khan announced that ‘any Chinese intrusions in Pakistani territory would be repelled by Pakistan with all the force at her command’. In September 1959, the Pakistani government received a Chinese map showing a line of territorial claims running from the Mintaka pass down to Shimshal pass and eastward.”

Pakistan had to coax China to negotiate, which it did after a year and after India had rebuffed its offers to negotiate. “The settlement announced was on terms clearly favourable to Pakistan. China would transfer 1,942 square kilometres that it controlled to Pakistan. Although its nominal concessions were substantial, Pakistan transferred none of the territory under its control, and the final demarcation—which included six of seven contested passes—accorded closely with the line of actual control that it advocated.” Nehru was furious. He wanted Pakistan to adopt a joint stand of intransigence and land into the same mess in which he had landed India.

India’s relations with China as well as with Pakistan deteriorated steadily to establish the China-Pakistan entente. “If the military relationship lies at the heart of China-Pakistan ties, nuclear weapons lie at the heart of the military relationship. Economic relations between the two sides have traditionally been weak, a problem to fix rather than a source of strength. Cultural ties have always been thin. Beyond the subcontinent, Pakistan looks to the West or to the Islamic world for intellectual and cultural influence, never to the Middle Kingdom. The underpinning of the relationship is widely understood to be a common strategic concern—about India—and the military ties that stem from it. Yet there are enduring questions about what this actually amounts to.”

China has never committed soldiers on Pakistan’s behalf, even when the country was being dismembered in 1971. It has been an essential military equipment supplier, all the more so given its willingness to prop up crucial parts of Pakistan’s military-industrial infrastructure and to keep the tanks, guns and ammunition flowing when virtually all other options were cut off. This is not to be underrated. “As one expert on the Pakistani army put it: ‘The prevailing view in the armed services appears to be that there is only one country that can be trusted to maintain military supplies irrespective of Pakistan’s internal developments.’ But the high-end American kit—the F-16s, the Harpoon anti-ship missiles, the P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft—has always been more prized by Pakistan’s armed forces, and doubts about the quality of Chinese equipment persists to this day.”

The nuclear angle

Five days before the Israeli attack on Osirak to destroy Iraq’s latent nuclear programme, its Ambassador to the United Nations had warned that “there is abundant evidence indicating that [Pakistan] is producing nuclear weapons”. Israel had made plans for a pre-emptive attack. “As had India. Even Moscow was now a potential threat—Pakistan had already embarked on its programme of support for the Mujahideen’s anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, with the obvious risk of retaliation. Zia sent his military aide, Lieutenant-General Syed Ali Zamin Naqvi, to request weapons-grade fissile material and the bomb design from China, in an effort to speed Pakistan’s efforts along. Deng Xiaoping agreed. In each area where the Soviets had pulled the plug on Beijing, the Chinese would prove to be far more obliging to the Pakistanis.”

U.S. intelligence had thoroughly penetrated Pakistan’s nuclear programme as it had its Foreign Office, a fact established in the documents of its Tehran Embassy published by Iranian students in over 50 volumes— Documents of the Den of Satan. Scholarship has yet to do justice to them. Pakistan also acted as a middleman between China and Saudi Arabia on the supply of intermediate range ballistic missiles. Pakistan gained from the deal. As David Ottaway put it, “Pakistan has become the kingdom’s nuclear protector, with China’s help.”

The 30-year process of China’s help made Pakistan a nuclear-weapons state. “Over time, nuclear weapons have only become more central to Pakistani military strategy. This is partly a function of the growing conventional military capabilities gap with India. For many years India had its pick of some of the best Soviet equipment, and now it sits in the enviable position of being able to choose between Russian, European, Israeli and American suppliers, as well as having a far greater resource base with which to make the purchases, and a far more substantial territorial capacity to absorb a nuclear attack. Weapons sales from the United States have ensured that Pakistan can at least stay within touching distance. But they don’t do much more than that. As one U.S. diplomatic cable put it, they ‘essentially buy time to delay Pakistan considering the nuclear option in a conflict with India. Given India’s overwhelming military superiority, this would only be a few days, but these days would allow critical time to mediate and prevent nuclear conflict.’ It is only the nuclear weapons themselves that provide any meaning to the notion of strategic balance.”

Cold water on Cold Start

As a riposte to India’s Cold Start Doctrine, Pakistan, reportedly introduced tactical nuclear weapons in its armoury, to “pour cold water on Cold Start”, Lt.-Gen. Khalid Kidwai remarked. Pakistan gained security; China bought an anxiety lest the nuclear weapons fell into wrong hands or lest another Mumbai-style attack on India was tagged. But this is where the hyphenation which India censures comes into play. “If the United States was going to smooth the path for India’s ascent, Pakistan would be the means for China to hold it down.… If the U.S. approach to India over the last decade has been one of de-hyphenation from Pakistan, China’s has been one of re-hyphenation.…

“What the United States had achieved with India in 2008 through a major diplomatic effort, and a series of commitments on India’s part to bring it closer in line with the global nuclear order, China achieved for Pakistan by fiat, with no commitments on Pakistan’s part. Among China’s experts and officials in private, there was virtually no attempt to suggest that it was anything other than a tit for tat.”

Problems in the entente

Only a settlement with Pakistan will end this vicious circle. It must go beyond Kashmir and include confidence-building measures (CBMs) and an understanding on the precarious nuclear balance. This is unlikely in the near future, though. The terrorist attack on June 24, 2007, on a Chinese massage parlour and acupuncture clinic in the posh sector F-8 in Islamabad set in train a chain of events that its authors could not have imagined. The perpetrators were vigilante groups from Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa madrassa. President Hu Jintao called President Musharraf. Zhou Yongkang, Public Security Minister, and Ambassador Luo Zhaohui went to work. His wife, Jiang Lili, a diplomat and scholar, had translated Benazir Bhutto’s memoirs into Chinese. The hostages were released, but China was shaken, especially since more attacks on Chinese citizens followed and there was suspicion of help to the Eastern Turkestan People’s Party in Xinjiang.

The terrorists targeted the Chinese in order to shake up Islamabad. Soon Beijing hosted leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam as well as of the Jamaat-e-Islami. But the equation had suffered damage. “The issue has become perhaps the greatest sore point in the China-Pakistan relationship. Some on the Chinese side are understanding of the Pakistani government’s explanation—that operations in North Waziristan are too difficult to undertake but that they are genuinely doing all they can apart from a full-scale military intervention in the tribal areas. Others are simply cynical, suggesting that if the army dealt with the threat too comprehensively it would make Pakistan less useful to China, giving the Pakistani government reason to allow a manageable, small-scale ETIM [East Turkestan Islamic Movement] presence to persist. But a more disturbing explanation is also advanced: that religious sympathies may be superseding Islamabad’s commitment to the bilateral relationship, and even endangering the secular-strategic rationale that underpins it.

“We see it in their eyes when we’re sitting in the meetings. They’re not comfortable with what we’re asking,” claimed a Chinese expert who is close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “When we provide them with intelligence on ETIM locations they give warnings before launching their attacks,” noted another, in a complaint that would be familiar to Western officials. China has even received evidence of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents visited ETIM training camps. “We certainly think there’s a strong chance that they have contacts and relationships with ETIM and the Uzbeks,” said another Chinese analyst. Accusations of Pakistani support for militants in Xinjiang go back a long way too. In 1990, when the Chinese arrested two Pakistani nationals in Xinjiang for inciting unrest, they were infuriated to learn that the two men were ISI operatives—“former operatives”, they were quickly assured.…

“We’re not worried about the generals, we’re worried about the brigadiers,” argued one Chinese expert. “The generals were already old enough for their habits to be set by the time Zia came in. They drink. They send their children to study in the United States or Great Britain. The younger ones are sending their children to study in the Gulf.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman described the Uighur terrorists as “the most direct threat to our security”. To Beijing, this threat had links to militancy in Pakistan affecting not only the stability of Pakistan but also Afghanistan’s future.

China had made very useful contacts in Afghanistan. Ambassador Lu Shulin, an Urdu speaker who had studied at Karachi University, visited Kandahar in 2000 and met Taliban leaders. Mullah Omar, however, did not like the gift of a small camel figurine because representation of any living being was idolatrous. The author’s brief pen portraits of Chinese diplomats reveal their high quality of professionalism. Wang Yi, the present Foreign Minister, an Asia specialist, was a visiting scholar at Georgetown University. After 9/11 he was sent by President Jiang Zemin to gauge the scope of Pakistan’s assurances to the U.S. He was assured that Pakistan would not allow its cooperation with the U.S. to undermine China’s strategic interests.

China’s meetings with the Taliban increased. Last month Wang Yi, on a visit to Islamabad, offered to “provide necessary facilities” for talks to the Taliban. China soon shed its stand of refusing to discuss contingency plans in Pakistan with the U.S. Pakistan’s stability had become “a subject of anxiety for policy makers in China” as much as it was in the U.S.

The author’s interviews in Washington and Beijing elicited some revealing disclosures. Chinese officials began to wonder how India would respond to another Mumbai attack. In 2009 a set of instructions was issued to deal with “nuclear emergencies”. What he records at page 155 bears quotation in extenso:

“One conclusion we reached was that there is very little that we can do unilaterally if there’s a crisis in Pakistan,” said one Chinese expert who had worked on the scenario planning, “Any action would have to be coordinated.” A 2011 article based on briefings by senior U.S. officials went as far as to claim that “China has, in secret talks with the U.S. reached an understanding that, should America decide to send forces into Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, China would raise no objections.” People familiar with the exchanges described that as “an over-interpretation”, but the fact that issues of this nature were being discussed between the two sides was not fiction: Pakistan’s internal stability has been addressed at length in talks between some of the most senior figures in U.S. and Chinese policymaking. As one Chinese expert with whom I discussed the subject put it: “Would we accept a U.S. intervention to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? No. Are we as worried as [the U.S.] about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? No. Nuclear weapons are all they have, it’s the single thing we’re sure they’ll protect. But China is willing to help Pakistan defend a Pakistani bomb. We won’t help them protect an Islamic bomb. If it’s under the control of a mullah, then everything changes. It’s not unconditional.”

The U.S. did indeed send forces, undetected, deep into the country—to kill Osama bin Laden. In its wake China advised Pakistan to mend its relationship with the U.S.

But the Americans had their own agenda in East Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy (October 11, 2011) flamboyantly entitled “America’s Pacific Century” envisaged greater investment “in the Asia-Pacific region”; that is, to “contain” China.

This is where India also comes in. China’s response was to build up its own diplomatic and military strength while wooing its neighbours, India included. But it has been none too adroit, especially in its relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The author sums up the situation fairly: “Strategic competition with the United States largely plays out in the Asia Pacific. China’s historical rivalries are with its East Asian neighbours. The greatest risk of China becoming embroiled in a war is over its maritime disputes in the South China and East China Seas. These are the main testing grounds for China’s capacity and intentions as a great power. But they are also contests of choice, typically occurring at a time and manner of Beijing’s choosing. Shifts in the economic and military balance of power in the Asia Pacific have so far moved inexorably in China’s favour. It is Beijing’s impatience, its assertiveness, that is the greatest risk to China’s rising power.…

“Beijing hopes to unleash forces of trade, finance, and economic opportunity that have never had the chance to compete with the seemingly ineluctable logic of the region’s security rivalries. Yet the politics rely on Pakistan. Beijing needs a political settlement in Afghanistan, a stable relationship between Pakistan and India, and a settled security situation in Pakistan itself. China can dangle very large financial carrots that might help to persuade different actors there that the strategic trade-offs are worthwhile. It can invest its considerable diplomatic capacities. But the crucial decisions will be made in Islamabad and Rawalpindi—and it is already clear that they will require some pushing from Beijing if they are going to come out the way it would like.”

It would, however, be foolish to imagine that the China-Pakistan entente is seriously damaged. Pakistan remains the only country China can trust because the entente is rooted in the national interest and in the minds of its people and the elite of Pakistan. Rather than get worked up by the “string of pearls” and the like, India must seriously ponder on the kind of future it has in mind for South Asia.

A sound foreign policy always seeks congruence of interests by a policy of reconciliation of differences. Is there any serious thinking in New Delhi on how the differences and disputes with Islamabad and Beijing can be resolved and put out of the way? Or, are we to remain mired in them, as before, denouncing all who disagree and wishing that the Pakistan-China entente would just “go away”. Relations with the U.S. and, indeed, with Russia are of prime importance. But it is unwise and demeaning to rely exclusively on one power.

Settlements with Pakistan and China will radically alter the situation in South Asia. It will yield enormous and lasting peace dividends and add to India’s clout and prestige. Of course, it is incumbent on Pakistan as well as China to play their respective parts. They also stand to gain—as much as India.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor