The deep-rooted nexus between China and Pakistan is a stumbling block for India in its efforts to acquire some degree of dominating influence in the international arena. Geographically, India is placed in an unenviable position sandwiched as it is between two hostile neighbours. The manner in which this nexus played out in the UN Security Council recently in protesting over India’s revocation of special status for Jammu and Kashmir was a chilling reminder for India that Chinese kingpin Xi Jinping’s seeming bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi can hardly be taken at face value. For no fault of the Indian government, Sino-Indian relations may evidently not stand the test of time as strategic interests of the two countries clash.
India’s strategic rivalry with China will only accentuate in coming years and points of conflict and contention can hardly be wished away. For New Delhi the only pragmatic course can be to strengthen India militarily and sharpen its nuclear teeth to act as a deterrent to Chinese adventurism.
There are distinct bones of contention between India and China which could heighten the differences to a dangerous degree. While bilateral trade is a redeeming feature which creates some sort of a vested interest in continuity, especially with the US market no longer an attractive proposition for China due to high tariffs, the Chinese could depend increasingly on India for a large market for its goods. Chinese goods have severely dented the Indian small scale sector driving thousands of Indian small entrepreneurs and businessmen out of economic sustenance. This has doubtlessly contributed to joblessness in India. Alarmingly, cheaper Chinese goods, sometimes of shoddy quality, have replaced the produce of India’s small scale sector in certain fields like hardware, electrical goods, toys for children, Diwali crackers and an assortment of other goods.
While Sino-Indian economic cooperation offers distinct advantages, there is the counter-balancing factor of strategic relations in which the China-Pak nexus has long-term advantages.
At the recent UN Security Council meeting, China objected to India’s declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory because it lays claim to a part of that region, what it calls Aksai Chin. China joined Pakistan in taking the major step of invoking the jurisdiction of the UNSC, where it is a permanent member with a veto.
Both China and Pakistan accused India of violating human rights in Kashmir during the on-going crackdown and lockdown in the region. All that has soured relations between China and India and could have long-term consequences.
A key element between China and Pakistan is the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) which is a collection of smaller projects worth $ 46 billion, of which $ 11 billion are from the Exim Bank of China. The CPEC seeks to expand and upgrade major infrastructures within Pakistan, and link China’s Xinjiang with Gwadar port in Pakistan. When completed, both countries will benefit from better transport and trading opportunities. But the Chinese are fearful of the Balochis and Pashtoons indulging in sabotage along the route especially where it passes through Pakistan.
With a muscular Indian government in control in New Delhi, Indian assertiveness on seeking to get back the area that is Pak-occupied Kashmir is a new element in the power game. Part of the CPEC passes through Pak-occupied Kashmir and while China has developed an additional stake in retaining that with Pakistan, Indian needling on it cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the CPEC is an extension of China’s proposed 21st century Silk road. “One belt, one road” holds hope of taking an important place in China’s trade in the near future. Further implications of the CPEC may include improved intelligence sharing between the two countries, and possible access of Gwadar port by the Chinese navy.
Gwadar port in Pakistan will greatly reduce the distance required to travel. This reduction in distance, along with high-speed rails reaching up to 160km/h both in Pakistan and China will speed up transport. The alternate trade route provided by the Gwadar port will also allow the Chinese to trade without having to pass through the Malacca strait.
When it comes to nuclear technology, China plays a major role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, as the increasingly strict export controls in Western countries is making it difficult for Pakistan to acquire plutonium and uranium enriching equipment.
China has long been trying to reach Central Asia and ultimately Europe through land as it allows it to bypass maritime traffic shipping lanes in Indian Ocean region where Indian Navy is rapidly modernizing and increasing its influence. In a bid to bypass India, China has constructed an all-weather port at Gadara.
India, Pakistan and China claim all or parts of the disputed Himalayan region, with New Delhi's announcement of revocation of special status sparking a fierce response from its two nuclear neighbours. India says China is illegally occupying 38,000 square kilometres (15,000 square miles) of its north-western territory, while Beijing claims a 90,000-square-kilometre chunk of Arunachal Pradesh state in northeast India.
While the Chinese cannot be trusted not to tinker with Pakistani sovereignty the doubts in Pakistan over Chinese intentions are being drowned by goodies that the Chinese are doling out.
All these developments do not bode well for China’s relations with India in the long run. The facade of bonhomie will be compromised by rival strategic interests. What China-Pakistan closeness would lead to is hard to tell.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.