Poor Kashmir, it lies in the Himalayan ramparts where the borders of India, Pakistan and China rub together. Reality mocks its beauty. There is no escaping the permeating melancholy of a land that lies under the gun.” writesTrevor Fishlock in “Kashmir, a Tragic Feud.” (January 13, 2002, The Baltimore Sun)

Nothing can be further than the truth. Since the 1990s, China and Pakistan have teamed up with each other to counter India’s growing hegemony in the region. Over the years, “China has sought to limit India’s response by entering into territorial agreement with Pakistan, issuing selective criticism of and support to terrorism, and building infrastructure in occupied territories.”[1]

Below is a timeline of events that explains the Indo-China-Pak scenario with regard to Kashmir:

  • Indo-China relations first went downhill when India decided to offer asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in the late 1950s. China had already captured Aksai Chin during the 1950s and consolidated its position over the region following its win in the 1962 India-China war.
  • In 1963, Pakistan handed about 5,000 sq km of land in the Trans-Karakoram tract, (or Shaksgam tract, a disputed area), to China to end border disputes and ensure that the Kashmir problem was not just limited to Pakistan and India.
  • Following the border agreement, China began constructing the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar (in the restive Xinjiang province) to Abbottabad in Pakistan along with Chinese and Pakistani engineers.

[1] Revisiting China’s Kashmir policy | ORF from orfonline.org

  • India declared the border agreement as illegal and objected to the highway’s construction.
  • By 1963, China, which until 1962 was neutral on Kashmir, now began openly supporting Pakistan’s claim on it. It even highlighted the issue at the UN.
  • Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s China desired the Kashmir issue be settled in Pakistan’s favour because it would help China gain strategic foothold in the region.
  • In the latter part of the 1980s, China, however, changed its stand on Kashmir from pro-Pakistan to neutral: it needed India for trade and Pakistan as a strategic base. It carried this stance well into the 1990s and 2000s.
  • Meanwhile, it continued to invest heavily in Pakistan because it always wanted an opening in the Indian Ocean through Pakistan’s Gwadar Port.
  • To reach Gwadar, China would have to cut through Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province and build a route that snaked through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Accordingly in 2015, it announced The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with an initial investment plan of $46 billion.
  • The cost of the CPEC now stands over $62 billion as China continues to pump money to build mammoth transport infrastructure, feeder roads, railway lines and oil and gas pipelines that cut through PoK.
  • Once completed, the trade corridor will connect Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea, helping China consolidate its control over PoK and the Shaksgam Valley. Experts see China intent on converting Gwadar into an economic hub and military base.
  • China has posted its troops along with Pakistan Army’s Special Forces along the Corridor to safeguard its projects. In 2017, China announced that the CPEC was part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India protested, saying the corridor passes through disputed territory.
  • The presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in PoK to its northeast and Aksai Chin in the northwest has heightened security concerns for India.
  • The construction of CPEC has thus made China a ‘third stakeholder’ in Kashmir. The success of the CPEC hinges on Pakistan’s occupation of the Northern Areas of Kashmir.

The Indus Angle

Apart from differing political stances, Kashmir is of vital importance to India, Pakistan and China because it is home to the Himalayan glaciers and freshwater rivers. The Indus rivers are the primary source of water and energy for India and Pakistan, without which both nations will face mammoth energy shortages and dismal economic growth, amongst other things. Despite the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, India and Pakistan continue to harbour water fears because of challenges associated with accelerated global warming and population growth, and the fact that both are massively energy and water deficient. Against this alarmist backdrop, Pakistan’s core fear is that India may divert the water it needs for irrigation (the mainstay of its agrarian economy) and initiate a water war going forward (all the rivers either originate or flow through India). With water being the new oil, it has become imperative for both India and Pakistan to try and control it. Thus the fight for Kashmir gains a more layered significance.

When it comes to China the situation is equally precarious. Maroof Raza writes in “Water, status, territorial depth: How LAC intrusions fit into larger Chinese strategic designs” (June 09, 2020, The Times of India), China is forever looking for more water resources in the Ladakh region, as the Indus river system originates from Tibet and goes via Ladakh to Pakistan’s northern areas (that we call PoK). The Chinese agenda is to have access to abundance of water to manufacture microchips. Silicon wafers require lots of pure water (10,000 litres for a 30 cm wafer) to produce, and it is the waters of the Indus river system that China wants from Pakistan.”[1]

In 2019, China imported more than $300 billion worth of semiconductor microchips from the US, Japan and Taiwan. Raza notes that China is adamant on reducing its dependence on foreign manufacturers by manufacturing chips in-house. This desire for self-sufficiency can be attained by harnessing the fresh waters of the Indus and its rivers and by melting the numerous glaciers in Shaksgam valley.

Gaining control over Indus and its waters is thus central to China, for the very future of its microchip industry depends on it.

Twin Policy on Terror

Though China has clamped down on Muslims inside its own border, it has maintained a non-committal stance on cross-border terrorism funded and supported by Pakistan. This dual policy on terror is not without reason.

The Chinese are worried that Islamic extremists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region will influence its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang province and to counter this, has amplified its presence in PoK. It has not only increased counter-terror initiatives but has also “enlisted strategic support” from Pakistan-based terror outfits to safeguard its strategic/economic interests. China’s soft policy with regards to terrorists along the CPEC corridor is a sharp departure from its decision to detain thousands of Uyghur Muslims within its own borders. The reason it offers is that it is forced to do so to counter “terrorism.” And when it comes to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, Beijing has conveniently looked the other way. China remains the only Permanent-5 nation of the UNSC that has a non-committal stance on the issue. [2]

Conclusion

Following India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 in August 2019, China’s pro-Pakistan stance is clear when it referred to Kashmir as a “disputed territory” and added that India’s changing the status quo had challenged China and Pakistan’s “sovereign interests” in the region.

Recent tensions between India and China have escalated further due to the corona virus pandemic, the world’s anti-China stance, and the United States’ strategic affinity for India. Many see China’s muscle-flexing as an attempt to project India’s subordinate status in the region.


[1]Water, status, territorial depth: How LAC intrusions fit into larger Chinese strategic designs” by Maroof Raza for The Times Of India

[2]Revisiting China’s Kashmir policy | ORF by Parjanya Bhatt for orfonline.org

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