China, Pakistan’s strategic Kashmir game

BEIJING’S move at the UN blocking action against Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the masterminds of 26/11, should be read as a small piece in the larger game that China and Pakistan are playing in South Asia, particularly Jammu and Kashmir.

Arun Joshi

BEIJING’S move at the UN blocking action against Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the masterminds of  26/11,  should  be read  as a small  piece in the larger game that China and Pakistan are playing in South Asia, particularly Jammu and Kashmir. By vetoing  action against Pakistan on the release  of Lakhvi, China has shown  with an assertive demonstration  that for it Pakistan matters more  in its geo-strategic  scheme of things in South Asia  than even the growth of  radical Islam  and terrorism in its own backyard Xinjiang.  It’s not that China is oblivious of dangers of terrorism,  but it is playing a bigger game where it probably thinks that radicalism and terrorism would not hurt it.  History is replete with the facts that terrorism doesn’t know any boundaries. If the terrorists could strike at the geographically and militarily invincible America  in September 2001, they would not spare anyone.  China knows it but for now sees larger gains through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC); hence its anxiety to please Pakistan.

Before  and after 26/11 and before and after his arrest, Lakhvi, the top-most man in Lashkar-e-Toiba hierarchy, perhaps second only to  the founder of the pan-Islamic terror group’s founder Hafiz Sayeed, had been involved in drafting strategies to up the ante in Kashmir.   A series of attacks that took place in 2000  and  subsequent years  in Kashmir, including the suicide attack on the legislative Assembly in  October 2001, the massacre of soldiers and their wives and  children in Kaluchak near Jammu in May 2002, had his and the LeT stamp all over. This radical group also put in place a new strategy of recruiting the educated  youth from well-off families  in Kashmir. 

China  has  two clear objectives in stalling the move at the UN against Lakhvi. One, it is  trying to keep Pakistan in good humour  because of its larger objectives of  reaching Gwadar  port in Baluchistan, Pakistan.  The  status that CEPC would confer on China as an economic superpower  with an easy access to Arabian sea would add to its standing  internationally. It has already frayed many nerves  by  laying its  claim on the South China sea,  where it is  reclaiming the reefs and  even challenging the US.  

This is one part of the story. Secondly,  China is  co-opting  Kashmir in its geo-strategic  ambitions.  Pakistan has willingly accepted this  unspoken suzerainty  over Kashmir.  A beginning  in the recent past was made  when China refused regular visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir. It would give only stapled visas to the J&K residents. In the case of the North-eastern state  of Arunachal Pradesh, it  asserted its claim that the land belonged to  China; for J&K, it joined the narrative that this Himalayan state divided between India and Pakistan was a disputed territory. In 2009, then Chinese assistant minister for foreign affairs in charge of Asian affairs, Hu  Zhengyue  had told journalists in Beijing, “Kashmir is an issue  that has been long-standing left  from history. The issue touches  the bilateral relations  between the relevant countries (India and Pakistan).  As a friend, China will be happy  if we can play  a constructive role  in resolving the issue.”

What followed next was not surprising. Kashmiri separatists — both factions of the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq respectively — hailed the statement and  urged China to play  its role in resolving the K-issue. They made China a party to what they call “K-dispute.” Before that, they were eager to see the US play the mediatory role  in resolving the Kashmir issue.  The  geo-political game had started changing, but the Indian leadership missed the point. Now it is finding that costs have become dearer. 

The hints  as to what kind of  policy  China would be adopting vis-à-vis Kashmir  were too visible to be ignored. The biggest snub before this Lakhvi episode   came when China refused to clarify the Line of Actual Control LAC).  The LAC also passes through Ladakh  in Jammu and Kashmir and this cold desert region has witnessed a series of stand-offs  between Chinese and Indian troops, primarily because of the PLA troops’ intrusion into the Indian side of the LAC. 

These intrusions embarrassed  New Delhi at critical junctures  in the recent  years.  New Delhi’s meek  theory that China and India had different perceptions about the LAC  that’s why  there were “transgressions” (not intrusions) by the PLA troops. This was a poor diplomacy smacking of weaknesses in the foreign policy strategy.

Beyond these incidents, Pakistan’s narrative is changing.  While rejecting Indian objections to   the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the ground that  it passes through the  “disputed areas,” Pakistan’s Finance Minister Isshfaq Dar  told the National Assembly on  June 23, “ What disputed territory. Gilgit-Baltistan is part of Pakistan. Azad Kashmir is part of Pakistan.”

This audacity  and arrogance in tone and tenor comes straightway from Beijing’s unqualified support to Pakistan. This has also something  to do with the internal situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where the PDP-BJP coalition’ government’s failure to address the basic issues of governance  has widened the space for the radical Islam and  promoted  the dangerous narratives  of the regional, sub-regional and religious divide. This sense of overconfidence was further exhibited by  Pakistan at Geneva. Pakistan’s mission at Geneva said that: “Kashmir is an internationally recognised dispute and  it should be settled by granting the right to self-determination to the people of the region.”

It may be read as a contradiction in Pakistan’s stand at home and abroad. That would be a mistake. Now, when Pakistan talks about dispute, it relates only to the part that is with India. The whole of the state  of Jammu and Kashmir  had acceded to India, including Gilgit Baltistan,  and the territory that Pakistan occupies and calls “Azad Kashmir.” Besides, the areas that it has gifted to China  to construct Karokaram highway,  known  as N-35  in Pakistan, are also part of the undivided J&K, which legally has been acceded to India.  The Karakoram  highway is being upgraded. Both neighbours have ignored Indian objections.

As it is clear now, things would change. China and Pakistan  would  draw closer to  each other. India would be squeezed in Jammu and Kashmir. Given the current geo-strategic games of China and Pakistan, no other conclusion can be drawn.


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