China, The Centrist Superpower In India-Pakistan Dogfight
Never waste a good crisis! Because what we weathered this week was a blood-curdling dogfight between India and Pakistan that could have nuked half the global population in and around South Asia. I concede there is an element of exaggeration here, but big wars often get triggered by tiny accidents of judgement. So better to exaggerate than get tortured in a nuclear winter.
Yet a crisis of such proportions is also an opportunity to grow up, become a wiser person/country. So, will India and Pakistan seize upon this dangerous wrinkle to become mature, moderate nuclear neighbours? We don’t know, but China, widely expected to continue its incendiary support to Pakistan, has certainly mellowed.
China Endorses India’s Unusual “Non-Military” Strike
On Day One, after India claimed to have bombed and killed hundreds of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists at Balakot, China surprised everybody by endorsing the “non-military, counter-terror, pre-emptive” skin of our attack. China could have easily reinforced Pakistan’s protest against ‘an act of war’. But China chose its words with utmost diplomatic finesse: “As for India’s claim on taking action against terrorism, well, fighting terrorism is a global practice”. The very next day, after a face to face meeting with India’s foreign minister, China and Russia announced in a formal statement: “Terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals”.
Yes, it did insist on dropping the “Pakistan-based” prefix for JeM, but for a country that had obdurately vetoed calling Masood Azhar a “U.N.-designated global terrorist” for a decade, it was a huge half-stride forward.
China Has Been Visibly Moving Towards the Center in India-Pakistan Ties
Until now, the main stumbling block in our relationship with China has been its support of Pakistan. China is Pakistan’s most important trading partner and biggest arms supplier; from 2013 to 2017, China sent 35 percent of its arms exports to Pakistan, accounting for 70 percent of Islamabad’s total weapons imports. As the U.S. has learned, India can’t ever completely embrace a country that arms our No. 1 enemy, which has shown no qualms about using imported weapons against us. Even in this dogfight, Pakistan violated American conditions by using the F-16s for military offences against India.
China’s main strategic interest in Pakistan has been to use it as a proxy against India. The $46-billion CPEC, which opened in late 2016, only reinforced the sense that China and Pakistan were teaming up against India. The corridor gives China easy access to the Indian Ocean and beyond, and has jump-started Pakistan’s decimated economy with extensive energy, infrastructure, and industrial projects, making Islamabad even more beholden to Beijing. Top Pakistani officials reportedly gathered in Gwadar port to greet the first convoy of Chinese trucks to arrive on the CPEC highway before sending them off for Africa in a Chinese ship.
One account published in Dawn after the Uri attack —later denied by Islamabad—reported that China ‘had indicated a preference for a change’ in Pakistan's approach to anti-India militant groups, giving the military no choice but to enforce the ban against such groups as JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba. China put Pakistan on further notice after the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, when Beijing signed a joint declaration expressing ‘concern about the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ‘Islamic State’..., al Qaeda and its affiliates,’ which then went on to name specifically the Pakistan-based groups.
China’s Expanding Footprint in Counter-Terrorism And Peace-Keeping Roles
China’s slowly hardening stance bodes well for future counter-terrorism collaboration with us. The Indian Army and the PLA have been conducting annual ‘Hand in Hand’ counter-terrorism exercises for years. Top officials from both countries have met repeatedly to expand such efforts; citing a ‘growing convergence of views’ on terror, they have discussed sharing best practices and even intelligence. This is an area rife with opportunities for enhanced cooperation, especially in the lawless badlands of Afghanistan, where our interests closely align.
Indeed, India should be heartened by China’s expanding role as a willing and capable leader in global security and peace-keeping missions.
Also Read: Where Do India And Pakistan Go Next?
Beijing has invested heavily to become an effective peacekeeping state, putting up seven percent of the UN peacekeeping budget—more than Canada and Spain, according to Courtney Fung, a University of Hong Kong political scientist who specialies in Chinese foreign policy. The Chinese are engaged not only at a policy level, debating and designing resolutions, but also, increasingly, in on-the-ground operations, sending ‘enabler’ units to provide the backbone and infrastructure for missions as well as ‘tip of the spear’ front-line forces in such locales as Haiti, Sudan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. Nothing is better for India's—or the world’s—security than an engaged China, assuming the responsibilities of global leadership.
In Just Another Ten Days…
China will get a major opportunity to become much more ‘neutral’ in India-Pakistan ties.
Will it again veto the U.N.S.C. resolution labelling Mazood Azhar a ‘global terrorist’?
Or will it abstain, unimpeachably wearing the mantle of a stoic, non-partisan and responsible neo-superpower?
The world is watching.
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.