K.C. Singh | To tackle Pak and China, India must divide & win

The question that arises is whether India too has a plan, beyond myth-making and reactive diplomacy

Rahul Gandhi has a knack for oversimplifying complex issues. But he does succeed in getting under the BJP’s skin. Take his remark the other day in Parliament that by its constitutional fiddling in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP has created a Sino-Pakistan convergence. The BJP lashed out at him, quoting history, that in fact the responsibility for that lay in the Congress’ lap.

The issue has been kept alive because Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was one of the two dozen world leaders who chose to attend the Winter Olympics ceremonies in Beijing. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also present. Therefore, the Winter Games were bound to get politicised despite the Chinese blaming the United States for giving the games that tinge by announcing a diplomatic boycott due to the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs in breach of universally recognised human rights principles.

After the Xi Jinping-Imran Khan parleys, besides discussing bilateral issues like an enlarged China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan reportedly raised the developments in Jammu and Kashmir, as indeed its concerns. China has from the outset of the abrogation of the Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 2019 sought restoration of status quo ante as a claimant in the dispute. Now it has reiterated that it opposes “unilateral actions” as they complicate the “dispute”. It added that considering the historical aspect, the dispute needs to be resolved peacefully and taking into account “UN Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements”.

This would irritate the Indian government which is already sulking over a Chinese regimental commander, injured during the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, being made a torch-carrier at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. But the question arises whether the BJP’s approach to the Kashmir issue has created this Sino-Pakistan alliance. The BJP is correct to the extent that the roots of this convergence go back to 1963. At that time the John F. Kennedy administration in the US, after rushing military aid to India following the Chinese attack in 1962, began putting pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan was then a treaty ally of the US and India was seen as a threatened bulwark against Communism. The US calculated that to work with both required that Pakistan be appeased by getting a satisfactory deal on Kashmir.

Multiple rounds of talks under close American supervision were held with Sardar Swaran Singh as India’s point man. But unknown to the US, military-run Pakistan had already begun seriously engaging China, perhaps worried that a pro-democracy US President like John F. Kennedy would tilt towards India.

As a result, when Swaran Singh was in Karachi for talks, the news came that Pakistan had settled its border in disputed Jammu and Kashmir with China, including by ceding the Shaksgam valley to the Chinese. The Americans were livid on learning this as it undercut their attempt at any India-Pakistan dispute settlement. India was both upset at the Pakistani betrayal but also relieved that the US pressure would now abate.

Thus, it is true that the Sino-Pakistani convergence began in 1963. The lesson from that episode is that China will work overtime to keep India and Pakistan at loggerheads.

What the Narendra Modi government has achieved by its shatter-and-rebuild Kashmir approach is to turn what was always a covert and measured Chinese approach into an overt and brazen one. Any debutant student of international relations would advise that in any three- cornered dispute, the aim should be to wean away the weaker of the three, to confront the strongest. The Modi government instead has allowed its ideological pathologies to complicate its neighbourhood policy.

The fourth player in this drama is Russia. Western warnings emanate that President Putin is likely to undertake in the coming week or so his military operation against Ukraine. On Kashmir, a Russian government aligned digital channel called Redfish has carried a documentary on Kashmir titled Kashmir: Palestine in the Making. This report develops the thesis that the Union territory is fast becoming a “settler-colonial state”. Against the backdrop of Mr Putin’s standoff with the West over Ukraine and his growing alignment with China, this should raise a warning for South Block. Are the Russians playing their own balancing game in which India is just a pawn. The Russian embassy in New Delhi has understandably underplayed the issue but that would be expected considering Mr Putin’s KGB trained mind.

The neighbours, especially China, would be closely watching India’s upcoming state Assembly elections. The Uttar Pradesh election result is crucial for the BJP’s fate in the 2024 parliamentary election. Depending on it, the BJP may take a call whether excessive devotion to its Hindutva agenda is beneficial domestically or not. It is in any case complicating relations abroad. The world faces a neo-Cold War and most nations are picking sides. India managed well during the earlier Cold War, which ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although India was a founder member and beacon carrier of the nonaligned movement, it did choose to partner more with the Soviet Union than the United States.

Now India is attempting the reverse course. The difference is that till 1971 Indian domestic politics did not burden neighbourhood policy. This time the BJP’s ideological biases at home, especially against the minorities, have caused the Pakistan-China alliance to become firmer and wider. Dangerously, Russia is also flirting with India’s antagonists.

India should be clear about some new truths. When opposed by an alliance of a weaker and a stronger power, it is always logical to engage the weaker one. China considers India as a strategic rival in Asia. Pakistan’s domestic political and economic condition is degrading. It knows it cannot catch up with India. Between the two antagonists that India faces, it may be easier to address the fears and aspirations of the weaker power, provided India can again align its domestic politics with its Constitution and its tradition of tolerance.

Henry Kissinger in his book On China quotes Mao Zedong as saying that the 1962 Sino-Indian war was because India had to be taught a lesson a second time. The first was more than a millennium earlier when China sent troops to side with one party in a succession battle. This only shows the time span in which the Chinese view global events. China definitely has a broader plan. The question that arises is whether India too has one, beyond myth-making and reactive diplomacy.

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