Some people in India were applying reason and rationale to the context of the UN Security Council move to declare Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist. That would have meant Beijing's acceptance of the proposal, against its three earlier instances of rejecting it. Internationally, there was a furore against the Pakistan-supported JeM terror strike involving the car bomb attack at Pulwama, that led to the killing of over 40 Indian securitymen. Many in India felt that China, in this black and white situation, would not like to be singled out as a state supporting another that sponsors terror and proxy war in a neighbouring country. However, little did we realise that geopolitics matters more than sentiment to decide China’s stand on international security issues.
What’s the geopolitics involved in this decision? Simply, all that is happening in Southwest Asia is virtually an extension of the New Great Game! The area is one of the world's most turbulent hotspots, and highly unstable too. The United States intends to withdraw its last 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, and hopes for some kind of deal with the Taliban to enable that, with Pakistan as the intermediary. Afghanistan is a messy affair, with multiple scenarios that could emerge over the next few months. The Chinese want the Americans out from the region and don't want to create a situation where Pakistan's role as an intermediary is compromised as that may set back the US withdrawal. Behind the scenes, China has been advising Pakistan not to trigger any more turbulence with India, but it can’t go against Pakistan’s interests in the India context by having it isolated internationally. In fact, Pakistan’s isolation would have been a huge Indian foreign policy success, which would tempt maverick Pakistani terrorist groups to attempt further targeting of Indian interests in Kashmir. Second, China wouldn't like to see a major embarrassment for the Imran Khan government because Pakistan has run out of political options, with its other two mainstream parties in the doghouse. If Imran Khan is weakened, it will only be at the cost of even greater strengthening of the Pakistan Army and the Deep State, whose actions could be unpredictable even to the Chinese. Third, China has invested just too much in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan's public is not too enthused, and socially it is meeting resistance, especially over the presence of Chinese labour and management. By not holding Pakistan's hand in its moment of crisis and possible isolation, China would open itself to greater compromise internally within Pakistan. In CPEC, it has invested its own outreach to a potential economic empire in Africa and the Middle East. There can be no compromise with that long-term objective. In addition, the strategic isolation of Pakistan would upset any future economic bailout of Pakistan by international monetary institutions and force China to invest even more in rescuing its strategic partner from utter bankruptcy.
What China may have advised Pakistan behind closed doors is to take a step back over sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir. The move against Masood Azhar was too close to acceptance this time. Countries like France and Britain were transformational in their approach to proscribing the JeM chief and in turn isolating Pakistan, much against the transactional attempts in the past. What Pakistan may have told China is that without more active interference in Kashmir, it ran the risk of the Indian security forces smothering the local movement, something akin to what the situation was in 2011-13. Through Pulwama, it would have hoped for greater reaction against Kashmiris and more communal colour to India’s politics, something it always sees as a strategic advantage to itself. India did almost play into
that gameplan, but fortunately pulled back from the brink.
Is Pakistan likely to follow China’s advice and at least temporarily stop active interference in Kashmir through its subsidiaries? It appears there could be a hiatus as far as big ticket events is concerned. Pakistan clearly miscalculated Pulwama and India’s response. The latter has now climbed higher notches in the escalation matrix, bringing the potential that the response to another major terror act could be more intense, bringing the two sides closer to armed confrontation of varying intensity. It will need to reconfigure its strategy. As far as the ongoing activities to bring more alienation, infiltration through the early spring and summer and prevention of a large voter turnout for the parliamentary elections are concerned, the Deep State will be more than active. For India, it is vital to continue its diplomatic campaign against Pakistan, unlike the past when such efforts on our part flagged off with time. We must never regard the absence of violence as any form of approaching normality. The focus on intelligence against potential use of explosives in another form must remain live. But more than
anything else, the muscular security policy must be balanced by many more conversations with the Kashmiri people. Election time is not a bad time for that.
It would be realpolitik on India’s part to perceive that the Wuhan spirit with China pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not taken as being of advantage only to India. China stands much to gain from stabilising its ties with its southern neighbour. As it stays on the defensive on the US trade wars and the potential of a not-too-stable Southwest Asia region, it may not wish to create fresh rumblings in its external relations. The treatment meted out to the Uyghur minority has the potential of putting it on the backfoot, though on human rights it has always resisted international pressure. Subtle messaging over the Wuhan spirit going haywire in the course of the Chinese support to Pakistan is a strategic necessity. It will help in China imposing greater caution on Pakistan, that may yet treat Chinese advice with less seriousness than it should with reference to the India policy.
There is little potential for Southwest Asia stabilising any time in the near future, and China will continue playing to its perception of interests that focuses on putting many eggs in the Pakistani basket. However, whatever happens, India needs to remain engaged with China to progressively sensitise it to the fact that all its interests do not necessarily lie in the actions Pakistan may take against India and Afghanistan....