Diplomatic breakthroughs rarely come overnight. Yet, the fast-paced developments which took place from Doklam to Xiamen last week seem to have brought dramatic changes in India-China relations. In recent months, bilateral ties between the two Asian giants had been fraught with, if not open hostility, then with staunch rivalry, playing out often through the Pakistani prism.
Therefore, it is not without significance that until late last month, the two Asian neighbours, whose soldiers were facing each other in a 73-day long stand-off at the Himalayan plateau of Doklam, are now making common cause with each other and world powers to name Pakistan-based terror outfits Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaishe-e-Mohammed as founts of violence and instability. Both Lashkar and Jaish has been valued assets of the Pakistani ‘deep state’ and are often used to carry out terror strikes in India. Past attempts to highlight their activities and pressure Pakistan at regional and international fora have failed, mainly because of China’s active reluctance to do so.
But, in a dramatic shift in stand at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen from September 3-5, host China joined other member countries—Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa—in condemning Lashkar and Jaish along with other terrorist organisations.
The BRICS stand comes at a time when the United States under the Donald Trump presidency has started putting pressure on Pakistan for its reluctance to take action against terror outfits operating from its soil, going to the extent of even threatening to cut financial and military assistance Washington regularly gives Islamabad. Significantly, this is perhaps the first time that all major world powers—the US, Russia and China—seem to stand behind India on terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Of course, given the opaqueness of the Pakistani ‘deep state’, the impact it will have on Pakistan’s policy of using terror as a tool of foreign policy to engage with India can only be guessed at. But, it has already begun a debate among Pakistani politicians and triggered some introspection within the Islamabad establishment. “We need to put our house in order and rein in these terror groups to avoid further embarrassment at the international level,” Pakistan’s foreign minister Khwaja Asif told Geo TV in wake of the BRICS declaration.
Officially, Pakistan claims that both LeT and JeM are banned outfits in the country. But Asif’s remarks clearly acknowledge that despite being proscribed organisations, their members are cosseted by the Pakistani establishment. Going by the mood in the Pakistani media, policy-makers there are exceedingly nervous now at ‘all-weather’ friend China’s ‘betrayal’. In an attempt to understand and assess the degree of shift in Beijing’s attitude towards Pakistan, if any, Asif will soon go to China for discussions with the Chinese leadership.
For some experts, this is just a balancing act. According to professor Shen Dingli of Fudan University, Pakistan has already banned these terrorist organisations, so China’s support to name them in the BRICS statement in Xiamen would, “one, help forge a BRICS-wide anti-terror steam and two, lift China-India cooperation to a new height without undermining China-Pakistan relations, at least theoretically.”
Yet, two questions remain. What made China shift from its stated position? And, to what extent has it really shifted?
Sections in India, especially those gloating over the firm stand taken by India in Doklam against “Chinese aggression” to end the crisis without making a compromise, point to New Delhi’s firm resolve that forced a rethink in Beijing’s approach. No doubt, Doklam played an important role in paving the way for a successful BRICS Summit in Xiamen where all participants were on the same page on key challenges. But before that, China and India had to resolve the crisis. It would definitely have turned focus away from other BRICS achievements if Indian and Chinese soldiers still teetered at the edge of a conflict.
Seasoned observers of Sino-Indian relations like John Garver is however, not surprised by the turn of events. “China’s leaders are well aware of the heavy political costs of war with India,” says Garver, professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Yet, Beijing does see utility in convincing India’s leaders—or even more, its public—that another Chinese ‘lesson’ might be forthcoming if India transgresses against Chinese interests too egregiously. Thus, a type of psychological warfare—border confrontations, diplomatic demarches, threatening media messages etc,” he adds. According to Garver, China’s India policy is mainly twofold—invitation to cooperate and partner with China, but with the threat of punishment if Indian policies become “too hostile” to China and its interests.
But, under the circumstances, how significant is the Chinese shift? “It could be significant,” says Garver. He feels Beijing is increasingly becoming concerned with progressive “Islamisation of the Pakistan state” and the possible ill consequences of it for the entire region, including Xinjiang. “I doubt that Beijing will break with Islamabad. But it may seek to nudge the Pakistan army and the state in a more secular direction,” opines the emeritus professor.
Modi, Xi in a meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Xiamen
Many in India are unwilling to draw such conclusions so early. “Please don’t read too much into it,” says Ashok Kantha, director of Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies. Kantha, once India’s ambassador to China, describes the BRICS document and discussions between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “positive developments”, but is cautious when asked if this indicates a change in China’s attitude towards Pakistan.
However hastily diplomatic China’s actions might seem at first glance, it has actually shown a keenness in opening a new chapter in its ties with India, acknowledging that in recent months bilateral ties had gone adrift and there is a need to put them back on the “right track”. This view is also shared by Kantha. “India-China relations are now on a more pragmatic track,” he says, pointing out that both countries agree now to accommodate each other’s concerns more than what had been done in the past. “The Modi-Xi meeting was very helpful. They deliberately wanted to send out a positive signal. But now we will have to see how relations pan out in the coming days,” he adds.
A major test for the newly furbished relations may come in October when the issue of proscribing Pakistani terrorist Azhar Masood will again come up at the UN. In the past, China has repeatedly scuttled all attempts to put him in the dock. Since things are being seen as having changed in the past week, there is anxious anticipation to see how China reacts this time.
Importantly, as the focus squarely lies on putting Sino-Indian relations back on track, few people are willing to see the wider picture—that much of what transpired last week may have been sparked off by President Trump’s announcement of the new Afghan policy. It is Trump who has decided to make a clean break from the policy pursued by his predecessor Barack Obama in not only carving out a possibly bigger role for India in Afghanistan, but also in blaming Pakistan for its duplicitous policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan.
Unlike the Obama presidency, Trump’s regime has called the Pakistani bluff on Afghanistan and threatened to cut off all aid.
The Obama administration had not only set a timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, thus encouraging the Taliban and other anti-Kabul forces to regroup and wait out till American boots were withdrawn. It also shared Pakistan’s claim that it was a serious player in the fight against global terror and had itself been a victim of terrorism. This, in itself, was in total contrast to the Indian position and its attempt at isolating Pakistan for its continued support to home-based terror groups that struck both India and Afghanistan.
Moreover, the Obama Presidency fully recognised Pakistan’s ‘sensitivity’ and primary position on Afghan affairs and thus strove to limit India’s role in the development and stability of Afghanistan.
Under Trump, all that might undergo a fundamental change. The Trump administration sees Pakistan as a primary cause for the instability in Afghanistan and has called its bluff on a policy whereby Islamabad would act against terror outfits operating in Pakistan, but nurture those who aim to exclusively target the Afghan government, thus grooming them as strategic assets to be used on a rainy day. Moreover, Washington not only threatens to cut off all future financial and military aid to Pakistan, but also sees a legitimate space for India in Afghanistan.
Many in India and elsewhere are willing to wait a little more to see how Trump, who is known to often change stated policies, goes forward in Afghanistan, what role he actually envisages for India and if the Indian leadership is able to play that role. But there is no doubt that Trump’s new Afghan policy will be hugely influential for the region.
Garver points out that so far, Pakistan’s trump card against the US has been its geographical position and the ability to use it for movement of US and western troops to Afghanistan. “The withdrawal of permission to US to use air, sea and land corridors to Afghanistan has always been Pakistan’s trump card,” says Garver.
But he also points out that if India and Iran come together to open up the Chabahar route as an alternative to the US and NATO forces for entering Afghanistan, it can take away much of Pakistan’s leverage with the Americans. “Maybe they can also bring in China to serve their common interest, where India, Iran, China and the US unite in stabilising post America-Afghanistan,” hopes Garver.
Given the relations that the US has with both China and Iran, few commentators would envisage such a scenario in the near future. Indeed, the possibility of these countries, along with Russia, moving closer to Pakistan to deal with the evolving Afghan scenario seems more probable.
Recent developments in the region seem to have encouraged optimistic and out-of-the-box thinking in some quarters. Maybe, this will bring about another set of realignments among key players that will contribute meaningfully towards that ever-elusive stability in the entire neighbourhood that is home to nearly forty per cent of the world’s population.