The National Day celebrations of Pakistan on March 23 rarely evoke interest among people beyond the confines of its borders. However, reports of a set of Chinese J-10 fighter jets’ arrival in Islamabad for a fly-past, as part of the celebrations, have forced India to focus on its deeper significance.
The J-10 fighter jets are part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s Bayi Aerobatic Team. It has performed earlier in Balochistan in 2017. But, trailing the slipstream of India-Pakistan tension in the past month and China’s recent action in the United Nations at Pakistan’s behest, this year’s acrobatic manoeuvres take place in a piquant atmosphere.
Pakistan has been chafing under an Indian diplomatic onslaught ever since the Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the February 14 ‘fidayeen’ attack on a CRPF convoy that killed 40 personnel in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Consequently, on February 27, India carried out an airstrike deep inside Pakistani territory in Balakot, where the JeM’s training facilities were located. When Pakistani fighter jets entered Indian airspace the next day and tried to target Indian military installations, they were driven away by the Indian Air Force, which lost a fighter jet after shooting down a Pakistani F16. Troops on both sides of the border have been put on high alert ever since, marking yet another sharp spike in tensions in bilateral ties.
This being the lurid backdrop of the arrival of the PLA’s J-10 fighter jets in Pakistan, what kind of signal does Beijing intend to send, especially when New Delhi is making all efforts to isolate Islamabad at the international level?
Former national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s recent tweet (“Picking sides when tensions are high”) about China’s decision to send the jets seems to have added fuel to ongoing speculation in India as to why and how China is aiding Pakistan.
Chinese fighter jets arrive in Pakistan for its national day parade - Global Times : Picking sides when tensions are high? https://t.co/8F6JdKaGz6— Shivshankar Menon (@ShivshankaMenon) March 18, 2019
Indications suggest that apart from the J-10 fighter jets, many other Chinese defence platforms could also be on display at the Pakistani National Day parade in Islamabad. Apart from being a close ally, Pakistan offers a lucrative market for the Chinese defence industry.
China knows that repeated use of the veto to shield Azhar at the UN hurts its image. Indications are it may soon relent on the point.
It thus can be cogently argued that despite mounting international pressure on Pakistan to act against terror groups operating from its territory, its isolation at the world stage appears to be far from complete. Among others, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed, who often championed closer ties amongst Islamic nations, is likely to attend as the chief guest at the March 23 celebrations. Besides, army contingents from Saudi Arabia and Turkey will also be joining Pakistani forces at the parade.
More than anything else, it is this latest Chinese gesture that will be analysed in the Indian foreign policy establishment. An international initiative undertaken on India’s behalf at the UN Security Council on March 13 to list JeM founder Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” was thwarted because China, for the fourth time, decided to put it on “technical hold”.
The anger in the Indian public domain following the Chinese decision notwithstanding, South Block was restrained in its reaction to the development in New York, describing it as “disappointing”. Through the deafening clamour from self-proclaimed experts on the need for a tougher stand against China, seasoned diplomats tried to look for reasons behind Beijing’s mulish insistence on coming to Islamabad’s rescue every time it faces a crisis at the global stage and, if possible, to find ways of weaning it away from Pakistan.
The move to list Azhar as global terrorist at the UN Security Council had the support of all other members in the 15-member body but, as predicted by some, ran into the brickwall of China’s veto power as a permanent member.
“I really fail to understand why China wanted to go out on a limb in blocking the move against Azhar when the international mood was so overwhelmingly against it,” reacts a baffled former Indian ambassador to China.
Many Indian experts however, came up with a set of reasons, ranging from internal developments in China and the strong links between the Chinese and Pakistani armies, to the multi-billion dollar Chinese investment in Pakistan to explain the logic behind Beijing’s inflexible policy.
The closeness in Sino-Pakistan ties had begun in the wake of the 1962 India-China boundary war. Over the years, relations grew much stronger (recall the role Pakistan played in bringing about the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972), with widening cooperation on various fronts. But the lynchpin of their friendship lies in the strong bond between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Pakistan Army. This has led senior PLA members to traditionally play a key role in China’s Pakistan policy. Masood Azhar and leaders of other terrorist groups are valued assets of the Pakistani military establishment and the ISI, who use them at regular intervals to hurt India.
Proscription of Azhar by the UNSC will not only hurt the Rawalpindi establishment, it will cause them to lose face internally, since the sworn enemy, India, stands behind the ongoing international initiative. China’s help was, therefore, urgently needed to stymie the move.
In addition to this close geo-political and economic alignment between China and Pakistan, President Xi Jinping’s various reforms within the Chinese state may also have played a role in this tight embrace of Pakistan. Xi’s anti-corruption drive in recent years had targeted senior generals of the PLA and brought its finances under close scrutiny. Taking the pedal off the JeM and thus slowing down the isolation of the Pakistani army and its assets at the international stage could be a small price for Xi to pay to keep both the PLA and the Rawalpindi establishment happy.
Then again, the obvious connect—China has made heavy investments, approximately around US $ 40-60 billion, in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key project of Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative, and it is natural for it to ensure the security of the high-profile project. Since there have been attacks on CPEC assets and Chinese personnel working on it in the past, a guarantee of their safety is paramount for China, and President Xi needs the unwavering support of the Pakistani army to ensure it.
If Beijing had joined the international initiative against Azhar, it could have alienated sections of the Pakistani army, especially the ISI. Therefore, using its veto to block Azhar’s proscription allows President Xi to earn the gratitude of Rawalpindi at a time it has been facing mounting pressure.
However, China also wants to be regarded as a responsible global power. It knows that using the veto repeatedly to shield Azhar could also tarnish its image. Indications from New York suggest that soon China may lift its ‘technical hold’ and allow the UNSC to put the JeM founder on its list of global terrorists.
For now, the presence of Chinese J-10 fighter jets in Islamabad is a reiteration that irrespective of developments in the UN, Sino-Pakistan ties are strong and will remain so in the future.
After every strand of the Sino-Pakistan relation is dissected threadbare, perhaps Indian policy planners need to rethink and stop looking at China through the Pakistan prism. Instead, it may serve New Delhi far better if it develops an independent structure to evaluate Beijing. If that happens, Sino-Indian relations may turn into meaningful partnership—much in the line of the Wuhan spirit, where they are confident of each other’s presence and intent, with no third party casting a baleful shadow.