(Reuters)
(Reuters)

Opinion | New Delhi’s options in the face of Beijing’s stance on Kashmir

China’s bid to ‘internationalize’ the issue could push India to hurt its larger neighbour’s interests

China’s support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has once again underscored the difficult trajectory of contemporary Sino-Indian relations. Last week, the UNSC held closed-door informal consultations in response to a letter written by Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to the president of the UNSC on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which was supported by China. This was Pakistan’s desperate bid to internationalize the issue of Kashmir. Its efforts also saw Beijing working with Islamabad to rake up the status of Aksai Chin, a territory in Ladakh that China illegally occupies, arguing that New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 challenged China’s sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area. Despite the isolation of China at the UNSC, the message to India was clear: Beijing would join forces with Pakistan to hurt Indian interests at every possible forum.

There were many in India who, rather unreasonably, expected China to moderate its behaviour vis-à-vis India in light of the so-called “Wuhan spirit". But that’s a misreading of Chinese foreign policy as well as of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to engage informally with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan last year. By backing Pakistan’s request for the UNSC to discuss India’s latest move, China has signalled its priorities and made any normalization of ties almost impossible.

China is making it clear that with India’s consolidation of control over Ladakh—and by extension Aksai Chin —Sino-Indian border negotiations might be entering a new phase and a hardening of its position should be expected. This, despite the fact that external affairs minister S. Jaishankar made it clear to his Chinese counterpart that the legislative measures being ushered in by New Delhi would have no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. China’s response is also driven by its wider interests as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has pushed China to be even more aggressive on Kashmir. With China reportedly planning to set up a permanent military base in Pakistan for CPEC, India should be prepared for greater Chinese meddling on this matter.

India’s deft diplomatic handling of the situation has ensured that China stands isolated at the UN. This has been happening repeatedly now. Earlier this year, China was isolated while trying to protect Masood Azhar from being declared a global terrorist, but had to later backtrack in the face of global opinion. Last week as well, the UNSC consultations on Kashmir concluded without any outcome or formal statement. Most members supported India’s stand that this was a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan.

This repeated isolation notwithstanding, China remains unambiguously committed to sustaining its partnership with Pakistan. That’s the strategic reality New Delhi will have to contend with. The Wuhan summit was an attempt by New Delhi and Beijing to lower temperatures after the Doklam crisis, and it succeeded in doing so. But the underlying factors that have shaped the trajectory of Sino-Indian relations over the last few decades remain unchanged. Moreover, as India becomes a more proactive player in the international order and China’s troubles with the rest of the world continue to grow, Beijing will target New Delhi even more pointedly.

China’s aggressive effort to “internationalize" the Kashmir issue will generate calls in India for standing up to it. India is not without options and has shown it’s not shy of using them. China can’t expect that its priorities on trade and 5G would be considered favourably by India if it continues to challenge the fundamentals of good neighbourly ties. If China is so aggressive on Kashmir, then nothing stops India from raking up issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Tibet and Taiwan remain Chinese vulnerabilities. Beijing should be under no illusion that, just because Xi is about to visit India, ostensibly to take the “Wuhan spirit" forward, India would hesitate in responding to its provocations. It should realize that there is no major constituency left in India today that has a favourable view of China. If China has a long-term strategy of containing India within South Asia, then India can just as easily adopt a strategy of challenging China’s core interests.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of International Relations, King’s College London

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