An interesting new argument coming out of China these days is that Beijing has been compelled to insert itself into the Kashmir dispute because of the Indian decision last year to alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Chinese arguments proffered on various occasions since last August have been summarised by Wang Shida, a Chinese scholar in Beijing. Wang argues that India’s move last August has “forced China into the Kashmir dispute, stimulated China and Pakistan to take counter-actions on the Kashmir issue, and dramatically increased the difficulty in resolving the border issue between China and India”.
Official Delhi rejects the argument that India’s action has “posed a challenge to the sovereignty of China and Pakistan”. It points out that the constitutional changes altered the nature of the relationship between Delhi and Kashmir within the Indian Union, and that it has no impact on the current territorial disposition with China and Pakistan. The government’s renewed claim over Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and China-occupied Aksai Chin is simply a restatement of long-standing Indian positions.
It is ironic that the charge of unilateralism comes from Beijing, which has turned critical parts of the South China Sea into administrative districts of China and matched those moves with physical steps to gain effective control over the disputed waters. Delhi has taken no such action in Kashmir, nor does anyone believe India is in a position to gain control over the territories controlled by either Pakistan or China.
For most Indians, it might be baffling to hear the argument that Delhi has “forced” Beijing into the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. In their view, China is very much part of the Kashmir dispute. After all, China occupies large parts of Kashmir, including Aksai Chin and parts of Ladakh and sits on the Shaksgam valley ceded to Beijing by Pakistan in 1963. It is important to note a nuance in China’s articulation. The competing claims of Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir are rooted in their shared understanding that there was a princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in undivided India. For Beijing, the territories it claims have never been part of J&K but belonged to Tibet and Xinjiang.
That Pakistan has largely swallowed the Chinese argument is reflected in the 1963 agreement on the boundary between “China’s Sinkiang and the contiguous areas the defence of which is under the actual control of Pakistan”. Not entirely surprising, since Pakistan’s primary focus is on getting the Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir rather than claim all the original lands of J&K.
While its claim to be outside the dispute has been consistent, China’s approach to the Kashmir question has seen considerable variation over the last seven decades and more. Some recent research has delved into Nationalist China’s active efforts to draw the Hunza region of the Gilgit district into a union with China during 1947-48. The Mir of Hunza, Jamal Khan, opened negotiations with officials of Xinjiang, but in the end, opted to accede to Pakistan. Communist China did not abandon the efforts of the Nationalist government and continued to show Hunza as part of its territory until the early 1960s.
In the 1950s, at the height of the “Bhai-Bhai” phase, China avoided taking a position on the Kashmir question. After the 1962 war, China’s position aligned with Pakistan’s as Beijing called for “self-determination” in Kashmir. After the Maoist era came to a close and Deng Xiaoping took charge in the late 1980s, China began to moderate its Kashmir position and find a better balance in its bilateral relations with India and Pakistan.
In the mid-1990s, in a significant setback to Islamabad, Beijing urged both India and Pakistan to put aside the Kashmir issue and focus on developmental cooperation. But China’s position on the boundary dispute in general and the Kashmir question in particular tended to harden against India since the late 2000s, when Beijing became more conscious of the widening power differential with all its neighbours, including India.
It’s a pity that India’s debate on the Ladakh crisis is fixated in finding China’s motives, including the argument that India’s constitutional changes were the trigger. The ground reality has not been altered by India’s constitutional changes. It is being changed by the PLA’s growing military capabilities and the political will to use them.
India’s constitutional changes might, in the end, look like a minor defensive move amid China’s continuing gains in Kashmir across the India-Pakistan divide. Although Beijing has let Pakistan keep Hunza for now, it has not really given up its claims on the region under the 1963 agreement. The CPEC, which enters Pakistan through Hunza, has laid the foundation for ever-larger Chinese economic influence in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Meanwhile, China’s ability to nibble away at the LAC in Ladakh will only grow as the military balance continues to shift in the PLA’s favour. While India’s significant current military deployment to counter Chinese mobilisation may yet help persuade Beijing to step back, there is no escaping the longer-term trend. If Delhi can’t redress the growing military imbalance and as Islamabad becomes even more dependent on Beijing, China will loom larger than ever on the entire Kashmir region. That is the real message from the new Chinese affirmation that it is now part of the Kashmir question.
In raking up the issue at the UNSC, raising economic presence in the Northern Areas and probing India’s military and political vulnerabilities, China is highlighting its new salience for Kashmir. This is part of China’s growing geopolitical impact all across the Great Himalayas.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 16 under the title “A statement of power”. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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