The China Factor In Indo-pakistani Detente

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 2

Unlike India, which continues to squander geopolitical opportunities (such as the recent chance to get a ringside seat in Iraq by participating in the U.S.-led coalition there), Pakistan has been skillful in leveraging its international relationships. By attaching itself to the U.S.-led anti-Communist alliance beginning in 1951–in contrast to “non-aligned” India–Pakistan secured a bountiful flow of assistance from the United States despite the reality that its only foe was democratic India. By 1964, and soon after Beijing’s 1962 military defeat of New Delhi, Pakistan had aligned itself with the People’s Republic of China. Such ties did not affect its alliance with Washington. Instead, Pakistan served as the go-between for the United States and the PRC in 1970-71. A decade later, Pakistan served as the base of the Afghan jihad, getting billions of dollars of assistance from successive American administrations. In 2001, the Pakistan Army turned on a dime and–at least outwardly–jettisoned its alliance with the Taliban.

Since 1964, the year China became a nuclear weapons power, Pakistan’s army has maintained a close relationship with its PRC counterpart. Since the September 11 attacks this has ensured the preponderance of the “China lobby” over the “U.S. lobby” within the Pakistan military. The reasons for this are the lowered tolerance of the United States for “jihad” after the Word Trade Center collapsed and the ability of the PRC to tango with Islamists outside its borders in exchange for their looking the other way while Beijing clamps down on those inside. Apart from providing missile and nuclear technology to Pakistan, the PRC displaced the United States as the main source of Pakistan’s military equipment by the early 1990s. In addition, by declining to confirm on record the precise boundaries of its “Line of Actual Control” with India, Beijing forced New Delhi to maintain 40 percent of its total forward troop deployment on the India-China frontier. This ensured a closer parity between Indian and Pakistani forces on New Delhi’s western boundary. Indeed, rather than the insurgency in Kashmir, it is the PRC that has thus far locked in substantial Indian formations away from the Pakistan frontier.

No longer. The first sign that Beijing was reappraising its post-1962 tilt towards Islamabad came during the 1999 Kargil conflict. Then, for the first time since the 1960s, PLA forces on the border with India declined to adopt the tactics of feinting, jabbing and reinforcing themselves in order to force the Indian army to avoid a thinning out of forces on its eastern border while engaging in conflict with Pakistan on the west. In both the 1965 and 1971 wars, and throughout the insurgency in Kashmir that followed the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, PLA tactics prevented a significant movement of Indian forces from positions held on the Chinese border. This was of great military benefit to Pakistan. During the Kargil operations, almost half the Indian firepower on the Line of Actual Control was moved westward to locations where Pakistan troops had entered, thus ensuring their elimination.

Since 1999, the India-China border has remained tranquil. And for the first time since the 1962 war, the Chinese side has begun the process of aligning its maps with those of India, so as to avoid any “accidental” ingress into territory held by India. Once this process is complete, the conventional advantage of the much larger Indian armed forces will be fully utilizable in a conflict with Pakistan, rather than the 60 percent that was available before the detente between India and the PRC.

China, even more than Pakistan, follows a foreign policy that focuses on perceived national interest, as distinct from the grandstanding that Indian foreign policy habitually favors. Beijing sees Asia as the future “core” of the international order, and would like to position itself as the “core of the core.” This mandates that it displace the United States as the preeminent power in Asia, a process that cannot be completed unless India remains either hostile to, or neutral toward, U.S. interests. A U.S.-India security alliance would degrade the ability of the PRC to displace Washington as the primary power in Asia, hence Beijing’s post-Jiang switch to a policy of accommodation rather than blockage of Indian interests in the region. Especially over the past year, Beijing–and more importantly the PLA–appears to have signaled to counterpart agencies in Pakistan and Bangladesh that the PRC can no longer be counted on to help the smaller powers of the region in their efforts to escape the gravitational pull of India, the only country within South Asia that has land borders with any other South Asian country except India itself.

Starting in the final months of the Clinton administration, the United States had already indicated its interest in an alliance with India, a country that has begun to match the PRC’s rate of economic growth. After the Bush administration took office in 2001, there has been a visible disconnect between the traditional PRC and Pakistan-centric policy of the State Department and that of the Pentagon, which has begun to robustly engage its Indian counterpart in a mesh of relationships unthinkable during the Cold War. It is this warming of U.S.-India military ties that has provided the impetus for the PRC to now engage India in a manner that Beijing hopes will keep it away from a formal alliance with the United States, as for example through membership in an Asian version of NATO. In this process, China has begun to distance itself from Pakistan, to the extent that when Premier Zhu Rongji visited India in 2002, Kashmir was not even mentioned by him. Today, aside from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, its is only the perennial busybodies of the EU that still harp on Kashmir. Pakistan has lost even the diplomatic support of Saudi Arabia in its dispute with India, as Riyadh is well aware that India is one of the top three markets for oil in Asia.

Since the warming of ties between the United States and India, it is the move away from a Pakistan-centric policy by the PRC that has concentrated the minds of the generals in Islamabad. Pressure from the United States and the PRC has always been regarded in Pakistan as essential to get India to make those concessions on Kashmir–that is, handing over the valley to Pakistan, or converting it into an “independent” state–that the army regards as vital to justify the expenditure on itself that the state has made. By moving away from insistence on the UN resolutions of 1948 that were explicitly repudiated by India in the 1950s, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appears to be moving toward a “China solution” of the border dispute with India. That would involve acceptance–with minor modifications–of the status quo. The tacit withdrawal of PRC support for the Pakistani position appears to have softened the opposition of the officer corps of the Pakistan army, aware as they are of ground realities, to such a compromise. Interestingly, even the jihadi elements in Pakistan are now split, with one side calling for conciliation with India, presumably to focus attention on the “main” enemies, the United States and Israel. One of Pakistan’s key religious leaders, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, visited India some months ago and called for bygones to be bygones. Rehman is among the most bitter critics of President Musharraf’s policy of siding with the United States in the war against terrorism.

Internationally, for one, to craft an alliance with India and for the other to block it, both the Pentagon as well as the PLA have distanced themselves from the position of the Pakistan Army on Kashmir. Internally, a significant section of the jihadi establishment has come around to the view that the priority should be the battle against the United States and Israel, rather than India, and has therefore pulled back from earlier levels of support to the Kashmir jihad. It is the combination of these two factors that has impelled the Pakistan Army to search for detonate with India the way China has already implemented: through acceptance of the status quo.

“South Asia experts” in U.S. think tanks have failed to integrate the PRC factor into their analyses of India-Pakistan dynamics. They have focused instead on the U.S. State Department and joined in the myth that this venerable institution has been the crucial determinant in avoiding another full-blown war between Pakistan and India. If, in the case of Pakistan, the changing geopolitics among India, the United States, the PRC and Pakistan itself have created the impetus for conciliation, in the case of India, it is economic factors that are behind the present thaw.

The government of Atal Behari Vajpayee shot itself in the foot when it mobilized 230,000 additional troops on the border with Pakistan, making threats of waging a conventional war that it at no stage intended to carry out. The purpose of the deployment was to exhaust Pakistan financially, by forcing Islamabad into expensive counter-measures. While this strategy worked to some extent, the cost to India was much higher. This was not simply in the financial costs of the deployment (as well as the human cost, such as the loss of nearly 470 men in mine-clearing operations after the operation was reversed), but the immense cost of lost investment as a result of the perception that the Indian subcontinent was on the brink of a nuclear war, a threat that was nonexistent except in communiques and newspaper columns.

Several countries–including some with problems of their own, such as Israel–issued advisories asking their citizens to leave India. Billions of dollars of fresh investment were canceled, and India’s booming information technology industry sputtered as clients began looking at “safer” alternatives. The one country that benefited from the decision of the Vajpayee government to beat the war drums without actually going into a conflict situation was the PRC. India had slowly begun emerging as an alternative to China for foreign direct investment (FDI). The induced war scare set the process back by several years. After factoring in the economic consequences of its bellicose rhetoric, the Vajpayee government has begun to emphasize the velvet glove rather than the mailed fist.

Interestingly, surveys show that the overwhelming majority of the populations of both India and Pakistan desire friendly relations between the two countries. While Colin Powell has been quick to claim credit for the turnaround, the reality is different. It is the Indian business community–especially its hi-tech segment–that warned the Vajpayee government of the negative consequences of its war whoops. It will be remembered that pressure from the United States, the EU and the PRC on India to settle the Kashmir issue to Pakistan’s satisfaction had been continuous up until the September 11 events. In 1948, 1963 and 1994 the United States and Britain aborted Indian efforts to align with Western powers by making a “settlement of the Kashmir issue” a precondition for this. While Whitehall (and the U.S. State Department) has not gotten over this mental roadblock, the Pentagon has leapt across the barrier and is going ahead with engaging its Indian counterpart, ignoring the baggage of history. Interestingly, so has the PRC leadership.

Economically, through the perception created that India was located in the heart of “one of the most dangerous spots in the world” (as Clinton once said), the PRC gained by the hobbling of its primary competitor in Asia, the Republic of India. The Pakistan Army, by helping to sustain the miasma of imminent Armageddon over the subcontinent, repaid the PRC for the support China has given Pakistan in the nuclear and missile fields. Today, however, a wiser Vajpayee government, combined with increasing cross-Taiwan Strait and North Korea tensions, has shifted the international spotlight away from South to Northeast Asia. Should India emerge as an alternative destination for FDI, the PRC would be a loser of the India-Pakistan detente. However, for Beijing, what is of even greater importance than this economic cost is to ensure that New Delhi and Washington do not enter into a military alliance that would subvert the PRC’s determination to displace the United States as the primary power in Asia. Thus, China can be expected to continue its current policy of robust and conciliatory engagement with India, a policy that in turn will increase the pressure on the Pakistani Army to continue to search for a stable detente with New Delhi.

The reality is that only the jihadist elements and their backers have a strong financial interest in the continuation of tensions with India. The large contributions from the Muslim world for the jihad in Kashmir, combined with proceeds of the narcotics trade that is the other occupation of most jihadist groups in the region, have made jihad a very lucrative industry for its principal backers. Increased U.S. scrutiny of narcotics-related money flows post-9/11 and the souring of the atmosphere for collecting money to kill those of other faiths has resulted in a fall in the proceeds of the jihad industry, one that has lowered the opportunity cost of diminishing the scale of “Holy War.” After 9/11, it has been difficult for the U.S. State Department to continue with the traditional policy of relying on religious groups, a policy that in 1994 and 1995 saw active U.S. encouragement for the forces that took over most of Afghanistan in 1996 as the “Taliban.”

In sum, the PRC’s efforts to engage India rather than contain it through boosting the capabilities of its neighbors–principally Bangladesh and Pakistan–has resulted in a recognition by the jihadi and military establishments of both countries that tensions with India may prove too debilitating to sustain in the face of a newly hostile international environment. This, combined with the realization in New Delhi that bellicose rhetoric would lower investment flows to India, can be expected to lead to a growing detente between India and Pakistan that in time may develop into an entente. While the diplomats have taken the credit, the real heroes of the peace process are, first, the business people of the two countries, who understand that butter is more profitable than guns, and, second, public opinion in India and Pakistan, which recognizes that the enemy of both is not the other but poverty.

M.D. Nalapat is a professor and director of the School of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.