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Foreign Policy

Can Indo-Pakistan Conflict affect Chinese interests?

Apr 10 , 2019

On Valentine’s Day, a 20-year-old suicide bomber collided his explosive-laden vehicle with the convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama district of Indian held Kashmir. The blast resulted in the killing 42 personnel of CRPF, the most devastating attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir in recent times. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan based rebel group claimed responsibility for this deadly attack.

This attack stirred a sense of retaliation in India and the government did not take long before bombing targets in Pakistan. On 26th February, Indian Air Force (IAF) claimed to have bombed JeM training camps in Balakot, 200 KM north of Islamabad. Pakistan rejected the Indian claim and declared that IAF only bombed trees and there were no casualties. Reports of journalists also contradicted the Indian claims of killing hundreds of JeM members. The very next day, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets bombed targets in Indian administered Kashmir while claiming to deliberately avoid casualties. PAF claimed to shoot down two IAF jets, which were pursuing them into Pakistan. The wreckage of one of these jets fell into Pakistan territory along with its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was arrested by Pakistan.

The de-escalation

The shooting down of Indian planes further escalated the conflict between both nuclear power adversaries. According to media reports, India was ready to launch a missile attack at Pakistan, and Pakistan had warned to retaliate with more intensity. However, realizing the gravity of the matter, the international community came forward for firefighting. Pakistan released the IAF pilot immediately and the threats of full-scale war between both countries gradually died down.

It’s believed that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries played a key role in preventing a full-scale war in South Asia. However, what was not known initially was the strong role played by Beijing in defusing tension between both countries. The Chinese government later publically took credit for preventing a war between its southern neighbors. Pakistan also acknowledged the role played by China in the de-escalating conflict between India and Pakistan.

It’s not in the interest of the global community at large that India and Pakistan go to war. However, for China, the stakes are really high and it cannot afford a war between India and Pakistan. There are different reasons for which Chinese interests will be gravely harmed if India and Pakistan go to war anytime soon.

1) The progress of Belt and Road projects in Pakistan will be halted:

In April 2015, China entered into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement with Pakistan. CPEC is a part of wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and compromises of a set of projects worth $62 Billion. CPEC entails developing highways, rail networks, industrial zones, energy generation projects and Gwadar port in south Pakistan. CPEC projects aim to develop the economy of Pakistan and turn it into an economic corridor which can connect western China with the Arabia Sea through the Gwadar port. CPEC is a flagship project of BRI and it will run till 2030.

If Pakistan goes to war with India, then the progress on CPEC will halt. Pakistan has limited resources and it can’t continue the work on CPEC while engaging in armed conflict with India at the same time. During the confrontation with India at the end of February, Pakistan closed down its airspace and highways near the Indian border. Economic activity was severely affected by the confrontation in those few days. Naturally, the work on CPEC also ceased during that period and that’s something that China could not afford. China wants timely completion of CPEC so that it not only makes the economic corridor within Pakistan functional but also get the return on its investments in Pakistan. Moreover, the failure of CPEC will also affect the progress of BRI since CPEC is its flagship project. Therefore, China did its utmost to prevent war between India and Pakistan.

2) Indian opposition to CPEC will increase

India has been an opponent of CPEC since the outset of the project. India’s argument is that the CPEC corridor passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is a part of the greater Kashmir region, which is the cause of dispute between India and Pakistan. India has openly expressed its opposition to CPEC in the past ­­­- terming it a threat to its sovereignty. Moreover, in the latest confrontation, Pakistan used Chinese made JF-17 Thunder fighter jets to shoot down India jets. Pakistan’s Military admitted the use of JF-17 Thunder for bombing targets in Kashmir and shooting down Indian MIG-21 on February 27th. It’s obvious that Pakistan’s cooperation with China has increased due to CPEC. So, India will oppose CPEC more vehemently in case of a conflict with Pakistan because China is aiding Pakistan due to CPEC.

Moreover, the passage of CPEC’s economic corridor from Pakistan administrated Kashmir also irks India. Since 1947, India maintains that Kashmir is a bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan and it should not be internationalized. Now, when Kashmir will provide passage to BRI then it will naturally become an international issue. Experts believe that India fears that CPEC will internationalize the Kashmir issue and hence it has to oppose CPEC. Therefore, China needs to ensure that Pakistan and India do not go to war over Kashmir. Otherwise, the economic corridor of BRI through Kashmir cannot materialize when there is an active armed conflict in that region.

3) Conflict in Kashmir can spread to Xinjiang

If war erupts in Kashmir, then from the Pakistani side the Islamic fundamentalist groups such as JeM and Lashkar e Tayyaba (LeT) will also be fully engaged against India. If the intensity of the conflict increases, then it can potentially get out of control and spread out of the Kashmir region. A possible place conducive for the spread of this conflict can be Xinjiang region in southwestern China. In Xinjiang, China has detained over a million Uighurs in the name of controlling extremism. Uighur militant groups like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which are hostile to China, already exist. Therefore, the Jihadi elements in Kashmir can easily spread into Xinjiang creating loads of problems for China. If Xinjiang gets affected due to this conflict then not only it will be a huge threat to Chinese national security but it will also affect the progress of the ambitious BRI project. Hence, China has to ensure that there is no war in Kashmir in order to protect Xinjiang.

The threat lingers on

An Indo-Pakistan conflict was prevented from turning into full blown war by China and other countries. However, the threat for future conflict between both countries lingers on. Ever since 1947, Pakistan and India have engaged in three wars due to their dispute over Kashmir. As long as the Kashmir remains disputed between both countries, the conflict can erupt anytime. Therefore, China can not completely control this threat. What it can do is to ensure that there is no major war between India and Pakistan until 2030, when CPEC projects end in Pakistan.

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