With regional tensions flaring over India’s massive crackdown in Kashmir, the trilateral relationship between China, India, and Pakistan looms large in Asian politics. In recent meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China simultaneously tried to reassure its Pakistani allies of its support and conduct an inoffensive successful summit with India. China must walk a difficult line within the trilateral relationship. On the one hand, it does not wish to jeopardize its relationship with Pakistan, one of its most important economic and military partners in all of Asia. On the other, China wants to substantially deepen its commercial ties with India – Asia’s second largest economy – and prevent a closer military alignment with the United States. With India and Pakistan’s relationship deteriorating, it will be increasingly difficult for China to placate both sides without alienating one or the other.
Casting a shadow over recent talks between the three parties was India’s escalation of its crackdown in the disputed territories of Kashmir. Hoping to shore up domestic support by fanning ultranationalist sentiment, Modi’s government revoked Kashmir’s special autonomy status on August 5th of this year. The Indian government arrested around 4,000 people in Kashmir since the announcement, including many local officials, and sent more than 38,000 additional troops to the region. Pakistan, which claims the territories due to their overall Muslim-majority population, naturally objected. Complicating all this is the fact that China is also a third party to the territorial dispute, having controlled the northeastern part of the region since it fully occupied Aksai Chin in 1962. Pakistan strongly rejected India’s revision of the status quo in Kashmir and quickly sought to internationalize the issue.
The recent round of diplomatic exchanges began with Pakistan’s Imran Khan making a visit to Beijing. Khan primarily sought assurance of China’s support against India regarding the Kashmir dispute, and he did not leave completely disappointed. China issued a strong statement of support for its alliance with Pakistan and backed Pakistan’s request to have Kashmir discussed by the UN Security Council. China has also assisted Pakistan in expanding its military production capabilities, enabling the country to emerge as a minor defense exporter. That said, China also attempted to project an air of neutrality and has urged both sides to deescalate tensions. In exchange, Khan controversially bypassed Pakistan’s legislature to accelerate work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a critical part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
For its part, the summit between Modi and Xi Jinping offered paeans about cooperation while publicly avoiding multiple thorny issues. Even excluding Kashmir, there are many: India wants no part in the Belt and Road Initiative; India won’t sign onto Asia’ s RCEP free trade agreement for fear of being swamped by Chinese imports; India and China still have not resolved their decades-long border disputes; and India would like to see Pakistan penalized for funding terrorism by the international Financial Action Task Force, a body currently chaired by China. Xi and Modi’s summit largely skirted these problems, instead focusing on more cosmetic areas of agreement. China agreed to try to help India reduce its trade deficit, but only really offered to launch a new dialogue. India sidestepped an offer of inclusion in the BRI by offering to instead improve “maritime connectivity” between Indian and Chinese ports. The two leaders allegedly did not even discuss Kashmir at all during the summit.
It is interesting to note that while China has offered support to Pakistan regarding Kashmir, it certainly has not written it a blank check. China and Pakistan have a deep, long-standing alliance at all levels. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC as the official government of China in 1951, and it cemented the relationship by recognizing China’s border claims in the Kashmir and Jammu region in 1963. In the following decades, Pakistan and China built an alliance based on strong military and economic cooperation. In recent years, Pakistan has received extensive technology transfers and has signed onto projects amounting to $60 billion in Belt and Road investments. Participation in these projects has contributed to Pakistan’s massive debt build-up, raising serious concerns within Pakistan and prompting domestic opposition. Given all this, why hasn’t China been even more full-throated in its support of Pakistan vis-à-vis Kashmir?
The answer, of course, is India. China would very much like to forge a closer relationship with India, ranging from economic penetration to perhaps even military cooperation. The United States has long seen India as a potential bulwark against Chinese influence in Asia, as one of only two bordering powers with anything approaching military parity. But successive Indian governments have avoided angering China by being accommodating while using the U.S. as a balancing option. The Chinese government has no desire to antagonize India to the point that it would consider more carefully aligning with the U.S. and abandoning its growing Chinese ties. As with many other countries in Asia, China is already India’s top trading partner. In its version of a perfect world, the Chinese government would continue to assuage Indian fears while deepening the bilateral relationship, all the while maintaining the goodwill of its Pakistani allies.
Escalation in Kashmir throws a small but significant wrench into this balancing act. Pakistan will no doubt continue to place pressure on China to make good on the alliance with material support. With U.S.-Pakistan relations in the gutter, Pakistan is certainly far more dependent on China than China is on it. But Pakistan can place pressure on China by stalling BRI projects like the Economic Corridor, even doing so in a deniable fashion. In contrast, India will want China to stay as far away from the Kashmir issue as possible. China and India can try to ignore the contradiction for now, but they cannot will it away forever. If escalating tensions over Kashmir are not resolved through negotiation, it is relatively likely that there will be significant strain on the trilateral relationship, and that is no cause for celebration for everyone concerned.