Pak Factor In Doka La Issue

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 25 Jul 2017 12:41:36

By PREET MALIK

There exists an alternative, of course, for China -- of dumping Pakistan and choosing India as a strategic trading partner. But in Beijing’s eyes, that would be too great a risk.


FOREIGN policy formulations are not undertaken on Twitter or in television studios, since diplomacy works best in the dark. India appears to have finally learnt this. So to analyse the present situation, we must first ask ourselves an oblique question: When is a standoff not a standoff? Answer: when it is about something else. And in that answer lies a glimpse of Prime Minister Modi’s approach to geopolitics, and China’s response. The story begins with a visit Modi made to China as Chief Minister of Gujarat, in 2011.


Addressing a select audience in Beijing, he asked them rhetorically: if China is a friend to Pakistan, and if Pakistan is not one to India, what does that make China to India? He answered his own question during his inauguration in 2014, when he invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the Prime Ministerial swearing-in ceremony; and then, hosting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at Ahmedabad during a state visit in September that same year.


At that time, the CPEC-- the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor - was only rarely mentioned in public. The CPEC is an ambitious, 50 billion dollar Chinese road-rail project aiming to connect western China with the Pakistani port of Gwadar – thereby entirely circumventing Chinese maritime trade vicissitudes of the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean.


This is much like the Chinese efforts in the 1950’s to develop a trans-Tibetan link road from Yunnan Province in the East to Xingiang Province in the West, which passed through Aksai Chin, and provided China secure, strategic east-west access in the shelter of the Himalayas. Just as the Aksai Chin road gave China a vital westward link at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was peaking in the late 1950s, the CPEC too, is designed to provide China with an uninterruptible trade route westwards, insulated from any designs America may have on containing a growing dragon. The initial courting notwithstanding, a clear correlation has now however emerged over the past three years: the more that Indian efforts to engineer an Indo-Pak rapprochement failed, the more CPEC began to be mentioned in reports – to the extent that by late 2016, analysts in China themselves began to admit, that the CPEC had little chance of ever being operationalised without
India’s blessings.


This was Modi reminding China of his 2011 query, asking China to choose between Pakistan and India. Denuded of ‘diplomatese’, it is a simple political objective: to force or entice Pakistan’s patrons to give up their support to that state, so that India may in turn force the hand of peace more deftly – and with greater effect. To this end, the present Indian Government has devised a process of intense diplomatic engagement, which culminated in a particularly hectic June 2017, and an unexpected, if somewhat surreal standoff in the eastern Himalayas.
But for China, this is not a choice that can be made easily, since they know that an India finally unshackled from the millstone of Pakistan would be a painfully important world power, with the economic and military clout to tilt the global balance.


Thus, what is interesting is that the first reports of China building a road in the Doka La area, appeared in the press not a week after the SCO summit concluded in Astana. On the face of it, the situation makes no sense: why would China behave in a provocative manner and reopen a border story which had been closed for decades now? And why act thus, so soon after China acceded to India’s full membership to the SCO? There are reasons: If India acts against Pakistan, the hardest hit would ironically be China; without positive control of the CPEC running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, China would once again be forced to depend on control of the seas to ensure the security of the bulk of its trade -- for the foreseeable future; or worse, depend upon the sufferance of Indian goodwill to let goods flow unhampered across the Karakoram Range. First, and most direct result of that, would be a revival of US opportunity to put naval pressure on China -- at any one of a hundred choke points along thousands of kilometres of international waters.


The second would be the cost factor; transporting goods by rail is far cheaper than by ship. And third, it would render infructuous, their 50 billion dollar investment on the CPEC.
Meaning that in one fell swoop, the tremendous strategic value of the CPEC to China’s long-term economic security, would amount to nil. This is a terrible position for the world’s largest economy to be in -- and Modi knows that. There exists an alternative, of course, for China -- of dumping Pakistan and choosing India as a strategic trading partner. But in Beijing’s eyes, that would be too great a risk.


The Chinese have no illusions; they know that this is the first Government in Delhi, in living memory, which has openly begun to demand the return of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to India. They know that this Government is led by a party which, not recognising differences between races or caste or religion, seeks at a civilisational level to overturn partition -- or at least the ills of it. They also know that the weakening of Pakistan -- or indeed, the off- chance of India reclaiming PoK in fuller measure -- is an eventuality that would be to China’s detriment. They know that the political opposition is too incompetent to put Modi on the back foot -- as evidenced by Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s recent, absurdly-managed meeting with the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi.


They also know that Modi has hit back hard, by encouraging Jammu and Kashmir CM Mehbooba Mufti to state in public that China is now meddling in Kashmir.
Hence a standoff at the other end of the Himalayas, and frankly hollow protestations on the invalidity of Sikkim’s membership in the Indian Union. Therefore inferences indicate that this Sino-Indian standoff in Doka La has actually very little to do with existing Sino-Indian border issues, and is instead emblematic of Chinese efforts to prevent the Indian Government from raising the stakes with Pakistan. The present standoff, this illusion of conflict, will peter out as the months pass, and, as the process of Sino-Indian engagement recommences more meaningfully -- with NSA Ajit Doval’s proposed trip to Beijing later. this month.