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India Cannot Disregard China While Choosing To Attack Pakistan, Feel Chinese Strategists

(To be read with an earlier article of the writer, entitled “ China’s Reaction to Mumbai Terror Strikes: Pro-Pakistan Bias? – C3S Paper No.235 dated 8 December 2008,

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has so far officially taken a cautious and neutral stand with regard to India-Pakistan tensions arising out of November 26,2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, asking both the sides to ‘strengthen dialogue and bilateral cooperation’. Even after the recent visit of Chinese special envoy He Yafei to Islamabad and New Delhi, there has been no visible categorical position on the part of Beijing, especially despite the evidences to the origins of perpetrators reportedly given by India to the visiting Chinese leader. In the main, China is yet to acknowledge in public the basic fact, now recognized by rest of the world, that the terrorists came to Mumbai from Pakistan and that they have had a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LET) connection. The only redeeming feature from the Indian posit of view could probably have been China’s backing to the UN Security Council resolution of 11 December 2008, banning Pakistan’s Jamat-ul-Dawah as a global terrorist organization.

On the other hand, strategists in China, close to the power structure, are exhibiting a strong pro-Pakistan bias in their analyses of the situation. The Chinese media observations earlier that the terrorists could have come from within India and references to social tensions in India as factors behind terrorist attack need to be seen as attempts, though in vain, to exonerate Pakistan. These are not being repeated now; also there is a tendency not to stress the possibilities of an India-Pakistan war as done earlier by the Chinese experts.

New themes being taken up by the PRC scholars now include that the China factor could deter an Indian attack on Pakistan and that China must maintain its alliance with Pakistan in its geo-political interests. Two assessments of PRC strategic experts, appearing in the online edition of the China International Institute of Strategic Studies (CIISS, in Chinese) assume importance in this context. A comment (11 January 2008) criticizes ‘Indian circles’ with ‘colonial mind’, for viewing the very recent ‘winter training exercise’ of the 4th PLA Infantry Divn of the Xinjiang MR in Karakorum Mountain as ‘a Chinese reinforcement effort to help Pakistan in the Sino-Indian border’. Describing the exercise as ‘normal’ as that Divn is responsible for region’s security, it states that such fears may possibly go to expose India’s underlying intentions to attack Pakistan; India at the same time realizes that it cannot disregard China and that with fighting Pakistan in the front and China in the back, it might face defeat. Pointing out that immediately after the Mumbai attack, India desired to conduct a ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan, the comment adds that New Delhi could gradually understand this folly against chances of getting no support to such operation from ‘old friends’; under the compulsion arising out of the premise that it has to deal with China factor permanently, India is searching now for other options.

A second evaluation (CIISS, 9 January 2008) while underscoring the point that the PRC should respect and ally with ‘brother’ Pakistan in recognition of the latter’s consistent support to China internationally, identifies following factors as reflecting the geo- political importance of Pakistan to China – Pakistan is China’s tool to restrict India, Pakistan is China’s gateway to the Middle East and a forward base for its naval vessels for entering the Indian Ocean, particularly the Persian Gulf, Pakistan is China’s contact point for Iran and Central Asia which can help in countering Eastern Turkestan terrorist activities in Xinjiang, China’s West can benefit from the economic and trades ties with Pakistan and lastly, Pakistan can help China in playing its role in the third world.

Going by the latest views of Chinese experts, unlike in early stages after the Mumbai attack, they seem to be ruling out now an India-Pakistan armed conflict. Important however are their hints that China would back Pakistan in the unforeseen event of an Indian attack or ‘surgical’ operation against Pakistan. This could even come in the form of a Chinese diversionary tactic in ‘Southern Tibet’ (Arunachal Pradesh of India), as surmised earlier by a scholar (Reference 8 December 2008 article mentioned in the beginning). In this context, Pakistan’s statement that with China’s backing, it does not suffer from isolation internationally, assumes some meaning. Worth noting is the conclusion of China-Pakistan Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighbourly Relations (5 April 2005), which is being seen within China as binding the two ‘allies’ against any foreign threat to each other (Professor Yu Dunxin, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, APP, 22 November 2006). The ‘legal’ importance of the treaty for the long term China-Pakistan Strategic Partnership has been stressed once again as late as October 2008 during President Zardari’s visit to China. The subsequent defence pact (15 December 2008) between the two sides, signed well after the Mumbai attack, has added substance to China-Pakistan alliance.

For China, modernization is the declared goal; ‘harmonious world’ and peaceful periphery are sina-qua-non-for this purpose. Hence, Beijing may not like any turbulence in the neighbouring South Asia and give priority to defusing the situation in the Sub-Continent. The Chinese special envoy’s visit appears to echo the same. China (along with the US) has certain leverage with Pakistan and India can not be wrong in hoping that the PRC would be able to convince the Pakistan authorities to attend to India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism. But, China could be caught in a dilemma if its peace making efforts fail for some reasons and if India, for which the Mumbai attack is more than a terrorism issue, targetted against the country’s economic rise, is forced to carry out punitive measures such as a surgical operation against a Pakistan which is failing to act against the terrorists based in its soil. Beijing could then be compelled to shed its neutrality and treaty-bound as it is, could go to the aid of Pakistan; if India implements other counter measures like cutting trade links and recalling envoy etc, Beijing in all probability may criticize India in order to show that it is on the side of Pakistan. Implications of such Chinese tilt towards Pakistan, if takes place, for the South Asian power balance would be obvious, as so far Beijing by choice has been following a ‘balanced’ South Asia policy, providing equal weight to relations with the two regional rivals. More importantly, any ganging up of China and Pakistan against India on the terrorism issue could cause damage to the Sino-Indian relation, which, as being described by Beijing, stands at ‘best time of history’.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:

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