While Chinese and Indian troops face off near Bhutan, skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces along the disputed border in Kashmir have spiralled dangerously since May, threatening India with hostilities on two flanks. But even though the Pakistani army would like to leverage the Doklam standoff to settle its old scores with India, China has so far been reluctant to pile pressure on the Kashmir front through Pakistan.
Despite the Chinese state media’s calls for the government to militarily humiliate India in a multiple-front war, China has made no attempt to link the two flanks by publicly taking sides with Pakistan over the intensified clashes along the Kashmir border, known as the Line of Control.
“China’s approach to the Kashmir dispute is a function of its own domestic challenges, as well as the fact that it is also a party (to the disputed territory), so even if the geopolitical fault lines in the region harden, the Chinese position won’t solely be driven by a greater tilt towards Pakistan and against India,” said Andrew Small, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of The China-Pakistan Axis.
Clashes along the Kashmir border have spiked since a terror attack that killed 18 Indian soldiers at a military camp near the Line of Control in September. Indian forces responded by conducting what they called “surgical strikes” against targets on the Pakistan-administered territory, sparking unceasing fighting there ever since.
“We should not read too much into the timing of the China-India border standoff and the surge in the Line of Control violence. That said, let’s be clear: China and India are at each other’s throats at the moment and there’s good reason to think that the India-Pakistan rivalry could get dragged into this,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asian programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.
“Could Pakistan be seeing India bogged down in the Himalayas and sensing an opportunity to put pressure on India from another flank? Absolutely,” he told This Week in Asia.
Figures released on Sunday by the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) directorate sought to build the case that India has ramped up military action along the Line of Control. According to the Pakistani military, there have been more than 580 Indian violations of a 2004 ceasefire agreement so far this year. It was 382 last year.
According to the Indian Army, there have been 238 ceasefire violations by Pakistani forces this year up to mid-July.
Fighting has intensified in recent months, with 308 incidents taking place between May 1 and July 15, says the ISPR. Since being appointed Pakistani army chief in November amid the frequent fighting, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has visited frontline military positions in Kashmir every month. The General has shifted the focus of the national security narrative away from Pakistan’s largely won war against Taliban insurgents and back towards its historical enmity with India.
But the Pakistani military’s leadership is constrained in its actions by mounting US pressure to act decisively against Afghan Taliban and anti-India terrorist factions that “continued to operate from Pakistani soil in 2016”, according to the US State Department country report for Pakistan, released on Wednesday.
US defence and foreign affairs spending bills currently making their way through the Congress have tightened conditions on the release of funds to Pakistan, making it subject to confirmation that it has proactively acted to prevent cross-border terrorist attacks from its territory. The US defence bill notes that the US and India view geopolitical developments in Asia “the same way”, and requires the Trump administration to produce a working plan for enhanced military cooperation with India within six months.
However, the US is also concerned that rising military tensions with India would make Pakistan less cooperative in finding a Taliban-inclusive negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. The US is keen to involve India in the Afghanistan peace process, an idea Pakistan is averse to.
“Tensions between Pakistan and India must be addressed. Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan are in many ways driven – rightly or wrongly – by its existential fear of India and potential encirclement by an Afghanistan government that would allow India to use its territory for anti-Pakistan activities,” said a recently published report by the US Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank. “Therefore, some steps need to be taken to give Pakistan assurances that its support for an Afghanistan-led peace process will not risk losing power to India.”
Fighting flared up again this week along the Kashmir border since the death of four Pakistani soldiers on Sunday. Speaking to his Indian counterpart by telephone the following day, for the first time in six week, the Pakistani army’s chief of military operations warned the fresh bout of clashes could lead to a dangerous tactical escalation.
“While we don’t want to go down the path where we start choking each other’s supply lines, however, any such recurrence will invoke more strong and effective measures from Pakistan’s side,” said Maj Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, according to an ISPR press release.
India’s Lt Gen A.K. Bhatt said his forces would respond in kind. The Indian side had opened fire on Sunday in response to an attempt by Pakistani militants to infiltrate across the Line of Control, according to an Indian army spokesman. Two Indian soldiers were killed in a Pakistani ceasefire violation on Tuesday, the Indian army said. Pakistan’s military said its forces had killed a further five Indian soldiers on Wednesday.
Since May, Pakistan’s air force has activated its forward operating bases along the entire length of its border with India. The decision was taken after Indian press reports revealed the Indian air force chief, Air Chief Marshall B.S. Dhanoa, had asked all 12,000 officers under his command to be “prepared for operations with our present holdings, at a very short notice”.
Beijing has repeatedly called on both sides to engage in diplomatic talks and offered on Monday to play a “constructive role” in improving relations between Islamabad and New Delhi. The offer was a glib reminder that India and Pakistan have both sought diplomatic assistance from China and the US to resolve previous crises that threatened to descend into war.
Invoking India’s decades-old policy of refusing third-party intervention in its disputes with Pakistan, the foreign ministry spokesman dismissed the offer out of hand.
In view of the Bhutan standoff, China may thus be seeking to subtly leverage military tensions between India and Pakistan to its advantage, but without substantially changing its position on Kashmir.
“Beijing will tread carefully when it comes to revising a stance that it has held to for decades. But there is a sense at the moment that there is a little more room for Chinese manoeuvre at the margins, primarily as a result of growing tensions in Sino-Indian relations,” said Small.