Days before the informal summit between President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi met Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Mohammed Asif on the sidelines of a meeting of defence and foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Beijing. Wang emerged from the meeting to tell reporters China was “ready to work together with our Pakistani brothers to undertake the historical mission of national rejuvenation and achieve the great dream of national prosperity and development”.
“In this way, our iron friendship with Pakistan will never rust and be tempered into steel,” said the Chinese state councillor and foreign minister. Asif responded in matching rhetoric, describing China as “our iron brother”.
Since Pakistan and China signed a 1963 treaty to resolve their differences over the status of their shared border in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of Kashmir also claimed by India, their hyperbole of bilateral friendship has mostly been matched with actions.
After Xi unveiled the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – which has since risen in potential value to US$60 billion – as the showcase project of his pet Belt and Road Initiative in 2015, the Chinese leader characterised it as a thank you for Pakistan’s key role in helping communist China establish diplomatic ties with the US and end its international isolation in 1971. And although, for geopolitical reasons, Pakistan cannot say as much, it has China to thank for enabling it to keep pace with India’s strategic programme, through the transfer of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology between 1989 and 1992.
The two have drawn ever closer as China’s Belt and Road-driven expansion across Asia has brought it into direct competition with the US, India and Japan, while Pakistan’s relations with the US, its other major international partner, have deteriorated markedly.
But lately, China and Pakistan have not always been on the same page when it comes to India. At the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental anti-money-laundering watchdog, China in February made what, to Pakistan, was a shock decision. It withdrew its opposition to a US-led move to place Pakistan back on a terror financing watch list for failing to crack down on militant groups fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir and Nato in Afghanistan.
Since initiating the CPEC in 2015, China had been quietly warning Pakistan that it cannot indefinitely block multilateral moves to punish it. But Pakistan’s national security and diplomatic narrative has remained deeply invested in countering the threat of an Indian attack across the ceasefire line in Kashmir, and geared towards supporting anti-government forces in India-administered Kashmir.
Wang is understood to have reassured Asif that any progress arising from the Xi-Modi summit would not compromise China’s relations with Pakistan. But the very day after Wang’s rust-and-steel bombast, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, tweeted a section of an editorial in the Daily Times, a liberal Pakistani newspaper, saying “Beijing has been asking Islamabad to engage with New Delhi and keep tensions to a minimum.”
Pakistan’s military, which dominates defence and foreign policy, has consistently blocked attempts by the elected government to promote trade relations with India, making them conditional upon Indian engagement in talks on Kashmir, which Modi has flatly refused.
“I’m sure there’s a bit of unease among the Pakistani military brass about this summit and the apparent detente. Still, the military won’t be overly concerned, as it will conclude – rightly so, in my view – that China very much remains in Pakistan’s orbit, regardless of this new India-China warming period that could well prove short-lived,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at The Wilson Centre, a Washington think tank.
Arif Rafiq, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, another Washington think tank, said that since the Pakistani military was the “Communist Party of China’s principal strategic partner in the region”, he didn’t think Beijing was willing to damage relations for tactical benefits vis-à-vis India. “But, at the same time, I think there is recognition in Pakistan that dependence on a single strategic partner puts them in a position of weakness,” he told This Week in Asia.
Hence Pakistan is closely watching the Xi-Modi summit for clues on its own relations to China, especially the iron brother’s approach to its Kashmir dispute. But most analysts believe it is too early after the Doklam stand-off last year for China and India to talk Kashmir.
“China and India may be in a period of detente, but this doesn’t mean China will want to undercut the deep trust in the China-Pakistan partnership, especially with the critical role Islamabad plays in [the Belt and Road Initiative],” Kugelman said.
“The summit will focus more on some narrowly defined issues of importance to India-China relations. Kashmir is unlikely to come up. And I certainly don’t think China will pressure Pakistan about toning down whatever role it may play in stoking unrest.”
The concerns rise from Indian press reports that Beijing and New Delhi have been quietly discussing an unlikely compromise resolution of India’s opposition to Belt and Road projects located in the Pakistan-administered half of Kashmir, through which flows its only overland link to China.
C. Raja Mohan, the director of the Carnegie India Delhi-based think tank, said a deal, if any, could involve the removal of Kashmir-based projects from the official CPEC listing and their execution under a separate bilateral arrangement.
“Delhi has said it is open to consultations with China on the development of regional transborder infrastructure. Beijing, in turn, has apparently floated a number of new proposals for Delhi’s consideration,” Mohan wrote in The Indian Express. “These include the extension of the CPEC to India, promoting connectivity across the Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal, Sikkim and other places. If it has the will, China should not find it too hard to address India’s concerns on sovereignty on Kashmir,” he said.
But China might struggle to gain Pakistan’s backing for such an extension of CPEC into India-administered Kashmir.
“I can’t imagine Pakistan agreeing to de-link projects in Gilgit-Baltistan from the CPEC portfolio. Such a move, even if accompanied by a plan to expand the project into India-administered Kashmir, would be perceived by Pakistanis as a direct capitulation to an Indian demand tied to sovereignty. And that’s something the Pakistanis can’t accept,” said Kugelman.
Instead, China is likely to float measures regarding CPEC and the Belt and Road that may “soften New Delhi’s opposition to these initiatives, but they are unlikely to be realised in a way that will satisfy New Delhi,” said Rafiq. ■