Behind Pakistan’s cartographic hallucination on Kashmir lies Imran’s domestic woes, China’s invisible hand

Sreemoy Talukdar
·13-min read

Imran Khan is in trouble, to put it mildly. The Pakistan prime minister initially dismissed COVID-19 as common flu and had advised citizens to stay at home even if showing symptoms. When the pandemic raged beyond control, Imran's answer was to implement a 'Corona tiger force', a youth recruitment program to "wage jihad" against the virus.

The virus was unmoved by such gimmicks. As the crisis deepened, an alarmed World Health Organisation shot off a letter in June slamming hasty lifting of lockdown in provinces without meeting any of the requisite conditions and expressed concern over Pakistan's high positivity rate and lack of testing.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's already fragile, debt-burdened economy is collapsing. According to World Bank estimates, Pakistan is heading towards "major recession". The New York Times quoted Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, an independent research firm, to report that "up to 18 million of Pakistan's 74 million jobs could be lost."

A broke Pakistan is set to become the first large developing country to apply for a debt repayment relief under a G-20 initiative.

Alongside and unsurprisingly, Pakistan's rickety public health infrastructure is also in a coma. Doctors and caregivers are functioning without basic protective gear and risking public ire to boot.

Amid the healthcare disaster, Pakistan is also staring at a food security crisis. Mishandling of the pandemic, lack of government planning, supply chain disruption, unseasonal rains and pestilence may result in a 3.5 million-ton shortfall of wheat, Pakistan's staple, raising fears that the country is limping towards a famine. It is worth noting that Imran's popularity was nosediving even before the pandemic. Last year, hardline Islamists hit the streets demanding his ouster. Forced to take a $6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in last May €" Pakistan's 13th such bailout since 1980s €" Imran had no option but to cut subsidies, devalue further the rupee and raise taxes €" all unpopular moves in a struggling economy. While the interventions didn't work, all that Imran managed to do was to trigger more inflation, slash consumption and witness mass layoffs in private sector. To quote Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) who led the protests against Imran last year, "Khan was 'selected' earlier but he has now been rejected." Imran's ascension to power was widely believed to have been engineered by Pakistan's all-powerful military, and Rawalpindi was growing increasingly impatient with Imran's hubris, inefficiency and incompetence. Imran's botched response to coronavirus, falling popularity and waning influence saw Pakistan Army tighten its grip on the civilian government and squeeze further the space for democracy. At the best of times, Imran was a military puppet. His masters have now clipped his wings and taken full control. All major policy decisions on the pandemic are now being taken either by Rawalpindi or army-backed political appointees. Since March, the military has been overruling Imran and releasing public advisories on army letterheads. Imran is aware and unhappy, threatening abruptly to leave press conferences when questioned on his authority. Scholar Madiha Afzal, fellow of Center for Middle East Policy writes in Brookings, "For a time after his election, it seemed that Khan's closeness with the military might give him the space to implement the domestic policies that he wanted. It seems that period is over. Khan is now clearly constrained by a military whose role has grown progressively through Khan's term in office and has expanded to the ambit of domestic policy during the pandemic." The picture that emerges is of a politician rapidly losing popularity, power, influence and control and increasingly given to ranting in Parliament. To add to his pressure, terror financing watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has kept up the squeeze. Last October, Pakistan received a "clear warning" from the FATF for addressing only five out of 27 action items to tackle terror financing. The FATF had threatened to blacklist Islamabad unless it does more and does so quickly. Pakistan has managed to get one more extension from FATF until October 2020 owing to the pandemic, but it received more setbacks on this front with the US state department bringing out a report on terrorism in June that continues to designate Pakistan as a "safe harbour for regionally focused terrorist groups." Then there is Kashmir. India's decision last year to remove Jammu and Kashmir's semi-autonomous status and bring the erstwhile state under New Delhi's direct control effectively buried Pakistan's dreams of seizing the prized real estate for which it has launched multiple wars against India and used terrorism as a State policy since the 1990s to carry out a relentless proxy war and stoke militancy within Indian borders. Kashmir is not only Pakistan's "jugular vein" or an article of faith, it is central to Pakistan's national and ideological frontiers. Pakistan never had operation control over Kashmir that acceded to India during Partition except the portion that it had invaded, but a never-ending battle against India to grab Muslim-majority Kashmir remains the fulcrum of Pakistan's existence as a nation-state. It also makes space for Pakistan military's outsized role in its polity since it is deemed to be the only institution that can turn that improbability into a reality. As C Christine Fair, author and scholar of South Asian political and military affairs, noted in her book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War, for the Pakistan Army, failure lies not in unsuccessful attempts to wrest Kashmir from India but in abandoning the effort. In perpetual struggle lies victory. New Delhi's move to abrogate Article 370 and turn Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory made it even more difficult for the Pakistan to sell its revisionist agenda back home €" a despondency best expressed by Opposition leader Sherry Rehman.

In its latest edition of the Green Book, an internal confidential publication of the Pakistan military containing essays by serving officers and others (mostly for in-house consumption), Pakistan's chief of army staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa admitted that Balakot airstrikes and abrogation of Article 370 have transformed the geopolitics of the region and restricted Pakistan's options.

The battle for Kashmir isn't just an existential totem, it is also the silver bullet to paper over all the cracks of a failing State. Stunned by India's decision, and hamstrung by lack of options, an unprepared Imran launched a vitriolic campaign against India and threatened nuclear holocaust in a column for The New York Times and even from the podium of United Nations last year, but he had little to show for his efforts.

Not just the international community, Khan failed to gain sympathy for his anti-India campaign even in the Arab world.

Imran's frustration was palpable. At the UN last year, the Pakistan prime minister admitted that he has failed to find any buyers for his apocalyptic narrative on Kashmir, and there was "no pressure on Narendra Modi".

The reasons behind Pakistan's failure to corner India on Kashmir have been explained well by Ashley Tellis, former top US government official and now a senior fellow at Carnegie in a report by London-based Financial Times: "India is seen as a great power in waiting, and nobody messes around with the claims of a great power€¦ The Pakistanis have discredited themselves with their use of jihadi terrorism as a means to change the status quo."

Imran had not only run out of options, but his inefficacy on Kashmir also had a bearing on Pakistan military's domestic stature. The people in Pakistan were beginning to see that not only will they never get control over their promised land, their 'infallible' army actually had a very weak hand. What damaged Pakistan the most was that India's move went a long way towards decoupling the adjective 'disputed' from Kashmir and made it an issue 'internal' to India.

Something had to give. And it did. On the first anniversary of India's abrogation of Article 370, Pakistan released a "new political map" claiming the entire Kashmir and Ladakh, along with Sir Creek and Junagadh in Gujarat.

Among other oddities, the so-called map also has an "undefined frontier" to let China draw its own line while keeping Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin out of its parameters. There has also been another change in nomenclature. 'Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir' is now 'Indian Illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir' €" the extra 'i' apparently loosens India's and fortifies Pakistan's claim.

The "undefined frontier" apart €" which indicates that Pakistan is petrified of China and has no clue what Beijing will claim tomorrow €" the so-called map evidently is Pakistan's answer to India's move on Kashmir.

While India has revoked Kashmir's 'semi-autonomous' status €" a temporary constitutional measure €" abrogated Article 370 and 35-A, bifurcated the state into two union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and brought Kashmir under the ambit of Indian Constitution, Imran and his cabinet waited for a year to finally take some coloured pencils and redraw the map to snatch Kashmir away from India.

Depending on how one looks at it, Pakistan's act was a strategic masterstroke or a fool's errand. Imran will certainly hope that his countrymen believes the former. Not just 'one mapmanship', Imran had more aces up his sleeve to reclaim Kashmir €" such as renaming Kashmir Highway in Islamabad as Srinagar Highway.

The claim on Junagadh (that voted to join India in 1947 in a plebiscite when Pakistan received 91 votes) isn't new. Pakistan's survey maps have included it on earlier instances unlike Sir Creek but in both of these cases as in Kashmir, Islamabad's reliance on cartography reflects its helplessness on Kashmir and desperation at home.

At this point, Imran is less worried about his strategic and diplomatic options on Kashmir than in placating the Pakistani public and showing that within a span of a year, he has made some progress in wresting back the prized land. What better way than to redraw a map?

Imran was perhaps inspired by Nepal prime minister KP Sharma Oli, who recently pushed through a new map claiming sovereignty over Indian territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipu Lekh and Kalapani. Oli's cynical plan had a political motive. Nepal's beleaguered prime minister is battling to save his seat and political future and saw in the cartographic misadventure a chance to whip up nationalism to sail through the polls.

However, in Pakistan's cartographic hallucination €" that India has dismissed as "ridiculous", "untenable" and a "political absurdity" lacking in "legal or international credibility" €" lies a blunder and a self-inflicted wound.

By claiming the entire Valley, Pakistan has ended up exposing its own lies on Kashmir's "self-determination" and UN-monitored plebiscite. In one stroke, Pakistan has also invalidated the so-called 'self-determination' movement by 'separatists' and revealed it for what it is €" an asymmetric war planned and executed for decades by Pakistan through 'non-State actors' and jihadist forces to create unrest within India's borders and seize Kashmir.

All Imran and his 'crayon cabinet' has managed to do is to bust its own lie and remove the fig leaf of legitimacy.

The dragon's invisible hand

In dismissing Pakistan's cartographic aggression, however, India has no reasons to be smug. A coordination on the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and its patron China is evident and increasingly intensifying.

China has never been a disinterested party in Kashmir, and its interventions are getting more frequent in tune with Beijing's hold over its client State. The strategic importance of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Beijing's holding of considerable real estate in Kashmir make China a crucial and influential third party in the Kashmir issue.

There's one more good reason for China to get involved. Beijing uses Islamabad as a cat's paw against India, and it is in China's interest to stabilize Pakistan so that it may play the role Beijing wants it to play.

The client-patron relationship is evident from the fact that China €" as ORF's Sushant Sareen points out €" "is not just emerging as the largest debtor to Pakistan but is also the largest investor. What is more, China is Pakistan's largest trading partner and the lender of last resort to bail out Pakistan from its chronic deficit on the external account. In short, China is virtually the only game in town as far as the tottering Pakistan economy is concerned."

The Sino-Pakistan coordination on Kashmir since India's move to abrogate Article 370 has played out in interesting ways. Security Council member China has initiated the issue three times at the United Nations €" ostensibly to 'internationalise' the dispute at the behest of its iron brother €" and while each of these attempts have proven unsuccessful, the calibrated steps leading to the first anniversary is worth noting.

On 27 July, China held a virtual foreign ministers' meeting with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal €" an alternative quadrilateral mechanism bang in India's immediate neighbourhood €" and Wang Yi urged his counterparts from Afghanistan and Nepal to follow Pakistan's footsteps to promote CPEC and tighten interconnectivity. Chinese economic imperialism in India's backyard raises New Delhi's security and strategic concerns.

In addition, as ORF senior fellow Sareen points out in "Alt Quad+ with Chinese characteristics", China has been openly interfering in Nepal's political process to ensure Oli's survival, debt-trapping Nepal with white elephant projects, offering trade deals to Bangladesh that Dhaka can't refuse end up being dependent on Chinese market and "encouraging Imran Khan to reach out to Bangladesh and move towards normalisation of ties."

Interestingly, just a few days before the 'Alt Quad' meeting was held, Imran made a rare phone call to Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina and ostensibly discussed Kashmir.

A day after Pakistan released its 'new map', a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson on 5 August called India's Kashmir move "unilateral, illegal and invalid" and glossed over a question on Pakistan's cartographic aggression. On that very day, China initiated the third attempt to stir the Kashmir pot at UN.

These attempts have all been thwarted but, as Syed Akbaruddin, who served as India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations points out in Hindustan Times, India should be ready for a diplomatic two-front war at the UN.

A short-on-options Pakistan may be blundering its way even more on Kashmir, but the real joker in this pack is China.

Also See: India dismisses Turkey's comment on New Delhi's 'biased' removal of Jammu and Kashmir's special status

Curfew imposed in Srinagar ahead of first anniversary of Article 370 abrogation on Wednesday

'Unilateral' changes made by India in Jammu and Kashmir were illegal and invalid, says China

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