China’s ‘India-Pakistan Game’: Let’s Look Beyond the Headlines

Last week, the statement by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, to the effect that “China will work with India to comprehensively strengthen sectoral cooperation and people-to-people ties... so that our friendship... will flow ahead like the Yangtze and Ganges...,” was very much an effort to prepare a soft landing for the UNSC blow China was about to give to India, by blocking yet another move to brand Masood Azhar a global terrorist in the wake of the Pulwama attack.

Wang’s statement that India and China are ancient civilisations with a combined population of 2.7 billion, besides being the largest developing countries and neighbours, and – “China and India should be each other's partners in pursing our respective dreams... for growing our respective economies. Collectively we must make our due contribution to Asia's revitalisation and prosperity,” – was designed to highlight that the relationship between the two countries is to be viewed from its economic potential.

Also Read: China Again Blocks Bid to List Masood Azhar as ‘Global Terrorist’

China’s Balancing Act With Pakistan

The most important thing to understand in the China-Pakistan-India triangle is that it is not only the economic investment of billions of dollars China has poured into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but the Chinese human resource which is on ground to implement these projects, which is extremely vulnerable to the jihadist elements in Pakistan. There have been incidents of kidnappings and attacks by jihadists on Chinese citizens in Pakistan, because of animus flowing from Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims.

China’s actions in its provinces having significant Muslim population are seen as anti-Islam in Pakistan. The recent statements by China that their ‘reform and vocational training’ camps to curb fundamentalism and extremist tendencies are temporary measures, are not so much in response to western human rights campaigns, but to soften the sentiment in Pakistan, which is vital to ensure the safety and security of Chinese personnel in Pakistan.

This also leaves the Chinese establishment will little option but to pander to the demands of Pakistan’s military bosses, seeing that many Chinese citizens work in areas which are infested with militants, many of whom are backed by the Pakistani military.

Also Read: China Has Blocked India’s Bid to Ban Azhar: What Does it Mean?

Pakistan’s Snubs to China

Under these circumstances, Masood Azhar becomes a trophy for the Pakistan military to parade, and China blocking India’s move on Azhar proves that the countries are ‘iron brothers’.

Having sunk enormous amounts into CPEC, it has become a point of no return for China. The messaging from Pakistan to China has also been quite troublesome in the past two years. Pakistan has been progressively downgrading its participation in China’s events related to economic and legal cooperation.

Also, Pakistan’s representatives, who used to be invariably of the stature of advisors to the prime minister, ambassador and attorney general, have been consistently reduced to assistants and first secretaries, even for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) foreign ministry events. This clearly shows that Pakistan is trying to extract the maximum pound of economic flesh from China, and is not hesitant in conveying its snub to a highly protocol-oriented China.

India-China Relationship Can’t Be Seen Only Through Pakistan Prism

Also, with increased international isolation and hostility for its economic and connectivity projects and ways of doing business, an under-siege China ought to have a robust partnership and comity of interest with India, in vital areas of economic cooperation.

India is too big to apprehend any Chinese design of economic domination, and is required to do a nimble balancing act between China and the West. But it will be a fallacy to assess the Indo-China relationship through the prism of Pakistan alone, where, irrespective of any public posturing, China is itself faced with very hard choices.

Further, the Chinese establishment is aware that any precipitate action will inevitably lead to unleashing of proxies, which will present imminent danger and threats to its citizens operating there.

This also highlights the prospect that internally China and India can have a better private accord to find solutions to the problem of state-sponsored and state-backed extremism. The recent posturing by Pakistan to have Saudis in the investment mix (to the dismay of China), and hints of hostility towards China, if its iron brother does not give it a significant bailout, are all seriously troubling prospects which China faces.

China Should Treat Modi’s Utterances As ‘Election Bluster’

Perhaps the ‘Wuhan spirit’ Modi and Xi tried to forge was not to evaluate the India-China relationship through the Pakistan prism alone.

But how far Modi will stick to it in his public utterances in the face of elections and compulsions of a macho public response to Pulwama, is anyone’s guess.

For the Chinese, they will do well to treat all of it as election bluster. Nothing major is going to proceed in India anyway, until the elections are over. However, at the same time, one should be alert to the prospect of fringe elements within India being hostile to Chinese citizens and businesses. Any nuisance created by such elements will be damaging for India.

(The writer is the immediate past president of LAWASIA and has keen insights in the Asia Pacific region on issues relating to the rule of law, trade and economics. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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