China-Pakistan Collusion? 3 September 2013
China, India and Pakistan have an interesting triangular relationship. China and Pakistan strategically are very close, with significant trade, considerable Chinese investment in Pakistan, and, most importantly for Pakistan, with China providing advanced military materiel, often at concessionary prices. Allegedly, China also has helped Pakistan develop nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. For Islamabad, China is Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’. For China, a strong Pakistan offers the chance to ‘outflank’ India, particularly in the event of another China-India war. The first such war occurred in 1962, which vicariously encouraged China-Pakistan relations to become closer. The People’s Republic of China was then internationally ‘on the nose’ because of its aggressive communism, with Taiwan the favoured representative for all of ‘China’. Conversely, Pakistan was seen favourably as it was involved with some United States-led military alliances. Arguably, the situation now has reversed, with relations with China highly desired and Pakistan disliked because of its support for terrorists in Afghanistan or against India.
A potential benefit for China of close relations with Pakistan is that the latter could function as a ‘safe’ conduit for moving energy supplies overland to China rather than via the sea. China may be looking to develop an energy corridor from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in south-western Baluchistan, via Pakistan and the rugged Pakistan-controlled region of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), to Chinese Xinjiang. This route would be considerably shorter than going via the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and mainland China. It also would be more secure: India can control access to the western entrance to the strategic Malacca Strait, through which much Chinese shipping now must pass, because it possesses the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Currently, China and India relations are good, with two-way trade flourishing. Worth some $67 billion, it is heavily in China’s favour, much to India’s chagrin. Otherwise, the China-India relationship is difficult. There are major unresolved issues over their joint border and over possession of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state—Southern Tibet for China—and Aksai Chin, which is under China’s control but claimed by India because it was once part of the (disputed) former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The Shaksgam area just north of Aksai Chin, which Pakistan ceded to China in 1963, also is theoretically part of both the Kashmir dispute and the China-India dispute, as India also claims this former area of J&K. Beijing has stated that it is prepared to renegotiate ownership of Shaksgam if India and Pakistan resolve their dispute over J&K. This is unlikely soon. Indeed, China-India relations surpass India-Pakistan relations, with Beijing and New Delhi having completed 15 rounds of discussions since 1981 about their border and territory disputes.
One complication for India in the triangular relationship is the possibility that China and Pakistan might be colluding to India’s detriment. While there is no open-source information to confirm such collusion, it makes strategic sense. Recently, China has been more militarily assertive, even aggressive, along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) that separates Chinese- and Indian-held territory. Along the Line of Control (LOC) in disputed J&K, Indian and Pakistani exchanges have returned to their pre-2003 ceasefire levels. While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the Pakistan Army could undertake these actions autonomously, collusion between them is possible. There have been a number of high-level official China-Pakistan visits in recent years, while Chinese engineers, probably PLA, are helping Pakistani military engineers rebuild the Karakoram Highway (KKH) that crosses Gilgit-Baltistan. This strategic road was rendered impassable by a landslide in 2010, after which a large lake 20-kilometres long appeared. Travellers must now traverse this lake to travel between Kashgar, Xinjiang, and G-B’s largest town, Gilgit.
Interestingly, New Delhi appears prepared to renounce India’s supposed ownership of Gilgit-Baltistan, even though officially this region is an ‘integral part of India’. For India, its long-held way to resolve the India-Pakistan dispute over J&K is to convert the LOC into the international border. By doing so, India nominally would ‘lose’ the two (of J&K’s five) regions that Pakistan has controlled since 1947: Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Losing the former region, which is small, would not be significant; losing the latter region, which is large, would be. First, India would forego any chance of directly accessing Afghanistan, with which G-B shares a border in its north. Although such access would be difficult, China is considering constructing a road or rail link from Xinjiang to Afghanistan via the Wakhan Corridor, which runs immediately north of, and would be accessible from, G-B. Currently, India’s only way of accessing Afghanistan is via Iran or Pakistan. Second, it would allow Pakistan and China unchallenged control of G-B and the important Karakoram Highway that physically links both nations. Third, G-B (like Azad Kashmir) has significant hydro-electricity potential, with Pakistan intending to build a dam in this region. The Diamir-Bhasha Dam wall and electrical works will strategically be located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, which indisputably is part of Pakistan; the bulk of the dam’s water would be stored in disputed G-B. For energy-hungry India, controlling G-B would offer further energy possibilities.
A final interesting aspect of the China-India-Pakistan triangle concerns India’s control of the Arunachal Pradesh/Southern Tibet area. The Tawang Tract in Arunachal Pradesh’s west has long been sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, some of whom speculate that the Dalai Lama will reincarnate there—conveniently outside China’s control. This may partially explain China’s increased hostility in this area. Conversely, India has decided to raise new Mountain Strike Corps comprising 30,000-40,000 soldiers to counter aggressive PLA activities, including by striking Xizang (Tibet). This meshes with one of India’s major ongoing concerns: having to fight a two-front war against China and Pakistan, including in remote mountain areas of J&K and along the LOAC. While currently a remote possibility, strategic circumstances can change quickly.
3 September 2013