The recent surge of tensions between India and Pakistan has brought the attention of the international community back on Kashmir. Yet, there is another player who has important interests at stake in the region, namely China. Its position must be examined to fully understand the strategic implications of the dispute as well as the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia and beyond.
China in the Kashmir dispute
Even though it is sometimes neglected, the Kashmir issue is a trilateral matter. Along with India and Pakistan, China is also part of the dispute. Around 20% of Kashmir is currently under Beijing’s de facto control as a result of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Yet, China’s revendications collide only with India.
There are two portions of Kashmiri territory administrated by the PRC but claimed by India, which are separated by the Siachen Glacier. The eastern part is Aksai Chin, that was occupied by Chinese troops during the 1962 war. The western half, on the contrary, was ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963, but India still claims it like the rest of Kashmir. Of the two, Aksai Chin is strategically the most important. While the risk of conflict is low and the line of control is generally respected, Beijing is determined to keep it under its authority due to its great strategic importance.
As a matter of fact, Aksai Chin is a pivot zone that the PRC must control to pursue its geopolitical ambitions. The area connects the two Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, both affected by separatist tendencies and both essential for Beijing to extend its influence towards Central and South Asia, notably in the context of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
In this regard, Aksai Chin is also the crossroad for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, that is being constructed to connect China’s land-locked western provinces with the Indian Ocean and its lucrative maritime trade routes. But Aksai Chin is also useful for Beijing in the context of the broader geopolitical competition with New Delhi.
While it does not want high tension along the border and even less an open war, the PRC exploits the existing border disputes with India to keep a certain pressure on it so to hamper its rise and prevent it from becoming a peer competitor. By doing so, Beijing obliges New Delhi to consume resources that it could otherwise employ to develop its economy or build its naval power, both things that would enable it to rival China.
It is notable that China’s claims over another contended region, namely the Indian-controlled Arunachal Pradesh, serve mainly to preserve the control over Aksai Chin by distracting India from there.
India’s views on the Chinese presence in Kashmir
While there is some degree of cooperation in the form of trade and negotiations to solve the existing disputes, India perceives China as a geopolitical rival and potentially a threat to its own national security. After an initial period of friendship immediately after they gained independence in the late 40s, the relations between the two powers soon cooled down to the point of degenerating in the aforementioned 1962 war. Since then, New Delhi has regarded Beijing with suspicion, even more as it began rising as a major power.
India is concerned about China’s military presence along their long border, but also of its increasing naval power, of its geopolitical initiatives like the OBOR and most importantly of its close relations with Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Beijing and Islamabad have been fostering very deep ties in the past few years in various domains. They cooperate diplomatically by supporting each other-s interests in international organisations, they are strengthening their defence ties with the purchase of Chinese weapons systems by Pakistan, and finally the two are working together to build the CPEC.
China has already invested billions of dollars in the construction of infrastructures such as power plants, roads, communication centres and the Gwadar harbour; that is supposed to become a major hub for maritime trade. Of course, as a result of a decade-long enmity with Pakistan, India does not see all this in a positive light; and is becoming more and more distrustful towards China as well: in short, New Delhi considers Beijing’s initiatives in South Asia and the Indian Ocean as a deliberate strategy to encircle India and hamper its rise.
The dispute over Aksai China is to be interpreted in this context. Considering the close relations between China and Pakistan, including in security terms, India fears that its two rivals may join their forces and threaten its national security. Beyond the symbolic value of the issue and the economic aspects, namely controlling the waterflow of the Indus river, India’s interest in controlling the whole of Kashmir is largely motivated by its desire to keep China and Pakistan separated so to avoid this double military menace.
Moreover, it has also become a mean to undermine the CPEC project. In this regard it is worth mentioning another point of strategic interest for New Delhi, namely the Siachen Glacier, which is currently under its control. As mentioned before, this high-altitude frozen area of the Karakoram range it is located right where the parts of Kashmir administered by India, China and Pakistan converge. As such, India regards the Glacier as a pivotal point to keep China and Pakistan separated.
China’s stance on the latest crisis
This overview shows that Kashmir is also important in the optic of the Sino-Indian relations, and is becoming even more significant given the recent geopolitical trends. Yet, none of the three powers wants and escalation, including China. At the peak of the crisis, in spite of its close ties with Pakistan, the PRC did not intervene in its support. Instead, it joined many other countries in calling both sides to act with caution and avoid an escalation.
The reason is that it is not in China’s interest to have a high-tense confrontation along its south-western borders. While it indeed acts to maintain a certain pressure on India for the reasons noted before, it does not want it to become a fully hostile power. Beijing’s main focus lies eastwards aon the Pacific Ocean, where it is struggling to expand its naval power, where it is asserting its claims over the South China Sea, where it is coping with the US and its Japanese ally, and where it seeks to bring Taiwan back under its control.
In this context, having a tense relation with India would force China to divert precious resources to a secondary area. This would also mean becoming engaged on two difficult potential fronts and being virtually encircled by rival powers except to the north, where Russia remains friendly, at least for the time being. New Delhi is already tilting towards Washington, Tokyo and Canberra in the framework of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Therefore, China must act carefully to avoid pushing India further into America’s arms.
This explains Beijing’s stance in the recent crisis over Kashmir. It called for a de-escalation on both sides and invited them to a diplomatic settlement. Chinese government-related media such as the Global Times have repeatedly stressed the need to reduce tensions and to promote trilateral cooperation to foster economic development and fight terrorism. Another article suggested the mediation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a supranational body sponsored by China and Russia of which both India and Pakistan are members.
On their part, Indian media have been more sceptic about China’s goodwill. The Times of India noted how China put a technical veto on a UN Security Council resolution that would have designated as a “global terrorist” organization the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammed group, which performed the attack against Indian soldiers that led to the latest crisis in Kashmir; all just ahead of a meeting between the foreign ministers of China and Pakistan. Again, the same newspaper reported that US officials have warned Pakistan to take concrete action against terrorist groups that strike targets in India, all while mentioning that China is also responsible for protecting Pakistan in international organizations.
Conclusion: Kashmir and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific
The dispute over Kashmir has been at the core of the India-Pakistan rivalry for decades, but now it is getting an unprecedented international relevance. China and India, each controlling a portion of its territory, are both rising and are engaged in a geopolitical competition.
The Sino-Pakistani partnership is stronger than ever, and New Delhi is tempted to align with Washington and other like-minded capitals to counter Beijing’s influence. The whole dynamic goes well beyond Kashmir and its specific problematics, but at the same time one thing is sure: the region should be monitored attentively, since what happens in Kashmir can now influence the great power alignment in the entire Indo-Pacific region and have major geopolitical repercussions.