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Revisiting China’s Kashmir Policy

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 01, 2010

    It is relevant to revisit China’s Kashmir policy as Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has reportedly raised “difficult questions” with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in his recent meeting with him in Hanoi on 29 October 2010. Dr. Singh is also told to have conveyed Indian feelings to Wen Jiabao that China needs to show “sensitivity” to India’s “core issues”. Although the details of this meeting are not available, it is not difficult to discern what the “core issues” discussed could be.1

    Recently, China has started the practice of issuing loose leaf visas to Indian citizens of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Very recently it refused to issue a visa even to Lt. Gen. B S Jamwal, the army commander in Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, just two days ahead of the meeting between the two leaders, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu made it clear that “China’s visa policy toward residents of the India-held Kashmir is consistent and remains unchanged.”2

    These recent Chinese moves concerning Indian state of J&K have direct implications for India’s sovereignty on Kashmir.

    In the post Indo-US Nuclear Deal (2005) period, there is apprehension regarding China’s Kashmir policy drifting back to the 1960s and 1970s, which will work against India’s core interests in Kashmir. China’s position on Kashmir was openly hostile to India and it was extending all-out support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue during the 1960s- 70s. Also, while China’s relationship with Pakistan has essentially shaped its understanding of the Kashmir issue, it has developed vested interests in Kashmir which may go against even Pakistan’s in certain scenarios.3

    India did not receive China’s unambiguous support for its stand on Kashmir even in the heydays of Sino-Indian friendship in the 1950s. Instead, China maintained a calculated silence on Kashmir. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declined to visit Kashmir – the visit was arranged by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for him during his India visit in 1956 – sensing that visiting the Indian side of Kashmir would be construed as Chinese support for India on the Kashmir issue.

    The reason for this silence on the Indian claim over Kashmir was probably that China was anticipating a conflict with India over Tibet; and it would have been embarrassing for it to withdraw support later in the event of that conflict. Besides, one should not forget that China and Pakistan had started improving their relations in the 1950s only. In 1956, the Pakistani premier visited China. Although vehement opposition to ‘US imperialism’ and tilt towards the USSR were core features of Chinese foreign policy in the mid-1950s, Pakistan’s close relations with the USA did not come in the way of its improving relations with China.

    1960s was the period when China and India fell apart after the 1962 war and China cemented its friendship with Pakistan. The 1960s witnessed the China-Pakistan relationship blossoming. Maoist China supported export of ideology during Cultural Revolution but Pakistan was considered an exception. Even extremist Maoist leaders discouraged any revolutionary struggle against the Pakistani government. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guard Organizations were set up in many Chinese overseas diplomatic missions. But a special directive was issued by the Chinese central authorities not to open it in Pakistan. The Pakistani ruling classes have perhaps never come under the ideological scanner of China and it has perhaps never analyzed their class character, which it has been fond of doing in relation to other countries.

    During the 1960s, China also supported the ‘Kashmiri cause’, right to self-determination for Kashmiris and right to armed rebellion by them against India. It issued threats to India during India’s military confrontation with Pakistan first in 1965 and then in 1971. It criticized the UN and the superpowers for imposing a ceasefire on Pakistan instead of taking action against India. In 1972, China acceded to a request by Pakistan to assist its nuclear programme.

    However, the 1980s witnessed a radical departure in China’s Kashmir policy at least at a formal diplomatic level. Indian Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1979 China visit became instrumental in bringing about this change. During the visit, Vajpayee reportedly raised the Kashmir issue with Deng Xiaoping and described China’s Kashmir policy as an unnecessary irritant in India-China relations. Deng accepted Vajpayee’s logic and in the year 1980 China declared that the Kashmir dispute was bilateral in nature (between India and Pakistan) and was a ‘left over’ of colonialism. It averred that India and Pakistan should resolve this issue between themselves through dialogue.

    This change in China’s Kashmir policy was also due to a paradigm shift on its domestic front. China under Deng Xiaoping was keen to jettison Maoist policies of confrontation which, in Deng’s understanding, was contributing nothing to China’s welfare. China thus readjusted its foreign policy and started a process of integrating with the global economy and looking forward to a peaceful and stable environment conducive for its economic growth. The change in China’s Kashmir policy in 1980s reflected this overall pattern in Chinese foreign policy.

    Since 1980, China has generally refrained from invoking any possible role of the UN in the resolution of the Kashmir problem, whereas Pakistan has consistently referred to the UN resolution for plebiscite in Kashmir.

    But here is the catch. China has all along ensured security support for Pakistan and given material and technological support for building Pakistani conventional and nuclear military capabilities. China has always maintained that its defence cooperation with Pakistan is strictly within the legitimate purview of relations between two friendly countries. During the period of Indo-Pak border tension in 1990, Kargil War in 1999 and India’s military mobilization in 2001-2002 on the Pakistan border in the aftermath of the December 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, China made it clear that its relations with Pakistan would remain unaffected. It also has been recorded that in the wake of these three crises, China’s defence cooperation with Pakistan increased.

    China knows well that it does not have the kind of leverage the US has in South Asia and its unsolicited offer of its good offices for third party mediation or advice for the two countries will find no takers in India. Besides, such uncalled for advice will irritate India and provoke it to take a tougher line against China. Although Pakistan prefers full Chinese support for its line on Kashmir, it empathizes with China’s predicament and settles for unfettered and uninterrupted Chinese defence cooperation. Why should it bother about perfunctory statements made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at all when China makes the nuclear bomb for it?

    Now in an era of closer Indo-US cooperation, China’s Kashmir policy is exhibiting a new pattern. China has seemed to revise its three-decade old policy of formal neutrality that considers the Kashmir dispute a bilateral issue. China’s newly developed practice of issuing loose leaf visas to Indian citizens of J&K and the increased level of its activities in POK are indicative of certain new trends in China’s Kashmir policy.4

    It is difficult to be convinced by the Chinese defence of the practice of issuing loose leaf visas to J&K residents. The so-called pressure of public opinion/nationalism against issuing proper visas is a very weak alibi. The public at large is hardly aware of the nitty-gritty of routine official work like issuance of visas. Moreover, we have not come across any media report from China which suggests such pressures on the Chinese government. Furthermore, while it is true that China has resorted to the diplomatic gimmick of not issuing visas to Indian citizens of Arunachali domicile in the past claiming that they do not need visa to visit China as they are Chinese citizens, not issuing properly stamped visas to the residents of J&K is certainly a new and deliberate tactic. Moreover, even if J&K is a territory with ‘disputed’ status in Chinese eyes, POK is also part of this dispute. But the residents of POK are issued properly stamped visas by China!5

    Recent Chinese moves on Kashmir are, no doubt, aimed at keeping its claim over Ladakh legally alive and helping Pakistan by creating a controversy over the status of J&K. Moreover, they are reflective of China’s broader strategic understanding of India in the post Indo-US nuclear deal (2005) period. In this period, China appears not to be very comfortable with India’s growth trajectory and its growing international political clout. At present, its strategic perception is that the US, India and Japan (and many other countries of Asia-Pacific also) are arriving at some sort of common understanding regarding China, which may culminate in a policy of containment. Therefore, it wants to checkmate India in Kashmir.

    We should know that China is the country which gains nothing out of a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir problem. In fact, both the US and former USSR/Russia have, from time to time, shown interest in the peaceful resolution of this issue. The US has been showing its interest since 1950s. It still tries to exert whatever pressure it can on both the countries – India and Pakistan – to resolve this problem.

    The USSR also actively encouraged India and Pakistan after the 1965 Indo-Pak war to resolve this problem. Both the superpowers thought that the peaceful solution of this problem was in their own strategic interests in South Asia and would help draw the parties closer to them. The USSR also wanted to torpedo growing Chinese influence in Pakistan. At present also, the US may want that this problem resolved so that Pakistan can focus more on the war on terror.

    The Kashmir problem gives China extra-ordinary leverage against India and leverage over Pakistan. Besides, POK and the more than 5000 square kilometers of Kashmiri territory, ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963, provide China with a smooth and assured connectivity to the Arabian Sea and West Asia, which has both strategic and trade significance for China. China will not like to loose this connectivity or compromise it in the event of a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. Here, at this point, China’s interests in J&K go opposite to those of Pakistan. The best case scenario for China in Kashmir is that the issue is never resolved; and if this issue inches towards any kind of resolution, China should be considered a party to the Kashmir dispute.