China’s game-changing strategy in Afghanistan-India-Pakistan triangle

Some statements made in the first week of September in Beijing, Islamabad and Delhi have raised eyebrows given their strategic and political content.

Published: 16th September 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th September 2017 07:50 PM   |  A+A-

Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Some statements made in the first week of September in Beijing, Islamabad and Delhi have raised eyebrows given their strategic and political content. The first statement came from Delhi on September 6 when India’s Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat said, “As far as China is concerned, the flexing of muscle has started. The salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about. As far as our western neighbour Pakistan is concerned, we don’t see any scope of reconciliation.” Notably, the statement came in the wake of an affirmation, a day earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Xiamen, China, where both agreed to seek a “constructive and forward-looking approach” after the tense Doklam military standoff between the two countries.

A subsequent statement on September 7 by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi from Beijing to the effect was: “Sino-Indian relations are not derailed. Sino-Indian development represents the future of the world... win-win co-operation is an inevitable choice and the correct direction for Sino-Indian ties.”
The third important statement came from Islamabad, from where the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa tactfully dwelt on an advisory to Delhi, that, “the welfare of millions of people in these two countries is linked with permanent peace. Instead of insulting Pakistan and using force against Kashmiris, it is in India’s favour to seek resolution of the dispute through diplomatic and political means.”

The content of the statement of the Indian Army Chief on possible ‘salami slicing’ of Indian territory, reflects a mature mindset of a nation subject to over 70 days of an eye-to-eye standoff with a highly militarised neighbour who had  chipped away more than 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in 1962 war. Naturally, the Chinese side was taken aback by its frankness of expression, never combated earlier by Beijing.

Correspondingly, the statements from Beijing and Islamabad, too, hold a substantive degree of strategic relevance, tilting somewhat as they seem to, towards more congenial ties than attained hitherto fore. But, Delhi still has to reckon with the probability that in any area of unmitigated military tension, an overt set of tactics worked out in tandem by its two hostile neighbours could possibly be also backed up by integrated molecules of a covert strategy, seeking much larger military ends.

Notwithstanding those ends and targets, the fact remains that the Pakistan polity currently is on the verge of confronting a potentially grim internal turf war. Ever since the Supreme Court has shown the door to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, internal variances in the choice of his successor for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have reinvigorated Pakistan Army’s hopes of upgrading its stake to more decisive levels within the country’s fragile democracy. Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif soon after his ouster had to rush to London to be with his ailing wife.

Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, seen as a possible successor to his legacy, has already spread the message that her father’s judicial ouster was flawed and has accordingly been rejected by the Pakistani people. Beijing, with a friendly connect with both Sharif and the Pakistan Army’s general, can be expected to reconnect more vigorously with Islamabad’s current political and military mentors when Afghan dynamics of a reactive Taliban come to fore once more.

Meanwhile, China and Pakistan, with or without Iran, seem to be working on a new Afghan peace plan that keeps NATO and the US Forces out, and in turn pre-empting even a minuscule role for India. Talks with Taliban, the prime agent to be involved in any such game-changing strategy, now seem inevitable for any fruition of intent on lines planned, alongside Beijing’s unwavering endorsement and financial support. If and when the Afghanistan ground gets too rough to handle, Beijing has already a lot on its global plate of options.

Beijing’s ongoing leveraging of its economic power in the international arena is premised on intense projection of its Belt and Road Initiative, involving an investment commitment of over one trillion dollars. Attempts to mollify India to partake of this humungous venture through an advocated entry into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are likely to continue as the context of the recent statement by Wang Yi suggests.

Mohan Das Menon

Former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

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