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The China-Pakistan Nexus


Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla




The China-Pakistan relationship goes back to the early 1960’s - 1963 saw the boundary agreement, and served notice of a new axis emerging in the Indian subcontinent. Under this agreement, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir [J&K] to China at a time when India and Pakistan were engaged in serious negotiations over J&K, after the 1962 India-China war. Not surprisingly, it effectively destroyed any prospect of a settlement between India and Pakistan.

But it was the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war that brought out the strength and closeness of China and Pakistan, and the danger this posed to India in a military sense. It is worthwhile going into some detail on this, as there is a general belief that China has never intervened in any of the India-Pakistan wars. In fact, China issued two ultimatums to India during the course of the War. The first was on 8 September and in its Note, the Chinese warned that an Indian attempt to take over Pakistani territory would entail “grave consequences”. This was in response to the Indian decision to cross the international boundary on 6 September in response to the Pakistani attack in J&K. An Indian combined arms attack was then heading inside Pakistani territory towards Sindh and Lahore.

This was sufficiently serious a matter for a discussion between the Indian and American leaders, and within the US itself. President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara agreed that the US needed to prepare for a contingency where China would get involved. Johnson felt that the Note of 8 September indicated intent to get involved; the US could not then be caught unprepared, they agreed. The Indian leaders also approached the Soviet leaders, Brezhnev and Kosygin, then less than a year in their jobs.

The Chinese followed up with a second Note on 17 September. This was an ultimatum, and referred not to the India-Pakistan war, but to bilateral disputes, though the purpose was clear: to ease the pressure on Pakistan. It accused India of illegal constructions on the Chinese side of the border with Sikkim and demanded that these be dismantled by 20 September. There were also intrusions and firing on both the eastern and western sectors. Prime Minister Shastri was sufficiently concerned about this ultimatum to approach the US for consultations under the Air Defence Agreement, the only Cold War defence agreement between the two countries, signed during the Kennedy Administration. The US declined, but advised that they were restraining the Chinese through the talks they were conducting between the two Embassies in Warsaw.

We also approached the Soviets, who also made appropriate demarches in Beijing, but relations between the two were already in decline, and it is not clear what effect Soviet advice had. Nonetheless, at the end of the war, the Indian Government thanked both the US and the USSR for their role in restraining the Chinese.

What is important to note is that the Chinese did extend their deadline from 20 to 22 September, and that was the date on which India accepted the UN-brokered ceasefire, which then came into effect, since Pakistan did likewise. We have it from the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh that he had opposed the ceasefire, so we can only speculate whether the Chinese ultimatum weighed with Shastri in disregarding Arjan Singh’s advice. Perhaps it was one of the factors.

The second major episode was the 1971 War for the liberation of Bangladesh. Active hostilities began on 3 December and ended on 16 December, with the Pakistani surrender in Dhaka. The Chinese this time were much more restrained, for which there were two obvious reasons. The first was the Indo-Soviet Treaty, signed in August 1971. The archival record shows that both the US and China were greatly exercised over the fighting, and each pressed the other to do more to help Pakistan. But the USSR put out a TASS Statement on 5 December, which effectively warned off the Chinese from any interference. In fact, the leader of the Chinese delegation to the UN General Assembly recognised the reality in the following words:

On December 5, TASS published a statement which is full of the smell of gunpowder. It clamours that the tension between India and Pakistan has threatened the so-called interests of the security of the Soviet Union and that it cannot remain indifferent. This is blackmail and is a menace to China…

[Peking Review, No. 51, 17 December 1971]

The Americans also approached the Shah of Iran, and he was even more explicit. He stated clearly that, in the light of the Indo-Soviet Treaty, he was not prepared to confront the Soviet Union, and help Pakistan with arms and materiel.

Despite this, the Chinese did try to put pressure later as the war progressed, and Pakistan and its protectors apprehended that India was preparing to attack the western half as well. Kissinger noted in his contemporary assessment of the war for President Nixon that the Chinese note warned India about encroachment and intrusion by Indian troops across the Sikkim border, and asked for this to be reversed immediately. [FRUS 1971 Vol XI, Doc 319, 16 December 1971]

The second obvious reason is that the Cultural Revolution was at its height at this time. Amid the turmoil, the Armed Forces were not ready for a confrontation – least of all with the USSR, which was raring to use nuclear weapons against China, if American reports are to be believed. More important, the designated heir to Mao and a leading figure in the Armed Forces, Lin Biao had also defected. He was killed in September 1971 when the plane he was flying in crashed in Mongolia, while he was apparently fleeing out of China – though the circumstances of this episode remain a mystery.

A similar pattern of behaviour is evident during the Kargil War of 1999, though the Chinese displayed more restraint. Again, the reason is not hard to fathom – the US had cauterised the fighting by imposing restraints on all sides, and the Chinese had worked out an understanding with the US reflected in their joint statement issued in 1998 after the nuclear tests. But still, there was an attempt to tie down Indian forces on the Line of Actual Control.

The important conclusion to draw from these episodes is that, in the military field, the Chinese commitment to Pakistan is strong and consistent. Such restraint as has been evident has been the result of deterrence by the Soviets as in 1971, or persuasion by the Americans as in 1999. Today, these factors are absent or much weaker: the Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia is the weaker of the two – as most Russians themselves acknowledge. As for the Americans, their role in restraining China would probably continue, but the Chinese have built up their military capability to an extent where they may not heed American advice.

In this context, the recent remarks of a Chinese scholar, active in the South Asia Track 2 circuit, are worth noting. He said that China would have to get involved if there was any Indian attempt to destabilise Baluchistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. These remarks were made following Prime Minister Modi’s mention of these areas during his Independence Day speech on 15 August 2016. [HT 29 August 2016]

The argument so far has been to establish that the Chinese commitment to Pakistan in the military field is serious, and Indian planners would be well-advised to take cognisance of this reality, especially in the event of a future confrontation or actual war. The factors of restraint that had operated in the past no longer apply, either Soviet pressure, or American persuasion. In fact, the growing understanding between India and the US is itself emerging as a factor promoting an adversarial attitude among the Chinese.

However, the Chinese-Pakistani nexus goes beyond the military. In the economic and nuclear fields as well, and even on terrorism, there is an inexplicable and implausible alliance between them.

On the economic side, it was long argues, at least in India, that there was no real commitment to Pakistan on the part of China. This was factually true – but the answer was not because there was a lack of commitment. The answer was that as long as the US was willing to provide the funds required to keep the Pakistani economy afloat, the Chinese were comfortable standing aside. The reasons for the US to continue the funding, in the face of the destabilising role Pakistan was playing in Afghanistan were hard to fathom, and eventually even the US could not keep it going.

From around 2011, US subventions have been declining and the Chinese have stepped in now with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] with a pledge of $46 billion in energy and infrastructure projects. This is quite the biggest single-country commitment made by China. Even though many of the projects are funded by loans given by Chinese banks at commercial rates, if the past is anything to go by, much of this will end up being written off.

Still, it is not a given that these projects will pay off. Many of the Chinese investments in Africa and elsewhere have failed to provide the returns, either commercial or strategic, that were expected. In the case of Pakistan, there are well-advertised differences over the substance of the projects, their geographic locations and alignments. In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber-Pakhtunwa, and, above all, Baluchistan, there are demonstrations, and objections even at official and political levels. Obviously, India is concerned over the use of Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the territory under Pakistani illegal occupation, of the Princely State of J&K, and has made its formal demarches.

As the Chinese economy runs into its own economic difficulties, it will also find it problematic to continue such large-scale funding, even on commercial terms. To substantiate: it is frequently pointed out that China holds the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world. But, these are being drawn down rapidly, and have fallen from $4 trillion in 2015 to $3 trillion in some eighteen months. Additionally, China also has among the highest foreign debt and growing - $1.4 trillion – and servicing this will become more and more burdensome as US interest rates rise, and the Dollar also rises against the RMB.

All the same, what Chinese investments have done is to instil in Pakistan a sense that they can ignore American pressure, and continue their destabilising role vis-à-vis both India and Afghanistan. The response from India has, unfortunately, been vacillating. Instead of indulging Pakistan’s refusal to accord MFN treatment to Indian exports, we need to withdraw our grant of the same status to Pakistani exports to India. They are in violation of WTO rules, and this is one more example of how they are allowed to get away with flouting their international obligations.

Similarly, India should formally withdraw from the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. It is not enough to argue, as many do in India, that this pipeline has no real prospects. It is important for India to make it clear that it will not countenance Pakistan sitting astride its energy lifelines. Equally, so long as India is part of the project, it remains bankable, and remains on the international agenda, with some of the multilateral lending agencies also pushing it along.

With regard to terrorism, it is worth remembering that the Chinese did business with the Taliban when they were in power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. During this period, the two sides signed several economic cooperation agreements covering civil aviation, mining, and transport. And the Chinese have opened links with the Taliban once again in recent years, hosting them on two recent visits to Xinjiang, just before the four-way talks under the Quadrilateral Coordination Group [Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, USA] began.

Given the growing threat from Islamists in Xinjiang, one would expect the Chinese to be wary of the Taliban. The Chinese, in fact, have pitched this message in their Track 1 and 2 discussions in India, unfortunately with some success. But the real logic of their approach to the Taliban may be seen through the prism of the manner in which the US used the same forces, then called the Mujahideen, and the considerations that guided them. The main aim then, in the 1980’s, was to defeat the USSR. They understood the nature of the men they were using, but two considerations over-ruled their possible reservations. The first was that they were the only effective fighters against the Soviet forces, and defeating the Soviets was the paramount objective. The second was a conviction that Pakistan would hold these forces in check, and not allow them to threaten US interests.

The Chinese, mutatis mutandis, are being guided by the same considerations. Their aim is to defeat the US-led forces in Afghanistan, and if that means using these same Islamist forces, they can accept the risk for a higher prize. And, of course, they are also convinced that Pakistan will ensure that these forces do not hurt their interests.

How wrong this calculation is, they have had occasion to see for themselves, even if they would not learn from the bitter experience of the US. For the third time in the last two decades, the Chinese have had to close the border between Pakistan and Xinjiang because of terrorists entering from Pakistan. Still, it seems, the appeal of inflicting a humiliation on the Americans is strong enough to override all these potential troubles.

For India, there is a more troubling picture – this concerns the case of Masood Azhar and the Chinese refusal to allow him to be named under the UNSCR 1267 Committee as a terrorist. Back in 2008, the Chinese had also blocked the naming of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its key members, including Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, from being similarly named. This was just after the Mumbai attacks, in which 166 persons, including several foreigners, were killed. But on that occasion, the combined US and Indian pressure had persuaded China to withdraw its objection.

This time, over Masood Azhar, that pressure – if it is being applied - seems not to be working. This is further evidence that China is willing to stand up to international persuasion and pressure even in a clear-cut case of a terrorist. This is one more example of what India [and Afghanistan] can expect from the China-Pakistan nexus in the future.

The final aspect to be considered relates to nuclear and missile cooperation between the two countries. The full details of the content of this cooperation are still not known, but what is available publicly is serious enough. The Pakistanis took the decision to acquire nuclear weapons in 1972, though there had been interest in the issue ever since the Chinese nuclear test in 1964. A few years later, AQ Khan was to return to Pakistan with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s blessings, and to begin work on nuclear enrichment with the aim of developing a bomb. The story of Khan’s activities in West Europe, and the leniency with which he was treated is well-known.

However, the Chinese entered into this effort some time in the 1980’s, when the US was working with Pakistan to defeat the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and ignored reports of the nuclear plans and cooperation between Pakistan and China. Later, the Americans grew detached from the Afghan war as it was winding down; they were to invoke the Pressler Amendment in 1990, and impose sanctions on Pakistan. China at this stage reportedly even tested a device for the Pakistanis in their Lop Nor test site. It may be presumed that the design for the weapon was also provided by the Chinese themselves. This emerged from the exposure of the AQ Khan papers that were discovered with the Libyans after Col Gaddafi made his deal with the US, and handed over all the documents he had received from the Pakistanis. Many of the documents for bomb design were in Mandarin, and the design for the bomb was similar to the early Chinese devices.

China signed the NPT in 1992, so in a purely legal sense, it was not violating any laws by sharing this technology in the late 1980’s. But, even after 1992, China has continued its cooperation with Pakistan: the Khushab reactor, which is unsafeguarded, was built in stages from the late 1990’s, and is thought to be capable of producing 40 kg of weapons-grade Plutonium annually.

Further, on the plea of “grandfathering” new nuclear reactors, China continues to build Chashma 3 and 4, and Karachi 1 and 2. These are unambiguous violations of the NSG guidelines, but the Obama Administration was reluctant to take any action on this. It remains to be seen whether the new Trump Administration will take a more forthright stand.

There is a similar story of clandestine supply of missiles and missile technology from China to Pakistan through the decades. The beginning is in the early 1990’s, after the US stopped all military cooperation with Pakistan after invoking the Pressler Amendment. Among the most serious issues for Pakistan was the ban on the supply of F-16 aircraft, which Pakistan had modified for nuclear delivery. Initially, China supplied entire systems, including the M-11 missile and then switched to components shipped in crates, once the M-11 supply was discovered. These were spotted by several intelligence agencies, and the US imposed sanctions on both Pakistan and China. However, the Clinton Administration lifted these sanctions on both, and found a way out of the Pressler restrictions through the Brown Amendment, named after its author, Sen Hank Brown, which allowed a one-time waiver of Pressler.

Nonetheless, the missile cooperation continued. Some of it was direct, some of it was between North Korea and Pakistan. The former was seeking nuclear technology, and had developed missiles on the basis of the design of the Russian Scuds. Pakistani scientists made several trips to North Korea in order to help the nuclear programme along, and received missile components and technology in return, based on the Nodong missile, a medium-range missile.

China had also sought to limit India’s options by amending the CTBT draft to include the requirement that all the forty-four countries running nuclear plants had to sign the Treaty for it to enter into force. This was targetting India, and was a first in the history of treaty-making – to compel a third country to accede to a treaty. This was one of the major reasons that India was forced to veto the draft in Geneva in 1996 when it came before the Conference on Disarmament.

How have all these aspects manifested themselves in recent years? Probably the most important is a little-known document signed by the Chinese and the Pakistanis in 2005: their Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Neighbourly Relations. The text of this Treaty has not been released, but there are two aspects that are worth stressing, even on the basis of the summary released by the Chinese side. The first is the timing. This is the time that Pakistan was abandoning its supportive role in the US-led operations in Afghanistan, and gradually reviving the Taliban. The second is one of the major clauses, which states that China respects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Pakistan.

Inevitably, the Pakistanis put a spin on this to suggest that China is committed to defending Pakistan’s territorial integrity. True or not, it is hard to say; but what is observable is that from this time onwards, Pakistan was emboldened to undermine US interests in Afghanistan. Judging by the anti-Soviet Afghan war in the 1980’s, Pakistan was only willing to play the role it did if it had assurances of its security – and the Reagan Administration did so on a long-term basis. It would be safe to speculate that there is some sense of security that the Treaty provides, and that enabled Pakistan to re-build the Taliban and unleash them on the Afghan battlefield.

The existence of the Treaty is important to bear in mind, for the situation in each of these countries is shaky. President Trump has reached out to – or accepted the outreach of – Taiwan in a way that has unsettled China. While it is true that there is a commitment on the part of the US to One-China in its bilateral understandings with the People’s Republic, it is equally true that the Taiwan Relations Act pulls US diplomacy in the opposite direction. But apart from Taiwan, China has been facing long-term problems in Tibet and Xinjiang. Hong Kong has also emerged as a challenge to the “one-country-two systems” formula, with its obvious implications for Taiwan.

The Chinese economy remains unsettled, despite headline GDP figures that seek to reassure. Once again, the new Trump Administration threatens the economic relationship as well. All the talk of interdependence cannot conceal the fact that China needs the US market for its exports, because that is where it earns over half its trade surplus. And the Chinese nervousness over monetary tightening – recently referred to by Xi Jinping at Davos – is another factor of Chinese vulnerability. On top of all this, there is a major political transition due later this year when the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party meets.

Pakistan is similarly unsettled. The periphery is growing more turbulent, and Prime Minister Modi has become the first leader to make a public reference to the problems not only in Baluchistan, but also in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pashtunistan.

All these factors make for an emerging security environment that requires careful understanding and preparation. It is worth stressing that the Chinese have recently reorganised their Armed Forces, establishing joint theater commands. Under this arrangement, new military districts in Tibet and Xinjiang form part of the Western command – thus bringing the entire Indian border under one command, unlike the previous arrangement.

Tibet is, however, under the direct control of the Beijing-based Central Military Commission, and is headed by an officer of the same rank as the theater command. Here is how the paper, Global Times described the arrangement:

“After the [recent] military reform, most of the provincial military commands are now under the control of the newly established National Defense Mobilization Department of the Central Military Commission, and their priority is to the region's militia reserves and conscription. The Tibet Military Command, on the other hand, is under the leadership of the Chinese ground forces, which suggests that the command may undertake some kind of military combat mission in the future," a source close to the matter told the Global Times.

And further:

The Tibet Military Command bears great responsibility to prepare for possible conflicts between China and India, and currently it is difficult to secure all the military resources they need… [Emphasis added]

There also credible reports that Chinese troops are present on the Pakistani side of the LoC. According to reports, they are meant to provide protection to their workers in POK, but that is not convincing: protection is the job of the host government, and this is what Pakistan is doing along the CPEC. China has also provided Pakistan two ships for security of the maritime links to Gwadar port. Two more are to follow.

All of this suggests that there are serious security issues as a result of the growing nexus between China and Pakistan, which India would be well-advised to track closely, and find ways of neutralising the dangers they hold for us. This will require a mix of military means as well as active diplomacy. The Trump Presidency will create sharp discontinuities, and will be even more challenging for partners and adversaries alike. India must be ready with its own strategy, and coordinate its actions with the many like-minded countries in the region. The time for passivity is at an end.

January 2017,

New Delhi.

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