The China Factor in the India-Pakistan Conflict

By Malik, Mohan | Parameters, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The China Factor in the India-Pakistan Conflict


Malik, Mohan, Parameters


The war clouds in South Asia have receded following high-level US diplomatic efforts and the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops along their 1,800-mile border. However, concerns over the outbreak of yet another war between India and Pakistan have not completely disappeared, particularly in view of General Pervez Musharrafs inability and unwillingness to deliver on his promise to permanently stop terrorist incursions into Indianheld Kashmir and India's position that it retains the right to take military action if this promise remains unfulfilled. (1) If Islamabad escalates cross-border infiltrations or if militants launch a series of spectacular attacks, then New Delhi will be forced to respond in some way. (2) Interestingly, India has now appropriated the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemption.

A number of recent developments, such as the emergence of pro-Taliban Islamic parties as the third-largest force in Pakistan's October 2002 parliamentary elections, Islamabad's seemingly halfhearted efforts to tackle the al Qaeda menace, revelations of a Pakistan-North Korea nuclear missile proliferation nexus, and, last but not least, the Indian government's growing disillusionment with Washington's reluctance to get tough with Pakistan for fear of destabilizing the Musharraf regime, suggest that the conditions surrounding the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff are likely to worsen over the next few years. (3) The two nuclear-armed countries also have embarked upon an arms-buying spree, preparing themselves for the next war.

The recent India-Pakistan crisis has highlighted again the long shadow that Asia's rising superpower, China, casts on the Indian subcontinent, especially during times of heightened tensions. Though the roots of the India-Pakistan animosity are deep-seated in religion, history, and the politics of revenge--and thus predate India--China hostility--China's strategists recognize the enduring nature of the India-Pakistan enmity and exploit it to Beijing's advantage. In fact, Beijing has long been the most important player in the India-Pakistan-China triangular relationship. Since the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, China has aligned itself with Pakistan and made heavy strategic and economic investments in that country to keep the common enemy, India, under strategic pressure. Interestingly, China's attempts to improve ties with India since the early 1990s have been accompanied by parallel efforts to bolster the Pakistani military's nuclear and conventional capabilities vis-a-vis India. It was the provision of a C hinese nuclear and missile shield to Pakistan during the late 1980s and 1990s that emboldened Islamabad to wage a "proxy war" in Kashmir without fear of Indian retaliation. (4)

While a certain degree of tension in Kashmir and Pakistan's ability to pin down Indian armed forces on its western frontiers are seen as enhancing China's sense of security, neither an all-out India-Pakistan war nor Pakistan's collapse would serve Beijing's grand strategic objectives. Concerned over the implications of an all-out war on China's southwestern borders since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, Beijing has been keeping a close watch on the fast-changing situation and has taken several diplomatic-military measures to safeguard its broader geostrategic interests in Asia. Since most war-gaming exercises on the next India-Pakistan war end either in a nuclear exchange or in a Chinese military intervention to prevent the collapse of Beijing's closest ally in Asia, this article examines China's response to the recent India-Pakistan crisis and China's likely response in the event of another war on the Indian subcontinent.

Beijing's Response to India-Pakistan Tensions after 9/11

Since the late 1 990s, China had become increasingly concerned over the gradual shift in the regional balance of power in South Asia, driven by the steady rise of India coupled with the growing US-India entente and the talk of "India as a counterweight to China" in Washington's policy circles, and by Pakistan's gradual descent into the ranks of failed states. …

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