As the United States falls into a period of isolation, the international system requires another actor to fill its space, and right now, the obvious answer is China. As tensions rise in South Asia, India and Pakistan need a global mediator to quell the conflict before the conflict escalates into nuclear war.
China has a long-standing involvement in the region that dates back to the 2nd century B.C. through trading on the Silk Road. However, once the British Raj partitioned the region into separate states, China’s relationship with India and Pakistan ebbed and flowed based on U.S. involvement in the region. Considering diminishing Western influence in the region, China has begun to warm up to both nations, opening up the idea that China could be an essential actor in solving the Kashmir crisis.
Historically, China sided with Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir because of tensions with India over Tibet. Yet, as the United States began warming up to India in its resolve to spread global capitalism, China declared neutrality on the issue to maintain its interests in both states. Considering India’s current aggressions in Kashmir, China has again sided with Pakistan, declaring support for Pakistan’s “legitimate rights and interests.”[i]
However, despite supporting Pakistan, China still maintains their ties with India. During the G-20 summit in Summer of 2019, before the decision to revoke Article 370 was announced, Prime Minister Modi held a trilateral meeting with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. At this time, the Belt and Road Initiative was starting to gain steam in Eurasia, and India wanted to get involved. The initiative and who is involved is still progressing today. Prime Minister Modi claims that India, China, and Russia are “laying the groundwork for [an] equal and indivisible security architecture in Eurasia.”[ii]
Despite condemning India’s declaration of Jammu and Kashmir as Union Territories, China seems to remain committed to an improved economic relationship with India. A few months after criticizing Modi’s action, Xi Jinping traveled to India to discuss their future economic and trade ties.[iii] Against a background of never-ending border skirmishes, this new cooperation could represent a further turn for the Sino-Indian relationship. Considering the new deepening ties and China’s historical relationship with Pakistan, could China finally solve the Kashmir issue?
Since India revoked Article 370, China has repeatedly called upon India and Pakistan to peacefully resolve the issue without immediately getting involved.[iv] The United States, namely President Trump, has also offered to help solve the dispute. However, with the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, India is committed to limiting foreign intervention in the Kashmir issue, and the United States has essentially been forced to back down.[v] Nevertheless, Kashmir will continue to be on China’s radar. Considering their physical proximity to the region, an escalation of the Kashmir conflict would implicate China’s southern border, especially if India and Pakistan begin to employ nuclear weapons. Furthermore, China pursuing economic relationships with both states shows that they still have vested interests in the region.
However, unless China is willing to completely mobilize support behind Pakistan (unlikely, seeing that attention towards CPEC has subsided, and China is preoccupied with other issues), they will most likely only get involved if the conflict erupts into war. A war between India and Pakistan not only implicates China’s national security and economic interests but also their territorial claims to parts of Kashmir. Yet, it would not be unlike China to hold Kashmir as leverage, especially as it negotiates economic and trade issues with India.[vi]
At the same time, India’s aggressive nature is not without its disadvantages for its relationship with China. If war breaks out, they have the most to lose. China will most likely side with Pakistan, risking India’s attempts at stabilizing their trade imbalance with China. Internationally, conflict with China endangers India’s competing sphere of influence in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Finally, India jeopardizes losing more of Kashmir to China as it did in 1962. Although the Modi government will continue to pursue its Hindu nationalist objectives across the region, they must strategically avoid agitating China.
[i] Ankit Panda, “China Issues Statement Condemning Indian Decision to Bifurcate Kashmir,” The Diplomat, August 7, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/china-issues-statement-condemning-indian-decision-to-bifurcate-kashmir/.; Keegan Elmer, “China says it will support Pakistan ‘upholding its rights’ in Kashmir row with India,” South China Morning Post, August 10, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3022254/china-says-it-will-support-pakistan-upholding-its-rights.
[ii] Andrey Panevin, “Osaka G20: The Important Meeting Most Media Missed,” The Diplomat, July 2, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/osaka-g20-the-important-meeting-most-media-missed/.
[v] Sumit Ganguly, “The United States Can’t Solve the Kashmir Dispute,” Foreign Affairs, July 30, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/india/2019-07-30/united-states-cant-solve-kashmir-dispute.
[vi] Kunal Purohit, “How far will China go to support Pakistan’s position on Kashmir?”, DW, August 12, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/how-far-will-china-go-to-support-pakistans-position-on-kashmir/a-49993550.