In one of his memorable essays titled ‘The Ego and the Realities’ scripted in 1939, Sri Aurobindo wrote that “it is not easy for the customary mind of man, always attached to its past and present associations, to conceive of an existence still human yet radically changed in what are now our fixed circumstances”. The current dynamic that characterises the relationships between India, China and Pakistan appears more real than illusory to the extent that the same can now be termed as “fixed circumstances”. It is also clear that while this may be inimical to Indian strategic aims within and beyond Asia, Beijing, with its empowered presence in the Indian economic arena and the strategic power vectors it commands in Islamabad, cares little about India’s sentiments.
The tone and tenor of statements emanating from Beijing prior to the BRICS meet in Goa underlined this mindset. A day after PM Narendra Modi dubbed Pakistan as “mothership of terrorism”, China mounted an all-out defence of Pakistan, claiming that it had made great sacrifices in fighting terror. There was no mention of terrorism in the statement issued by China after the meeting between Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit. The message was clear: Beijing will not allow Islamabad to be isolated diplomatically.
The plan designed by Beijing in strategic concert with Islamabad had one major thrust area. To frustrate India’s campaign against Pakistan for abetting cross-border terrorism. China has indirectly told us that as long as it’s around, we have to live with the terror originating from Pakistan. Earlier, it had blocked India’s efforts to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar listed as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council. India has reasons to be alarmed by the extent to which China has again begun deferring to Pakistan’s interests on key bilateral issues, reversing a two-decade trend that saw Beijing attempt to strike a balance between its ties with Islamabad on one hand, and a sensitive but growing relationship with Delhi on the other.
China’s repeated support to a globally recognised terrorist has been a reality check for the Modi government, which had harboured ambitions of rebooting ties with China, particularly after the PM’s May 2015 visit when Xi broke protocol to host him in his home province of Shaanxi.
The frequency of exchanges between the leaders of China and India has been maximal during Xi and Modi’s tenures, but where Delhi was concerned, four negations clouded the bilateral terrain more obsessively than ever. The first has been to deny India’s entry into the NSG, while the second is to persistently avert Azhar’s naming as terrorist by the UN. The third negative seeks pre-empting an early resolution of the Sino-Indian border issue, and the fourth juxtaposes upon the previous three with the refusal to grant credence to Delhi’s hopes that while crafting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the areas under Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, legitimate territory of Indian Union, would not be bypassed, in consonance with international obligations.
With each progressive contact with Indian leaders, the cold-shouldering of the country’s strategic interests seems to be reinforcing much to the detriment of India’s image in the world, notwithstanding Modi’s efforts to revitalise links with the world on a plank of transparency and mutuality of relations. The fact that Xi’s ambitious venture CPEC is largely premised on Pak goodwill for seamless initiation from the sensitive Balochistan, it remains to be seen how many more negations through Islamabad, Beijing would be using as leverage.
China’s stakes in Pakistan were raised soon after Xi’s government took over in 2013. That same year, he told the Communist Party’s central committee that ‘peripheral diplomacy’ would be his focus, starting with a plan to revive the Silk Road through a land belt to Central Asia and a ‘maritime silk road’ to the Indian Ocean. Xi decided Pakistan would be the fulcrum of the plan, with the land and sea arms converging at the unlikely location of Gwadar port in Balochistan that had come under Chinese management after the Singaporeans withdrew,citing huge losses.
China’s backing is not only justifying Pakistani inaction but is also damaging a core India concern. China’s diplomatic protection is encouraging Pakistan to adopt a more irresponsible attitude, including on issues of direct interest to India.
The campaigns to downplay, even neutralise, India’s cardinal security and diplomatic interests through corrosive Chinese machinations in the days ahead could continue. The rigidity embossed in the “fixed circumstances” is thus likely to sustain.
The writer is Former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat