As two giant countries sharing a common border, India and China have a host of issues between them that they need to sort out and work together. From border disputes to concerns over river waters, from trade imbalances to safety of investment and market access, from freedom of navigation in the maritime space to ensuring energy security, from mutual suspicions over containment policies and strategies being pursued for counter-balancing to building on mutual interests in bilateral, regional and global security, including the issue of terrorism, it is an endless list of things that both countries have to deal with. Many of these will come up for discussion when the Chinese President Xi Jinping visits India. But there is one major irritant, or if you will, fly in the ointment – Pakistan – which if addressed will go a very long way in lowering many of India’s concerns and suspicions regarding China.
For around fifty years now, China’s Pakistan Syndrome has been a red rag for India. The way India sees it the glue that has bound China with Pakistan has been India. There is enough evidence on record to back India’s assessment that both China and Pakistan embraced each other in order to contain and constrain India. For China, Pakistan was a perfect tool to keep snapping at India’s heel, and for Pakistan, China served as the big guy on the block to keep a check on India. Other than this, there is little that China has to gain from Pakistan, except perhaps for the fact that it serves as a dumping ground for many of its products and technology coupled with the benefit that China gets from the sort of neo-colonial economic and strategic relationship it has built with Pakistan. The icing on the cake is not only the massive commissions that accompany the deals with Pakistan, but also the ease with which anything that China sells is accepted by Pakistan in order to preserve and buttress its ‘all-weather friendship’ with China.
While a cynical case – enemy’s enemy is a friend – could have been made for China-Pakistan compact fifty years back, that time is now long gone. Persisting with this sort of a strategy is now only going to yield diminishing returns, more for China than for Pakistan. Today the dictum that China needs to follow is “a wise enemy [in case of India, a competitor and not enemy] is better than a foolish [and destructive] friend”. To put it differently, China has far more to gain – diplomatically, strategically, and economically – from engaging India than from remaining wedded to Pakistan. The choice before China is to either play for the small benefits it gets from its neo-colonial relationship with Pakistan or to make a pitch for the big game and benefits that will come by engaging India and disengaging from Pakistan.
With India’s economic, diplomatic and strategic options opening up in terms of its budding relationship with the US, Japan and other countries on China’s rim, China will need to make a call on whether Pakistan even serves any useful purpose anymore, more so in light of the steady slide of Pakistan towards failure and extremism, something that forced President Xi Jinping to ‘postpone’ the Pakistan leg of his tour. Despite the heartburn and embarrassment that the ‘postponement’ caused in Pakistan, and notwithstanding the reassuring words uttered by Mr Jinping about China’s commitment to its relationship with Pakistan, this is as good a time as any for China to re-evaluate its Pakistan policy.
For a couple of years now, there are some indications and pointers that there is growing concern in China about Pakistan. There is also some sort of an incipient rethink underway in Beijing, which is borne out by the fact that the Chinese are now engaging India to talk about both Afghanistan and Pakistan (something that they never did before). The reasons for this are clear. There is growing disquiet in China over the export of radical Islam and terrorism from Pakistan into China. Although the Pakistanis are ostensibly leaning over backward to address Chinese concerns – the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan is partly aimed to reassure China – the Pakistanis are known to play double-games, especially where it involves the Jihadists. Even if these double-games do not have China in the cross-hairs, there is bound to be a spill-over of Pakistani flirtation with Jihadism in China’s restive Xinjiang province and beyond. Questions are also starting to be asked about how secure Chinese investments in Pakistan will be, especially if Pakistan continues to slide towards chaos and anarchy. This is a question that acquires even greater salience in light of ambitious plans involving an investment of anywhere between $30-50 billion to develop an Economic Corridor from Gwadar to Kashgar.
Apparently, the Chinese believe that they need to pump in money in Pakistan in order to stabilise that country. This is quite similar to the misplaced arguments that are often made by the Americans who have consistently bought the nonsense that they could change Pakistan's rank bad behaviour and alter the trajectory of its inexorable slide by artificially propping it up through infusion of money. Of course, there is a big difference between how the Chinese and Americans pump in funds into Pakistan. Ironically, the Americans who don’t believe that there are any free lunches have been giving only free lunches to Pakistan; the Chinese, on the other hand, because of their socialistic pretensions subscribe to free lunches at least ideologically, but have never given any free lunch to Pakistan. They have always managed to extract their pound of flesh on the cheap from Pakistan. But with plans like the Economic Corridor, it seems that the Chinese too are starting to tread the beaten path of the Americans. But here’s the thing: if the Americans have got nothing to show for the treasure they have expended in Pakistan, the Chinese too will end up with nothing, for such is the nature of the beast that they are trying to sustain.
Given Pakistan's adherence to the ideology of political Islam and jihadism, it should be clear to the Chinese that Pakistan can never reconcile to an infidel China. India, on the other hand, has neither any civilizational conflict nor any other fundamental strategic conflict with China. The border dispute is in many ways a minor issue when seen in light of all the other areas in which India and China stand to gain from a closer relationship and even partnership. Even if resolving the border issue will take time, it can be easily managed until a mutually acceptable resolution is worked out.
On the economic front, apart from the sheer volume of trade between India and China (which dwarfs anything that Pakistan can offer), India is a safe, secure and profitable destination for Chinese investments (once again much more than Pakistan can ever hope to be). Chinese investments in India will be a win-win because they will not only address some of the problems emanating from the huge trade imbalance that exists between the two countries, but also fulfil India’s needs for rapid growth, which in turn will make Chinese investments even more productive and profitable.
Even in terms of connectivity, India can offer a better and safer Corridor to the Arabian Sea from China’s north-west than Pakistan can. India already has a railway line in the Kashmir valley and is working on connecting this to the rest of the railway network. Perhaps, this same line can be extended to China, at a fraction of the cost it will take to rebuild and restore the broken down Pakistan railway network. After all the geographical challenges in Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir are not much more than what China faces in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Perhaps, if the Kashmir route is not feasible, there are other areas which can be explored to provide connectivity from Kashgar to Kandla or Shigatse to Surat. Of course, any such project will only take off if there is sufficient confidence and trust, something that China will need to build with India.
Despite problems with China in the past, India has neither any intention nor any policy to contain China. But this may still happen, not by design but by default, if China is unable to adjust itself to the new emerging realities in the region. India has no choice but to work closely with the US and Japan, not so much with an eye on China but for its own development. India’s partners know that India will never become a pawn in their hands against China and there are enough reasons to believe that they are not even aiming for this. As far as they are concerned, India’s development will serve as a natural counter-balance to a rising China. This however isn’t a challenge for China but more of an opportunity to engage India in a mutually beneficial and profitable relationship. If however China remains wedded to the past and to Pakistan, this opportunity will be missed. China now needs to take a call on whether it wants India as a bridge to both the far-east and middle-east, or it wants India as an uncomfortable neighbour.