China, Pak & Kashmir: Testing time for India

Columnist  | K C Singh

Opinion, Columnists

China, reportedly supported by Britain, sought some outcome or at least a press statement on the meeting held on Friday.

While India has deflected the Pakistani move to internationalise the Kashmir issue, even friendly nations like the United States, France and Germany would want normality restored quickly.

Pakistan sought from the UN Security Council a discussion on the threat to peace and security arising from India’s constitutional amendments eliminating Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. China, as a permanent UNSC member, supported it, and sought a “closed-door” meeting. Rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council, last updated in 1983, provide for a “private” meeting convened by its president, as an exception, as meetings of the UNSC should normally be public. Its record is filed with the UN Secretary-General and not intimated to non-members of the UNSC.

China, reportedly supported by Britain, sought some outcome or at least a press statement on the meeting held on Friday. But a majority overruled that demand, compelling the permanent representatives of both China and Pakistan to make press statements.

Pakistan claimed victory, arguing it had successfully internationalised the Kashmir issue, when in reality it failed to get the UNSC to unite behind its charges. Chinese ambassador Zhang Jun condescendingly asked India and Pakistan to “refrain from taking any unilateral action” to avoid exacerbating an already “tense and very dangerous” situation. Considering external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s Beijing sojourn over the preceding weekend, following an unscheduled visit by the Pakistani foreign minister, the Chinese actions need deciphering.

It is clear that while China will not abandon its ally Pakistan in its moment of trial, nor does it want a new hurdle in Sino-Indian relations. Its seeking a private meeting perhaps also betrayed a lack of confidence in securing wide support, which an open meeting would have demonstrated. The ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong have also been a major distraction for China, which it perceives as an American conspiracy to pressure Beijing in tandem with the ongoing trade war between the two major economies. Ironically, China’s Hong Kong dilemma mirrors the Indian government’s reasoning behind the abrogation of Article 370 as the non-tenability of one nation having two constitutions. The 1997 Sino-British agreement on a peaceful transfer of Hong Kong to China was premised on the assured autonomy of the decolonised territory on the principle of “one country, two systems” for the next 50 years. While the 99-year lease was then running out for large parts of Hong Kong, Britain held almost 14 per cent of the total area as ceded, and not leased, territory. Nevertheless, the UK agreed to transfer it in entirety as part of the deal.

The demand for electoral reforms in Hong Kong kicked off the Umbrella Movement in 2014. This has now mutated, after the proposed extradition law, into a call for greater autonomy if not independence, presenting a direct challenge to Chinese Communist Party’s control. August 5, when India announced an end to Article 370, was also when a general strike in Hong Kong disabled the airport and mass-transit network. While New Delhi followed up with mass internment of political leaders and activists, besides imposing a lockdown on the newly divided and downgraded state, China so far merely sabre-rattled by moving Chinese troops closer to the city’s border. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was 20 per cent that of China, while now it is a mere three per cent. However, it remains a vital route for foreign investment and the preferred location for Western banks and financial institutions due to its reliable legal and political systems. China stands to lose much of that, besides generating tensions in relations with the United States and its Western allies, if any security intervention led to a repeat of Tiananmen Square 1999.

While India has deflected the Pakistani move to internationalise the Kashmir issue, even friendly nations like the United States, France and Germany would want normality restored quickly. This is unlikely if a fresh delimitation, alluded to by the Election Commission, and Article 35A’s abrogation threatening demographic changes make it appear that New Delhi is in effect shifting the electoral balance in favour of Jammu. No successful counter-terror policy has historically worked without reaching out to the minds and hearts of the populace. The global community will be happy to leave the Kashmir issue for a bilateral settlement between India and Pakistan, provided a quick balance is found between respecting human rights and counter-terrorism.

The minister of state attached to the Prime Minister’s office has argued in an interview that even young leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have no role to play in the future. This is a surprising statement as historically the aura of leaders, sprcially in India, grows when incarcerated. In fact, the BJP would not be in power today had their top leadership not been interned during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Another reasoning given for the government’s Kashmir gambit is the anticipated instability caused by militants emboldened by Taliban’s likely success in Afghanistan, exactly as it happened after the 1988 Soviet withdrawal. This is faulty reasoning as the militants were able to find fertile ground in Kashmir due to the rigging of the 1987 election. This mistaken reasoning will become a Thucydides’ trap for the government as it has, by alienating the people of Kashmir, made militants’ recruitment easier. India always argued that the 1948 UN resolution mandating a plebiscite became redundant after the Shimla Agreement and due to the periodic free and fair elections allowing people to express their political preferences. The danger of a mass boycott of any election lingers this time, particularly if on offer is the system akin to Delhi and Puducherry.

The Narendra Modi government may have, like demonetisation, been more brave than wise in dramatically redrawing J&K’s political and territorial boundaries. Its outcome may not be known for years, though it has consolidated majoritarian support for a government staring at a bleak economic scenario. Internationally, Britain faces a politically messy Brexit and possible elections, making it vulnerable to pressure from pro-Pakistani constituencies, working with disruptive pro-Khalistan elements. US President Donald Trump, who needs success in Afghanistan, may retry to assuage Pakistan feelings after its current UNSC setback. Russia may stay in line due to renewed defence purchases, but China is the wild card, balancing its strategic relationship with Pakistan against India’s potential as an Asian market. The under-negotiation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can open for China new opportunities in India, while mishandled Hong Kong can adversely hit trade and economic relations with the US and the West.
The BJP has allowed its ideological predilections and the Mr Modi’s penchant for the novel to attempt a risk-prone political leap. The coming months will show its wisdom or futility.