The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor constitutes one of the largest investments China has ever proposed to make under its ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. Estimated to be around $46 billion, the OBOR initiative has the potential to make China the epicenter of regional as well as global economics and geopolitics. China considers OBOR as an initiative to improve economic linkages between countries in South and Central Asia as well as a mechanism to enhance regional cooperation by developing trade and economic ties. Not surprisingly, it has major geostrategic significance for India: OBOR is bound to make Sino-Pakistan strategic relations blossom further as Pakistan assumes a key role under this massive infrastructural project. As this geostrategic embrace tightens and OBOR develops, it has major consequences for India.
Indian concerns regarding OBOR are many. The primary one is that a major part of CPEC passes through Pakistan administered Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan. This territory has been claimed by India since the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1947-48 which was a part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. India has vehemently opposed this corridor. When juxtaposed with the recent civilian unrest in the Kashmir valley, creeping Chinese influence in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir is an alarming development for India. A large number of Chinese flags recovered by Indian security agencies in the aftermath of protests in the Kashmir valley in June last year suggests a dynamic shift towards a growing Chinese role in Kashmir.
Read | < style="color: #960f0f">What CPEC means for South Asia
It has been suggested by some Indian strategic analysts that the corridor is being jointly developed by China and Pakistan not just for economic benefits but also “with a strategic intent of besieging India”, given OBOR’s passage through the disputed territory. The Indian government has expressed similar concerns when in 2015 Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj bluntly told her Chinese counterpart that India is opposed to OBOR. For India, China’s unilateral challenges India’s preferred multilateral model of regional connectivity and development in South Asia.
China’s response to such criticisms has been to impress upon India the economic benefits of OBOR. It has also clarified that it has no designs on encircling India. And as far as the Kashmir issue is concerned, China again reiterated its insistence on resolution of the Kashmir dispute through bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan. While proposingthat India join OBOR, Beijing has also warned India that disruption of the OBOR project would elicit a firm response.
The OBOR initiative seems to have also transformed China’s Kashmir policy in the region. In the initial years after Indian independence, China had taken a neutral stance on Kashmir. Calling it a bilateral dispute, Beijing refused to meddle. Chinese policy changed with the 1962 Sino-Indian War and because of its growing convergence with Pakistan in the subsequent decades. On Kashmir, India was perceived to be vulnerable. Chinese rhetoric henceforth supported the right of self-determination for Kashmiri people. It also actively supported Pakistan’s stance on the issue. Kashmir became a focal point not only in China’s strategy of pressurizing India directly, but also became an element in its military relationship with Pakistan.
Read | < style="color: #960f0f">OBOR: Asian Project or Pax Sinica?
In subsequent years, especially since the early 1980s, China again moved towards neutrality. Major reasons for this were two independence movements in two out of its five autonomous regions: Tibet and Xinjiang. While the presence of the Dalai Lama (Supreme Spiritual Tibetan leader) in India and thousands of Tibetan refugees in India remains a flashpoint and a potential cause of conflict between the two countries, China has increasingly sought to undermine the movement of independence in Tibet. Similarly, calls for independence by the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s only Muslim-majority province has led China to declare the entire movement a secessionist one. These two parallel events made it difficult for China to continue its support to the independence movement in Kashmir.
The Chinese stance on Kashmir has been that it is a dispute left unresolved by history and that both India and Pakistan need to resolve the dispute peacefully and through dialogue. In September 2016, the Chinese foreign minister stated: “China hopes that India and Pakistan can strengthen their communication and dialogue, properly handle differences, and improve relations and jointly safeguard peace and stability in the region.” But this has been coupled with comments like ‘China attaches great importance to the Kashmir issue especially to Pakistan’s relevant position’ which has made many in India doubt Chinese intentions.
What is, however, readily evident is that China does not, in any manner, recognize Indian sovereignty over Kashmir. The CPEC is nothing but a manifestation of this fact. China has utter disregard with respect to CPEC passing through Indian claimed territory (Gilgit-Baltistan). Had China considered the entire erstwhile territory of Jammu and Kashmir as disputed; it would have restrained itself from going ahead with CPEC.It only considers Indian administered Kashmir as disputed. Beijing is seemingly content to build an economic corridor in Pakistan administered Kashmir highlighting the inherent tension in its Kashmir policy.Though China has been cautious not to build any part of the corridor near the Line of Control in Kashmir, its own economic interests and the concerns of its all-weather friend Pakistan are now the determining factors in shaping China’s Kashmir policy.
Read | < style="color: #960f0f">Seizing the ‘One Belt, One Road’ opportunity
From India’s perspective, the challenges are mounting as the CPEC takes India almost to a point of no return in so far as reclaiming Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan is concerned. Since the 1972 Shimla agreement India has been willing to maintain the status quo along with a readiness to convert the LOC into international border in order to settle the Kashmir dispute once and for all. But successive Indian governments have also talked about reclaiming Pakistan administered Kashmir. It is difficult to see how such a policy can be operationalized post CPEC.
India can certainly reap some economic benefits by cooperating with China on OBOR. A trans-Himalayan economic zone of cooperation with Nepal and Bhutan can be developed as an extension of OBOR. This, along with a possible corridor linking Kolkata to China’s Yunnan province through Bangladesh and Myanmar, can significantly enhance regional connectivity and trade. However, Sino-Indian relations are facing multiple challenges today and a purely economic outlook might be difficult for Indian policy makers to pursue at this juncture.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.