It would be good to understand what could Pakistan gain in the India-China tensions, given its deep reliance on Beijing

by Shalini Chawla

Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa, recently made a statement on Pakistan’s Defence Day and Martyrs’ Day at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi that, “We (Pakistan) are facing the challenge that has been imposed (by India) in the form of a fifth-generation or hybrid war. Its (India’s) purpose is to discredit the country and its armed forces and spread chaos”. Pakistan has been reinforcing the narrative, targeting India’s military and diplomatic positioning, and strategic partnerships that Pakistan perceives could potentially challenge its anti-India strategy, which relies on sponsoring a proxy war through terrorism and anti-India propaganda with regards to Kashmir.

Apart from the obvious condemnation of Zhenhua, and the possibility of India trying to do the same thing to China—even if not at the same scale—it is clear there will be domestic implications. China’s strategic profiling helps fine-tune its India plan

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Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, a Pakistani diplomat, in his article published in The News on September 11, highlighted the strong probability of Pakistan opting for nuclear weapons against India to negotiate the issue of Kashmir. General Bajwa’s statement and Ashraf Qazi’s comments come at the peak of tensions between India and China. Pakistan and China share a deep strategic (and, now economic) alliance for decades and Pakistan is often (in recent times) satirically called a ‘colony of China’ with the growing Chinese investment and engagement. China remains the largest defence supplier to Pakistan, and between 2015-2019 more than 70% of Pakistan’s weapons came from China. There are concerns and discussions on the probability of a ‘two-front war’ against India in the wake of the frequently erupting tensions between India and China. It would be useful to analyse Pakistan’s leverages and gains during the India-China tensions.

A brief look into the history of the alliance would assist our understanding of the current scenario. Pakistan’s interest in, and approach to, China intensified in 1959 after the Tibetan revolt and flight of the Dalai Lama to India, which embittered the Sino-India relationship. A further boost to the Sino-Pak relationship came post the Sino-India border war in 1962. The two countries signed the Shaksgam Valley agreement in 1963 which laid the foundation of the Karakoram highway and provided the base for future defence and military collaboration. The Sino-Pak alliance witnessed significant development post-1965, due to three factors: first, during the 1965 War, China demonstrated sympathy and support for Pakistan; second, while Pakistan failed to win the war in 1965, its military, nevertheless projected it as a victory, especially in the air, and the thirst for high technology systems intensified; third, the US arms embargo led to the suspension of US military assistance to Pakistan.

For China, Pakistan is strategically important as a low-cost sustainable option to contain India and also the US expansion in the region. China’s thinking has been to militarily strengthen a military-run but insecure state (Pakistan) which would keep India perpetually distracted and slow down India’s growth. Although Beijing has maintained a No First Use nuclear doctrine, it supplied complete nuclear weapon technology and delivery systems to Pakistan. Islamabad has been more confident in conducting the covert war against India after it acquired nuclear weapons (1987), and it continues to rationalise the First Use nuclear doctrine and project a low nuclear threshold.

Chinese weapon exports to Pakistan started in the mid-1960s and have grown at an accelerated pace in the last two decades. Although the relationship commenced as a pure military alliance, it eventually flourished at the diplomatic and economic levels. Beijing has been making regular attempts to serve Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda by raising the issue of Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council. There have been a number of discomforting occasions where China extended its support to Pakistan and countered India’s moves to question and deter Pakistan’s strategy of terrorism. At present, Beijing is portraying Pakistan as a successful model of Chinese alliance to other smaller nations and, in a virtual meeting in July, China asked Nepal and Afghanistan to be like “iron brother” Pakistan.

It would be good to understand what could Pakistan gain in the India-China tensions, given its deep reliance on Beijing. China is celebrating two centenary celebrations (Liang Ge Yibai Nian) by aiming to achieve two goals; “build a moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021 and become a “major world power with pioneering global influence” by 2049. Given the Chinese ambitions, it looks unlikely that Beijing would wish to exercise the option of inciting Pakistan to initiate a conventional skirmish against India. This move would question China’s ability to deal with India (alone). This, to an extent, also explains the cancellation of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan. Islamabad is under significant stress due to its deteriorating economic condition, pressure from the international financial institutions (IMF), and the upcoming (decisive) Financial Action Task Force meeting in October. Given these realities, there is a reduced likelihood of a two-front war at this point. China’s intent has always been to divert Indian military capability towards managing Pakistan with a sustained supply of Chinese defence equipment.

While Pakistan will continue to try to intensify its proxy war and anti-India propaganda, at this point, it is likely to be inclined to exercise three options. Firstly, Pakistan would highlight its posture of victimhood and strengthen the narrative of its capability and willingness to defeat India’s strategy.

The need to bolster this narrative is even stronger at the moment due to the recent embarrassing episode of corruption charges against Lt. General Asim Bajwa (Retd), CPEC chairman, published in an investigative report by the journalist Ahmad Noorani. History has repeated instances of Pakistan army’s aggressive attempts to repair any possible damage to its image and integrity. Fighting against India has always been the most potent tool to consolidate the military’s positioning in Pakistan and distracting the populace from the growing personal wealth of the military personnel. Secondly, Pakistan is likely to push for more Chinese equipment in the coming times despite its economic challenges. It has recently requested Beijing for the much-desired aircraft—J-10 CE and PL-10 and PL-15, short-range, and long-range air-to-air missiles, respectively. Thirdly, Pakistan will continue to escalate the nuclear threat to push for the Kashmir agenda and attract global attention. In the last one year, prime minister Imran Khan has repeatedly flagged the nuclear threat to remind India and the international community about the presence of nuclear weapons in the region and the dangers emanating from a potential nuclear war.

The author is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi