Remarks from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the wake of India’s attack on Balakot in Pakistan and the subsequent tensions between the two South Asian neighbours appeared to suggest that Beijing was taking a more or less neutral stand. The official spokesperson’s answers to repeated questions on the Indo-Pak incidents stuck to the same overall formulation calling for restraint from both sides and for de-escalation.
A Pakistan Slant
However, the fact is that this apparent Chinese neutrality also creates a false equivalence between India and Pakistan in which Pakistan’s original sin as the perpetrator of terrorism, including the Pulwama attack, is erased and equal responsibility assigned to both India and Pakistan for the current instability and tensions.
Chinese media also copied their foreign ministry in implying that Indian actions were also in the wrong and needed to be restrained. Additionally, however, they also tended to suggest that the Pakistanis had the superior response by talking about two Indian aircraft being downed. This ignored completely the Indian version of events, which admitted to only one aircraft being downed and also suggested that a Pakistani aircraft too had been brought down.
Chinese media’s pro-Pakistan slant is evident in the highlighting, for example, of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘peace gesture’ of releasing the captured Indian pilot and of his offer for talks with India, ignoring international norms on POWs and Indian concerns. One op-ed also indirectly implied that the Indian government was creating tensions because of electoral considerations while repeating a long-standing Chinese position that Pakistan, too, was a victim of terrorism without, of course, also reminding the reader of the role of the Pakistani state in creating the problem in the first place.
Amidst the Indo-Pak standoff, Chinese social media also decided to engage in a spot of grandstanding picking up Pakistani claims that it was a Chinese-produced JF-17 Thunder (Xiaolong) fighter, part of the Pakistan sortie on 27 February, that had taken down the Indian Mig-21. There is however, no evidence yet to prove this.
Not Letting Pakistan Off the Hook
At the same time, the Chinese have not been shy about naming the Jaish-e-Mohammad as the perpetrator of the Pulwama attack or acknowledging that terror camps exist in Pakistan. This then makes it all the more clear how instrumental or interest-driven the Chinese position is.
Beijing wants to ensure that Islamabad and Rawalpindi do not take its support for granted and target those elements within the terrorist network in Pakistan that target Chinese interests in Xinjiang. At the same time, it is willing to turn a blind eye to any problems that India might face from the same or other terrorist elements in Pakistan.
China’s ambitions for itself as a regional and global power also compel it to take a stance that portrays it as somehow being above the fray and as mediating between or advising its smaller, squabbling neighbours.
China’s Eastern Front
There are other issues that prevent China from taking Pakistan’s side too closely. Chief among these is the US factor.
The US Navy sent a destroyer into the Taiwan Strait on 25 February, not for the first time in recent months but just a day before the Balakot attack by India. While the US Pacific Fleet called the transit routine’, the incident suggests that for China, events in South Asia cannot be disconnected from events elsewhere, for these might also constrain its options in support of Pakistan.
US President Donald Trump’s declaration on 23 February that he understood India’s wish to do something ‘very strong’ in the wake of the Pulwama attack seemed particularly well-timed. In fact, he made his statement to reporters right after his meeting with a visiting Chinese trade delegation led by Vice Premier Liu He that was trying to resolve the ongoing trade war with the US. Liu is seen as a close advisor of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Even if it is too much of a stretch to imagine that the US and India acted in concert or that the Chinese were given a gentle hint too, it is still a long way from 1971 when the USS Enterprise steamed toward the Bay of Bengal to warn India against extending the war on Pakistan and the then US leadership considered asking the Chinese, too, to threaten the Indians into easing up in its war.
Likely Chinese Future Course
Cut to the present however, given the Chinese sense of competition with the US, Beijing, too, will want eventually to be able to provide the sort of backing for Pakistan that the US possibly did or could for India. And so, while the Chinese might look currently as if they did not support Pakistan too loudly or substantially, it will be in the nature of things for China to continue to bolster Pakistan’s capabilities and to support Pakistani narratives.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘What to Make of China’s Reaction to India’s Balakot Attack’, Moneycontrol.com, 5 March 2019.