The change in status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir effected by the Indian central government has led to considerable international attention, including from China.
On 6 August, the Chinese Foreign Ministry offered two separate comments: one “on the Current Situation in Jammu Kashmir” and another more specifically “on the Indian Government’s Announcement of the Establishment of the Ladakh Union Territory Which Involves Chinese Territory”.
In the first statement, while China declares that it is “seriously concerned” it asks “both India and Pakistan to peacefully resolve the relevant disputes through dialogue and consultation” (emphasis mine). One should read this as the Chinese indicating they do not see it only as an Indian responsibility to “safeguard peace and stability in the region”, that Pakistan should not imagine it has sanction from Beijing to stoke military tensions in the wake of India’s actions.
For China, there is enough going on its eastern front and in the relationship with the US to want another trouble spot open up in its west and especially one in which it will be expected to keep coming to Pakistan’s assistance both rhetorically and materially. On the same day, in fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also fielded questions on a North Korean missile test and the US Department of the Treasury designating China as a currency manipulator, for example.
But there was also a question each on Pakistan and India that the spokesperson addressed. The first was about whether China would block the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering from blacklisting Pakistan for having failed to meet its anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism targets. The next question was about whether China was concerned about New Delhi blocking Huawei from its 5G network and if Beijing would use ‘countermeasures’ against Indian companies if it did.
The answers are less important than the nature of questions, which shows an asymmetry between the India and Pakistan in terms of China’s larger global interests. Clearly, despite its usefulness at the forefront of the Belt and Road Initiative and in the security situation involving Afghanistan, Pakistan can also be something of a drag on China.
It could, therefore, be reasonably argued that a change in the status of J&K is not a major concern for China in so far as it involves Pakistan.
Possibilities for China
The carving out of Ladakh as a separate administrative entity in the form of a Union Territory is, however, a matter that impinges more directly on Chinese interests. This is not because China claims Ladakh as a whole – at the end of the conflict of 1962, the Chinese held more or less the entire territory in the Western Sector of the dispute that they wanted to possess for reasons of securing their road link between Xinjiang and Tibet. What dispute exists along the LAC in this sector is essentially about small pockets of territory where one or the other side holds some local tactical advantages. But since these areas of dispute are part of Ladakh, central administration now from New Delhi also implies a scaling up of the importance of the dispute.
Still, there is little that actually changes on the ground on the LAC between India and China despite the latter’s rhetoric.
Nevertheless, the Chinese call to India to “strictly abide by relevant agreements concluded between the two sides and avoid taking any move that may further complicate the boundary question” is not with its implications. The Indian spokesperson in his reply told China not to interfere in India’s internal affairs and referred specifically to the 2005 bilateral Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles as the basis for settling issues related to boundary. There is nothing in this Agreement that prevents India from undertaking the reorganization of J&K or any other territory along the border under Indian jurisdiction whether or not it was claimed by China or under Chinese occupation.
In fact, the Chinese have themselves placed Arunachal Pradesh under the jurisdiction of two prefectures – Shannan and Linzhi in the Tibet Autonomous Region. And in 2017, they even conducted a renaming exercise of places well within Arunachal territory.
But the reference to “relevant agreements” in the Chinese statement is important because despite its own less than exemplary record adhering to international law, China has become increasingly skilled at using the letter of the law to its advantage in its international dealings.
In the present case, doubts about the legality of the Indian central government’s reorganization of J&K under Article 370 and the implications thereof for the validity of its accession to India are a minefield China might exploit together with Pakistan.
It is worth remembering here that there have been a series of recent actions in Pakistan aiming effectively at converting Gilgit-Baltistan – the largest part of POK – into a fifth province of the country. India’s latest move might now encourage Islamabad to go the distance. This would create the impression that the Kashmir dispute has effectively been settled with the erstwhile princely state of J&K divided between India and Pakistan.
For Beijing supporting such an impression might be useful for a couple of reasons.
China could argue Pakistan’s transfer of the Shaksgam Valley to it under their 1963 Boundary Agreement can now be considered permanent. The formalization of Pakistani constitutional authority over Gilgit-Baltistan might also allow the Chinese to dismiss more easily Indian sovereignty claims over POK and thus also Indian objections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through the region.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘J&K Reorganisation: China’s reactions and its implications’, Moneycontrol, 9 August 2019.