Is China the next big player in Kashmir?

Is China the next big player in Kashmir?
5 min read
31 Jul, 2017
Comment: Having an ally as strong as China in international diplomatic circles, could prove instrumental to the Kashmiri cause, writes Umar Lateef Misgar.
Kashmiris wave Chinese flags during a protest rally in Northern Baramulla district [ANI/Facebook]
India and China have a long history of both military as well as diplomatic confrontation. The territorial disputes between the neighbouring states have led to three military conflicts, one of them an outright war in 1962.

In addition, India's granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government in Exile has served as a constant thorn in the relations between two countries.

The latest flare-up started when Chinese military construction crews were spotted building a road on the Dokalam plateau - a territory disputed between Bhutan and China. When a Bhutanese army patrol failed to convince the Chinese to stop construction, Indian troops, stationed near the India-Bhutan border intervened and tried to dissuade the construction party from altering the long-held status-quo over disputed territory.

Beijing, however, maintains that the Indian troops had infringed on Chinese territory and urged New Delhi to pull-back its troops.

Soon afterwards, Chinese state media began threatening India with military intervention in the disputed Kashmir region. "Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan's territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area," Long Xingchun, Director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, wrote in the Beijing based Global Times.

"Otherwise under India's logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country's army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan, including India-controlled Kashmir."

Pakistan has remained tight-lipped over the threats of Chinese intervention

Although China, a strategic ally of Pakistan, with respect to Kashmir has previously leaned towards Islamabad at various international forums including the UN, Beijing consistently maintained that the decades-long dispute in Kashmir has to be eventually resolved by India and Pakistan bilaterally.

With Indo-Chinese relations turning increasingly hostile and given the fact that some territorial disputes between the two neighbours are centered in the region, China might soon make an about turn on the issue.

Pakistan has remained tight-lipped over the threats of Chinese intervention. In March 2016, Chinese troops were reportedly spotted building infrastructure on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, the border that divides Indian and Pakistani-held Kashmir.

Read more: The world's biggest democracy? Kashmiris seek justice from India

Also, Pakistani media inaccurately claimed that the Chinese had killed more than 150 Indian troops at the site of latest Sino-Indian stand-off. This suggests that Islamabad would not oppose an escalation of tensions in the region as long as Beijing is standing by its side.

Kashmiris, some might suggest in a desperate attempt to demonstrate disapproval for India's iron-fisted rule, have occasionally welcomed Chinese meddling into the region. Chinese flags have repeatedly appeared in protest rallies held against what Kashmiris see as India's military occupation.

Chinese flags have repeatedly appeared in protest rallies held against what Kashmiris see as India's military occupation

However, Beijing's own track record of dealing with political dissent might not bode well for the Kashmiris. "China's recent statements on Kashmir should be seen only as a game of posturing resulting from geopolitical tensions, marking China-India-Pakistan relations and not a new found concern for aspirations of Kashmiri people," Dibyesh Anand who heads the Department of Politics and International Relations at University of Westminster told The New Arab.

"This should not surprise us because China, which controls and occupies Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet, is vehemently opposed to formation of any new independent state in the region."

'China's recent statements on Kashmir should be seen only as a game of posturing' - Dibyesh Anand

Regardless, having an ally as strong as China in international diplomatic circles, particularly the Security Council, may prove instrumental to the Kashmiri cause.

Except for garnering occasional condemnations against human rights abuses by Indian forces in Kashmir, Kashmiris have so far failed to make any meaningful strides in the international diplomatic arena. Beijing's growing diplomatic clout in the context of Washington's declining power of unilateral dictation may change that.

Read more: Perils to China-Pakistan's GCC economic corridor

Some experts however believe that Beijing's plate is already loaded, with more pressing issues bothering it at home and abroad. "China has its hands full with all types of matters - from its slowing economy to the North Korea threat - and it can't afford to start wading into messy situations elsewhere, including Kashmir," warns Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

According to Kugelman, China would not actually follow through on its threats vis-a-vis Kashmir and, at best, might take a more stridently pro-Pakistan position on Kashmir in global diplomatic forums.

For now, significant Chinese intervention in Kashmir looks like a long shot. However, Beijing may strategically use the Kashmir card to irritate New Delhi and convince it to roll back its forces from Dokalam, or, for that matter, during any other confrontation in the future.

This also serves well for China's relations with Pakistan - one of Beijing's most crucial allies and an indispensable partner in its ambitious One Belt One Road project.

However, Kashmiris should be very careful about what they wish for when it comes to the Chinese. Asking for anything more than diplomatic support from Beijing might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.    

Umar Lateef Misgar is a graduate student of International Relations at the Islamic University of Kashmir. He regularly writes for The New Arab, openDemocracy, Counterpunch and London School of Economics Human Rights Centre.

Follow him on Twitter: @Kaashur

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.