As a major economic and military power, China usually juggles with several balls at the same time. Beijing’s big concern is now to make a success of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit from October 11without raising any suspicions in Pakistan, its ‘allweather strategic partner’.
The meeting will be focused on political issues, although both countries are keen on investment exchanges. Politics and egos tend to overtake carefully laid-out business plans. Today, it’s the Kashmir issue.
On Tuesday, China indicated it is ready to make amends to its stance on Kashmir & go back to its position before the August 5 decision of the Indian government to suspend Article 370 and turn the state of Jammu & Kashmir, including its Ladakh region, into Union territories (UTs).
Earlier, China used to emphasise its neutrality by saying Kashmir is an ‘historical’ issue that India and Pakistan must sort out among themselves. But after August 5, Beijing spoke up in favour of Pakistan and tried to internationalise the Kashmir issue by raising it in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). India protested strongly but Beijing stuck to its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan.
Now, China is giving the impression that it can be flexible. “We call on India and Pakistan to engage in dialogue and consultation on all issues including Kashmir issue and consolidate mutual trust. This is in line with the interest of both countries and common aspiration of the world,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing on Tuesday.
This may seem like a major concession, since Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is visiting Beijing and scheduled to meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. Khan is focusing on Kashmir, but he is also desperately seeking funds to overcome a financial crisis. GoI’s decision-makers, including external affairs minister S Jaishankar, who was ambassador in Beijing, would have to decide if they want to believe that there is a change of heart.
Is China trying to use Kashmir as a bargaining chip and ask something in return for softening its stance on it? At stake is the need to preserve the sanctity of a mechanism called the ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi, which is expected to soften the harsh aspects of the relationship between the two countries.
Both sides are keen about the success of the mechanism that was first implemented when Modi met Xi, without aides, in Wuhan in 2018. The next such meeting will take place in Mamallapuram. The focus of the informal summit appears to have shifted from ‘mutual understanding’ to who gets the most advantage out of the meeting in the Tamil Nadu town.
If China tries to project itself as a mediator between India and Pakistan, it is unlikely to be heard by the Indian side. Hence the softening in its stance.
Xi may also find it difficult to persuade Modi on two other issues. As I discuss in my recent book, Running With the Dragon: How India Should Do Business with China, New Delhi’s stance on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has hardened after China took the Kashmir issue to UNSC.
Accepting a Chinese infrastructure project anywhere near the border has almost become out of question. Nor would it take a strong stance against US President Donald Trump’s trade actions.
For long, Beijing has been worrying about the harm caused by its ties with Pakistan to its global image and its relationship with India. There have been voices in China that Beijing has been pouring funds into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) without any sign of possible returns over the next few decades.
CPEC investments would become a lot riskier if the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) decides to censure Pakistan, which is likely in the coming days. CPEC is the most significant showcase for Xi’s favourite plan, BRI. A setback in Pakistanbased projects would hurt the entire programme spanning dozens of countries.
But it is difficult for China to reduce its involvement in Pakistan with India continuing to resist BRI and borderrelated suspicions prevailing on both sides. Pakistan also helps expand Chinese influence in the Muslim world and in Afghanistan.
The scope for give and take in Mamallapuram is very low. Officials on both sides will have to work hard to make it appear like a success. There is no need for the two countries to sign formal agreements during an informal summit. Both sides will help each other save face.
China is likely to signal that it’s ready to enhance investments in a significant manner. India may further open up its market for Chinese investments, which it needs badly enough. The question is how the two countries will sell the summit to their respective public and show it as a success.