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China Unlikely to give up ‘Pakistan Card’ in its Outreach to India

Paper No. 5932                                 Dated 12-May-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China’s persistent strategy is to play the ‘Pakistan Card’ against India both as leverage and its strategy of coercion against India. Prime Minister Modi on his visit to China next week will face a more subtle playing by China of its ‘Pakistan Card’.

In fact, much before Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, China played its ‘Pakistan Card’ against India on a more gigantic scale when Chinese President Xi visited Pakistan last month and unveiled China’s massive outlay of $ 44 billion in the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. It was not an economic move only as it was accompanied by China’s decision to supply Pakistan with six Chinese submarines and over 100 frontline Chinese fighter combat aircraft.

So, in actual fact, Chinese President Xi signalled two forceful messages to India, as follows:

·         India-US Strategic Partnership evolving proximity supplemented by Japan will be strongly checkmated by intensified playing of China’s ‘Pakistan Card’ against India.

·         The ‘Pakistan Card’ in China’s strategic formulations will be a ‘constant’, recurring at every stage irrespective of India’s ascendant power trajectory.

The Indian Prime Minister struck an optimistic note on the prospects of his forthcoming China visit by asserting that both India and China have learnt the lessons of history as they embark to strive for a new China-India relationship. India may have learnt the lessons of history but there are no substantial indicators that China has learnt the lessons of history.

If China had learnt the “lessons of history” and that too from contemporary history, then China would not have repeated the mistakes that the United States committed in its ‘Pakistan First” policy in the Indian Subcontinent. United States belatedly has realised that it cannot artificially balance India’s natural predominance in the Indian Subcontinent, which China persistently continues to do.

China has also not learnt from history when it comes to investing in Pakistan’s mischief potential as China’s surrogate spoiler state against India. Moreso, when China itself realises how fragile Pakistan’s internal stability and security is concerned. Why did the Chinese leaders insist that a special Pakistan Army division-sized force be raised for the protection of its proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? What and from where are the threats within Pakistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor?

China invests heavily in personal links with Pakistan Army generals and underwriting Pakistan Army’s combat potential, again not learning the lessons of history from the United States experience in which the Pakistan Army resorted to double-timing of the United States over Afghanistan despite receiving US munificence of billions of dollars of military aid. A rental Army can be bought over by anybody who can outbid the earlier patron.

China has every right to pursue its obsession with Pakistan to further its national security interests. But, when such dubious linkages impinge on Indian national security interests then India has no logical grounds to give clean chits to Chinese intentions in relation to India. On the contrary India is expected to stand up to China and stand tall.

Patently, even in 2015 China’s intentions towards India remain unchanged and that is to keep India strategically off-balance through what it perceives as a very effective and India-rattling ‘Pakistan Card’. The answer for India if it cannot singly neutralise such moves is then to seek other off-set options.

So while India must continue to engage China at all possible levels and appear to be seeking normalisation of relations with China, the stark reality for India is otherwise.

The stark strategic reality is that China is unlikely to give up the playing of its ‘Pakistan Card’ for the very simple reason that when it comes to China’s choices in the Indian Subcontinent, India is a strategic and contending rival with historically carrying potential of conflict with China whereas Pakistan is China’s strategic cats-paw, a rental military state where China is now willing to pay a higher rent to hire Pakistan’s ‘regional spoiler state’ potential and services.

Hopefully, these strategic realities are not lost while the Indian Prime Minister makes his innovative approaches during his China visit next week. Historically, India must remember the appropriate lesson from the history of China-India turbulent relationship that Indian leaders must not repeat Nehru’s mistake of assigning ‘pious intentions” to Chinese protestations of peace with India.

One more lesson that India should not lose sight of in relation to China, historically, is that “National Security Cannot be Bought by Extending Olive Branches.”

 (Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at