A consistent feature in China’s dealings with Pakistan in recent years has been its caution during potential crises in South Asia. No matter what level of military and diplomatic backing Beijing has been willing to extend to Pakistan in normal circumstances, its approach when there has been any prospect of conflict with India has invariably been to encourage de-escalation. Since the nuclearisation of the subcontinent raised the stakes in any potential clash, China has been careful to ensure that its own behaviour does not serve to heighten the risk of a worst-case scenario. The line it treads is a delicate one: continuing to offer material support and a calibrated measure of diplomatic protection to Pakistan, while privately pressing its close partner to mitigate tensions.
After the Mumbai attacks in 2008, China supported the UN’s listing of Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a terrorist group – having previously blocked it – and the extension of sanctions to a number of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba members, while holding off attempts to include former ISI officials among the designations. During the Kargil crisis of 1999, whatever remarks it made in public, behind closed doors Beijing took a clear line with Pakistan: pull your troops back. Its role was less germane to the “Twin Peaks” crisis of 2001/2, but the essence of its approach was the same – encouraging Pakistan to make conciliatory gestures and operating in close coordination with other external parties, including the US.
At the height of tensions, this is not always how Beijing’s behaviour was portrayed in the press. During and after these crises, different actors had good reason to paint China’s approach as being more or less supportive to Pakistan’s position than it was in reality. Some on the Pakistani side have sought to claim fulsome backing from China as a way to strengthen their hand and help to deter an Indian response. Others – including on the Indian side – have mirrored these claims in order to reinforce an argument about China’s nefariousness. Conversely, there are those who, in order to demonstrate Pakistan’s supposed isolation, contend that Beijing invariably leaves its friend in the lurch and will do so again. In practice, China avoids tilting too far either way, neither allowing Pakistan to be completely backed into a corner nor encouraging the kind of risk-taking that might seriously jeopardise China’s own interests. Beijing has long seen the most critical elements of its support being for Pakistan’s long-term capabilities, not for its brinkmanship.
The current strategic context, after the Uri attack, is evidently different from 1999 or 2008, but not so much as to change the basic parameters of China’s approach. On the one hand, Pakistan is more salient to a wider spectrum of Chinese foreign policy interests than it was in the last couple of decades, whether through the role of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative or the PLA’s search for reliable partners to facilitate its global power projection capabilities. This is becoming a deeper and more comprehensive partnership than it was even a few years ago, and there is no chance that Beijing will allow Pakistan to be diplomatically or economically isolated. Add to the mix closer US-India ties, intensifying competition in East Asia between Beijing and Washington and fraught Sino-Indian relations, and there is reason to expect more of a tilt towards Islamabad than in the past. But the flip-side is that, as a result of CPEC, China has more equities on the ground in Pakistan, meaning that adverse shifts in the security environment now have a more directly detrimental impact on Chinese personnel and projects. While some analysts have argued that CPEC is likely to heighten Pakistan’s adventurist proclivities, China’s hope had been the opposite: the message to Pakistani counterparts ahead of CPEC’s launch was that calmer relations with its neighbours are a necessary precondition for the success of the initiative. Beijing has been repeating that message as tensions with India have spiked. It sees no advantage in turning up the heat on Kashmir.
There have also been question marks on the Chinese side over the direction in which the Indian government’s policy is headed. In every crisis since the nuclear tests of 1998, India has consistently acted with restraint and has taken pains to demonstrate beyond doubt the attribution of the attacks, from the intercepts of General Pervez Musharraf’s calls during Kargil to those of the Mumbai attackers’ handlers. Whatever the criticisms of this approach, India’s measured responses and Pakistan’s evident culpability certainly put China on the spot, limiting the extent of its willingness to provide backing for Pakistan’s position and posing some long-term questions in Beijing about the judgment of its “all-weather friend”. However, it cannot be assumed that China will respond in identical fashion if it sees India’s response as escalatory, disproportionate, or constituting a significant threat to its partner’s genuine strategic interests.
One area that Beijing will be watching particularly closely is to see whether China itself becomes embroiled in any covert responses on India’s part. Actions against terrorist training camps in Pakistan, or surgical strikes, across the Line of Control are one matter. Beijing has been surprised and concerned in recent months, however, by the degree of India’s hostility towards CPEC. The very limited number of projects in disputed territory is not perceived as providing valid grounds for wholesale objections to what is otherwise largely an investment package for Pakistan’s infrastructure and energy sector, rather than the still-mostly-mythical transit route from Xinjiang to the Indian Ocean. Beijing had been skeptical about the purported Indian threat to the initiative, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s language about Balochistan, in particular, has shifted the credibility threshold for Pakistan’s claims. CPEC faces genuine security challenges in its own right, but even if Balochistan is mostly a rhetorical front for now, it is now markedly easier for Pakistani officials to pin attacks on Indian subversion without immediately attracting raised eyebrows from their Chinese counterparts. And while these might be considered “fair game” in the context of Indo-Pak relations, they would not be seen that way by China in the context of Sino-Indian relations.
But if India faces important tactical choices, some of which could push Beijing to double down even more firmly on aspects of its support for Pakistan, China will be watching even more closely to see what strategic call its “all-weather friend” makes in the coming period. India’s fundamental decision over the years to prioritise its comprehensive, long-term power position over the meretricious appeal of retaliatory attacks is seen by China as a product of sound judgment, not weakness. Beijing had hoped – and has been willing to make large-scale bets – that Pakistan was finally ready to make a serious commitment to put the conditions in place for a long-term growth take-off of its own. China sees this as a necessity for Pakistan’s security, not simply its economic well-being, and CPEC was intended as a means to help underpin those goals. Yet making a success of the initiative was always going to require some trade-offs, whether in Kashmir or Afghanistan. And if Pakistan consistently chooses to place greater weight on its traditional regional agenda, knowing the adverse impact this will have on its economic prospects, on Chinese investments and on China’s wider plans for its western neighbourhood, Beijing will draw the necessary conclusions.
Andrew Small is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.