I had concluded my past Monday column ‘Asian Powers in Kashmir’ at a question; If China’s proactive policy on Kashmir could help in the resolution of this ‘dispute’ or add complexity to it.
This question was not unique to me but in fact has been haunting the minds of columnists, writers, strategists, experts, scholars and Kashmir watchers since long. Some twenty years back Professor Samina Yasmin, a scholar in International Politics and Strategic Studies at the University of Western Australia wrote an exhaustive paper, “the China Factor in Kashmir,” which was published in ‘Perspective on Kashmir’ a book edited by Raju Thomas. The paper though written some two decades back provides incisive insight into the China’s interest in Kashmir and helps in understanding the recent moves by Beijing. Referring to Kashmir as “Fulcrum of Asia”, she has written how external powers have been drawn into this conflict and motivated by the global concerns, and how these powers have pursued policies or taken a stand on Kashmir that directly or indirectly aggravated the situation’. In her paper she has very beautifully brought out the genesis of China’s South Asia policy and centrality of Kashmir dispute to this policy. She questions the validity of the assumption by discussing Beijing’s stand on Kashmir dispute over a period of four decades. It argues that China’s Kashmir policy is part of its overall South Asia policy, which in turn, is part of China’s counter encirclement strategy.’
The global scenario during past two decades more particularly after 9/11 has undergone a sea change but many of the points raised by the author about the Chinese interest in Kashmir continue to be even today of great academic interest. In the changed scenario also the question that continues to be debated is that if China’s recently manifested policy of stapled visa policy for Kashmiris; refusal of visa to Lt Gen Jaswal, Commander of the Indian Forces in Kashmir and the reason for refusal being that he commanded military action in a ‘disputed region’; China’s tourist maps showing Kashmir as not being part of India; Chinese official meeting Kashmiri leadership and NGOs; inviting Kashmiri leaders to their country and issuing visa to AJK citizens on Pakistan Passport is out of ‘encirclement through strategic alliance of the United States with India and its involvement in Afghanistan.’
Seen in right historical perspective the China’s recent Kashmir stance, even policy, has been stiffer than that of Islamabad and Washington. Islamabad despite being principal party to the dispute has been recognizing Indian passports of people of Jammu and Kashmir and issuing visa on this passport. In fact its visa policy towards people of Jammu and Kashmir is stricter than citizens of India. It at no point of time has refused to any of Indian army officers or paramilitary officers visiting Islamabad on an official visit for having served in Jammu and Kashmir. So is true about Washington, despite being co-sponsor to the UN resolution that ‘guarantees right to self-determination, it has been issuing visa to citizens of Jammu and Kashmir on valid Indian passports. Even during heightened cold war when India and Russia were very strong allies and USA fully supported plebiscite for ,the people of the state and its Kashmir policy was in sync with Pakistan, Washington never ever denied a visa to any army officer of India for his posting in the “disputed state”.
The Chinese interest in Kashmir has not only been giving pin pricks to New Delhi and causing worry to the State Department and Pentagon but many a think tanks more particularly those connected with defense strategies have been debating and discussing China’s emerging role in South Asia. The question that worries the Western powers particularly the United State is that if China’s interest in Kashmir dispute could provide a gateway to this most powerful country of Asia and now second largest economy in the world for playing more influential role in the world’s most volatile region and ostracizing the role of Washington further. In view of the decision of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan the worries of USA about Chinese growing interest in the most dangerous conflict and a nuclear flashpoint have become stronger and sharper.
The renewed interest of subject was also main subject for discussion at recently held conference on “Asian Powers in Kashmir” in London organized by the Royal United Service Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (RUSI). This institute founded in 1831, is an independent think tank ‘engaged in cutting edge defence and security research. During past over one and a half century it has been debating on all important conflicts that have a direct or indirect bearing on global peace. The deliberations held in this institute are counted as significant by strategist and policy planners in most of the countries. The afternoon session which was third of its four sessions was of immense interest and generated a lot of debate. The session was provocatively titled: The Role of China and Sino-India Rivalry in Kashmir dispute. This session was chaired by Dr. Alexandra Neil, head of RUSI’s Asia Program and the participants included Maj General Ashok K Mehta, (Retd), Dr. Ishtaq Ahmed, Oxford University and Dr. Zulfikar Ali, of Labour Party. Notwithstanding the participants in this session articulating different and conflicting viewpoints was highly beneficial for student of ‘Kashmir dispute and its global dimensions’. The major questions that emerge in this sessions were if China could be counted as another party to the dispute besides, India, Pakistan and people of Jammu and Kashmir; if China would vacate Aksi-Chin and surrender it to Jammu and Kashmir in the event India and Pakistan arrive at an amicable settlement of the dispute to the aspirations of the people of the state, and if there was need for India and Pakistan to settle Kashmir dispute much before China creates inroad in the region thereby adding complexity to already highly destabilized region. General Mehta whom RUSI in its report on the conference described as ‘charismatic Indian General’ was highly candid in his presentation. He urged India and Pakistan to work together for resolving Kashmir problem and not allowing China to fulfill its wish to "tri-lateralize" a bilateral dispute.
He described China’s involvement as part of a ‘greater design’ by which the rising power is hoping to use its position in Asia to gain access to the Arabian Sea. He warned that ‘legitimizing Chinese presence in the region will carry costs for Pakistan and for the region. ‘He said China’s involvement was not relevant to larger question of Sino-Indian rivalry, but was also integral to China’s grand design to access the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through Pakistan and through AJK.’
Giving details about the historical role of China in Kashmir dispute and its oscillating stand on supporting Kashmir dispute as it suited its geo-strategic needs from time to time Dr. Zulfiqar concluded his thirty three hundred word presentation more on a questions than answers:, “It remains to be seen if the latest policy gestures shown by China towards Indian occupation of Kashmir, are of any significance. The commitment test will be if China takes a proactive and leading role in seeking international support to resolve this dispute; condemn “wholesale” scale of the human rights violations, use economic bargaining to persuade India to accept that a solution of the Kashmir dispute is in the best interest of both.” Dr. Ishtaq Ahmed of the Oxford University and author of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Issues in South Asia took an altogether view than that taken by General Mehta on China’s role in Kashmir dispute. He was appreciative of Beijing abandoning its policy of neutrality that it adopted since eighties and urged simply to resolve the two countries to resolve the dispute bilaterally.’ Seeing a silver lining in China’s Kashmir policy he unequivocally opined, “More importantly, contrary to its generally cautious foreign policy approach, China has started to adopt tangible steps depicting its intention to play a proactive role vis-à-vis the Kashmir dispute. The proactive Chinese role in Kashmir can also be articulated in moralistic terms. For the rest of the international community, including the United States has so far paid only lip service to the Kashmiri cause. The Chinese at least deserve the credit for attempting to emphasize Kashmir’s continuingly disputed nature and, by default, highlighting the need to resolve it urgently.”
The question arises that if debate at RUSI and other such fora about China’s role in the region has caught the attention of Washington and made it shed its insensitivity towards bringing India and Pakistan to the negotiating table for meaningful and result-oriented dialogue on the resolution of the Kashmir problem.
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