That’s the theme of my most recent piece at Asia Times. Read it here.
The U.S. sailor suit brigade is obsessed with playing profitable pattycake with the PLAN in the South China Sea.
But a more significant and dangerous confrontation is brewing over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
India doesn’t like the CPEC, and China hawks in India are tempted to use it as an opportunity for mischief. And if US hawks are given greater rein in a Clinton presidency…
Here’s my takeaway at Asia Times:
Don’t make the mistake of regarding the CPEC as another South China Sea, an opportunity for a budget-fattening play date for the US and PRC and other regional militaries, one carefully constrained and choreographed between several high-capacity partners within a relatively stable political and security matrix…
… think of Pakistan as another Syria, a nation with its national polity sliding into dysfunction and insurrection, immersed in a hostile environment of strategic enemies and failing states, a potential regional black hole of violence and chaos …
… except it has 180 million people, has nuclear weapons, and shares borders with two anxious world powers.
If India decides it wants to light the fuse over the CPEC, there’s enough tinder to burn up a lot of South Asia, starting with Balochistan down by Gwadar but extending all the way up to Kashmir/Gilgit Baltistan up by the PRC border. And beyond that, of course, is Xinjiang and the Uyghur issue.
And beyond that, of course there’s this map that makes the rounds in the anti-Han nationalist crowd:
My interest in the CPEC question was focused by a series of tweets I’ve been getting from, as far as I can tell, an Indian nationalist with anger management (and poo obsession) issues who has decided to tag me on his anti-China tweets. A selection:
FORGET CPEC sh*tty hans @chinahand
Sh*tbred han dog @chinahand dream on
@chinahand Tibet/Uyghur/Mongol/Kashmi/Baloc ALL HATE fugly hans
Hey sh*t-born shit-sucking han mofo @chinahand F*CK OFF from Kashmir n Balochistan or get slaughtered a la SIKKIM67
“My poster reads: Pakistan, China: Hands off Balochistan” Sir I had sent this to a few sh*tborn hans like @chinahand
Hmm. Interesting to me is that he gets retweets from Indian nationalists, and Baloch and Tibetan independence supporters. So I can thank my twitter acquaintance for directing my attention to the burbling issue of separatist mischief in the Indian geo-political tool kit.
The CPEC offers the possibility of giving new life to the old interest in weakening the PRC through encouragement of separatist movements both inside and outside the borders of the PRC.
The Indian government, especially its PRC-despising hawks in the defense/security establishment, sees the strategic potential of stirring the Central and South Asian resentments against China and Pakistan, as readers will see from the Asia Times piece.
Strategists in the U.S. are just starting to nibble at the possibilities of messing with the CPEC, possibly because of the US Navy-focused obsession with maritime issues which extends even to Ash Carter’s desperate pandering to India on Navy preoccupations like joint patrols, aircraft carrier design, and logistics cooperation.
If the US Navy can figure out a way to get an aircraft carrier into the Himalayas, maybe our think tanks will get serious about cooking up something really hot for the PRC along the CPEC route.
Balochistan is the most obvious focus of agitation against the CPEC, thanks to its nascent and brutally suppressed independence movement. I’m hardpressed to come up with a suitable analogy for what the Pakistan military and ISI are apparently doing down there. As far as I can tell, it’s nastier than Gaza, Kashmir, Tibet, or Xinjiang, though I’m sure those places are bad enough. Closest I can think of is the death squad campaigns carried out in Colombia.
Michael Kaplan first hinted at the potential for d*cking with China at Gwadar via the Baloch in 2009 (he didn’t come up with it out of thin air, though; Baloch ethnicity straddles the Pakistan-Iran border and Baloch insurgents were long exploited by the US and Gulf States an tool for harassing Iran) and I’m sure US think tanks are ramping up their Balochistan desks right now.
But I think the true great power game will play out in the north, on the “Kashmir” issue, where the PRC, India, and Pakistan have competing territorial claims. Low intensity disputes involving the underpopulated and barren regions of Aksai Chin, Gilgit Baltistan, “Azad Kashmir”, “China Occupied Kashmir”, “India Occupied Kashmir”, “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” or Jammu and Kashmir, depending on the reader’s prefererence will probably get subsumed into the question of the CPEC and have the potential to become nationalist/security/strategic/China containment global hot buttons.
Because of issues of space and reader patience, I did not do a deep dive into the Kashmir issue at Asia Times.
But at China Matters, considerations of space, time, and tedium impose no limits.
The CPEC, as it exits Pakistan and before it enters the Xinjiang Autonomous Region passes through some disputed territory. I suppose it is not too surprising that it is difficult to find one map that shows the competing territorial claims and also shows the CPEC route.
This one’s OK, though the CPEC route is pure fantasy.
The wild card is “Gilgit-Baltistan”.
Gilgit-Baltistan originally belonged to the princely state of Kashmir. Kashmir, with its mixed population of Muslims and Hindus, became caught up in the Pakistan-India conflict at Partition in 1947. In an atmosphere of ethnic violence and provocation, Pakistan tried to seize Kashmir and the Maharajah opted for accession to India as a defensive move (he originally wanted independence). In the subsequent conflict between India and Pakistan, Pakistan occupied a western slice of Kashmir proper (“Azad Jammu & Kashmir” on the map above) and also the remote “northern areas” of the princely state, now called Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pakistan attempted to decouple the northern areas from the Kashmir dispute by incorporating them as “Gilgit Baltistan”, and there’s a genuine demographic/ethnic validity to the approach. Gilgit-Baltistan is a fascinating mélange of ethnicities and is majority Shia Muslim; “Azad Kashmir”, Pakistan’s name for the part of Kashmir it occupies that isn’t “Gilgit Baltistan” is majority Sunni, as is the balance of Kashmir under Indian control.
And the CPEC makes its way through Pakistan to the Khunjerab Pass and the PRC by transiting “Gilgit Baltistan” (purple area) and avoiding “Azad Kashmir” (light blue stuff).
Thanks to predictably clumsy political moves by the Pakistan government, including encouragement of Sunni immigration, Gilgit Baltistan also has an independence movement. However, despite its apparently imposing bulk, Gilgit Baltistan, roughly the size of the state of Maine, is home to only around 2 million people fragmented in ethnicities distinct to individual Himalayan valleys. Balochistan, on the other hand, has 14 million people and a burgeoning self-identity as one of the great and greatly aggrieved stateless peoples of the world. Therefore, I expect that the local security issues surrounding the northern end of the route are seen as relatively manageable.
Diplomacy is another matter. India rejects the “Gilgit Baltistan” vs. “Azad Kashmir” dichotomy and characterizes them as a unity, “Pakistan occupied Kashmir”.
And that puts the CPEC in disputed territory. And if India decides it needs to do something about that, anything is possible.
I don’t take PRC-India border disputes—which encompass Arunachal Pradesh (held by India, claimed by PRC) in the east, Aksai Chin (claimed by India, occupied by PRC) abutting Kashmir in the west, and even a small slice of Kashmir that Pakistan, in India’s opinion, improperly ceded to the PRC in 1963–too seriously as security and economic matters. Both sides have fortified the areas they actually control, the areas in question are sparsely populated and remote, and an offsetting recognition of each others’ occupied areas as sovereign territories has been on the table for literally half a century.
Kashmir disputes are another matter. The traditional calculus has been “India keeps a lid on Tibetan anti-PRC activities, PRC does not mess with Kashmir”.
By its lights, the PRC perhaps believes it is sidestepping the Kashmir issue by running the CPEC through “Gilgit Baltistan”. And maybe there’s a grand bargain at work, like a deal to swap PRC recognition of Indian sovereignty over Tawang (a major monastery town and stronghold of support for the Dalai Lama that is the main sticking point in the Arunachal Pradesh side of the equation) for acquiescence to CPEC passage through northern Pakistan. And the PRC can make the argument that a more prosperous and more stable Pakistan integrated into Central Asia is a better neighbor for India than the current model, and tolerating CPEC passage through the disputed area is a small price to pay.
But China hawks in India are a pretty implacable lot and there is certain support for the idea that the CPEC is a game-changing hostile act against India. As a piece by Harsh V. Pant of King’s College, London, put it: The China-Pakistan axis gains momentum and could pull India into a war on two fronts.
There is agitation to put the Kashmir issue on the front burner, as in Kashmiri activists seek India’s support to ‘save’ PoK from China’s increasing strength on the populist agitation side, to strategic calls to switch India’s posture from de facto acquiescence to the Kashmir status quo to a policy of pursuing recovery of all of Kashmir to block the growth of PRC presence “even if it takes several decades”.
And, naturally, on the covert side there is support for the idea to declare open season against the CPEC and Pakistan in Balochistan. The Pakistan papers are already filled with accusations that India’s RAW is trying to disrupt the CPEC and even partition and destroy Pakistan through support of Baloch militants, both directly and through its allies in the Afghanistan secret service.
And there’s more, as we say. The Indian government has indicated it needs to have the separatist/democracy movement card ready to play within China.
The Indian government recently allowed a conference to be held at Dharamsala on democratization of the PRC that hosted a healthy number of “anti-China” activists.
The conference was organized by Initiatives for China, an organization headed by democracy activist Yang Jianli. Participants included human rights lawyer Teng Biao, Hong Kong Indigenous’s Edward Leung, Tibet independence activist TenzinTsundue, Miss Canada (and Fa Lun Gung organ-harvesting activist) Anastasia Lin, and underground church pastor and human rights activist Hu Shigen. Add Marion Smith, Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Judging by a Mongolian flag that showed up in a photo, advocates of independence for Inner Mongolia were there too.
And Uyghurs as well. The Indian government apparently backed down under PRC pressure and refused visas to the invitees from the World Uyghur Congress but one Uyghur representative made it, Ilshat Hassan, head of the Uyghur American Association.
He told Devirupa Mitra:
His “big takeaway” was that the Uighur exile community needed to do more networking in India. “I was told how to approach the media, think tanks here in India. … I am confident that I will be back.”
And India should be a supporter of the Uighur cause, he felt, if only for strategic reasons. “By raising support, helping us, the Indian government can have leverage (with China),” Hassan asserted.
The PRC was also undoubtedly unhappy to learn that the conference was also attended by Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of the late human rights champion Senator Tom Lantos and, in her own right one of the nine commissioners of the entirely US federal government funded United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Coverage for this event, which culminated in an audience with the Dalai Lama, was remarkably muted. The only journalist that seems to have covered the conference was Ursula Gauthier, recently expelled from the PRC for her Xinjiang writing. And all she’s done so far is post a few pictures on her Twitter feed. Whassup, Ursula! Did the Indian government pass the word it didn’t want this event to gain too high and PRC-antagonistic profile, so attendees and journos kept it zipped? Self-censorship??
Nevertheless, anti-CCP dissidents harbor hopes that the Indian government is ready to play the democracy/national determination/subversion/insurgent card, and Indian natsec types are happy to encourage them.
Discussing the invites to Uyghur activists, ex-National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon remarked:
“I see it as necessary, possibly useful, but also setting us on a new course with China…We must play with the levers and cards we are dealt by fate and the Chinese.”
In other words, there’s a narrative that India has to move beyond its traditional preoccupation with just sticking it to Pakistan and keeping hands off the PRC, to a new paradigm of sticking it to the PRC to resist an unacceptable encroachment of PRC strategic influence into South Asia through the CPEC, and through its other maritime and infrastructure gambits.
In the case of CPEC, maybe helping out the liberation movement in Balochistan, but also yielding to the temptation to add a Xinjiang/Uyghur element, perhaps via Afghanistan, to the proceedings.
And for its part, the PRC is apparently keeping its “unleash hell in India via Pakistan-backed Kashmir jihadis” option open.
At the beginning of April, the PRC delegation at the UN blocked the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist. Azhar and his group, Jaish-e-Mohammed or JeM, have vowed the destruction of India as the cornerstone of their campaign of jihad to “liberate” Kashmir. Indian intelligence has implicated his group in the notorious Mumbai massacre of 2008 and a January 2016 attack on an Indian air force base at Pathankot. It is widely assumed that Azhar is sponsored/protected by the Pakistan military as an anti-Indian asset.
The case against Azhar appears to be pretty much a slam-dunk but the PRC has blocked the designation multiple times at Pakistan’s behest. Reading the tea leaves, in April the Indian government wanted to gain the designation as a statement that the PRC was ready to kick Pakistan to the curb for the sake of closer ties to India, but apparently PRC wasn’t ready for that and is keeping the Azhar card in its pocket for a more appropriate moment.
Indian nationalist dismay at the Indian government’s decision to revoke the visa for Uyghur World Congress leader Dolkun Isa to the Dharmasala conference seems to be founded in the belief that the visa was originally issued as retaliation for the PRC move at the UN, and the Indian government then backed down.
I hope the PRC, India, and Pakistan can work out a modus vivendi without reaching into the separatist toolkit.
Activists, separatists, and insurgents are a dangerous form of strategic leverage. They don’t take direction, they tend toward extremism, and giving them support, money, havens, and in the worst case arms can lead to unexpected knock-on effects. The most famous example is Germany sending Lenin to Russia during World War I and inadvertently midwifing the birth of the Soviet Union.
But there are examples closer to home, like India’s disastrous support for Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka that led to a war of annihilation inside Sri Lanka and blowback in the form of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tigers after he tried to wind down support for the insurgency.
And next door there is the endlessly rolling horror of the Pakistan/Taliban nexus in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.
And in terms of body counts from runaway intervention, look at Democratic Republic of Congo.
And Syria, the example I use in the lead.
The mantra of security strategists is This Time It’s Different. We’ll keep the lid on this thing.
But trust me. It’s Never Different.
And, given the reckless bareknuckle tactics of the ISI in Pakistan and RAW in India and their independence from civilian control, it’s more likely to turn out as It’s the Same as Last Time Only Worse.
As I say in my Asia Times piece, “Reconciling India to the CPEC must rank as one of the more sensitive and difficult issues in world diplomacy.”
This is pretty tricky terrain. The PRC, which I would characterize as a powerful, high-functioning state that’s done a pretty good job looking after itself in a hostile neighborhood for the last few decades, has the ability to manage a tense “frenemy” relationship with India. But if the onus is on Pakistan to serve as the PRC’s partner, ally, and instrument along the CPEC route…
As I wrote over at Asia Times:
And to deal with these myriad challenges, the PRC has to lean on Pakistan. As the dismal precedent of the US experience illustrates, bad things happen when a great power relies on the Pakistan military/ISI for restrained, intelligent, responsible, and effective execution of a complicated security and political program.
As I see it, the CPEC has only a narrow, winding path to success. If it works, it will be a miracle of disciplined diplomacy overcoming massive institutional, popular, and external resistance.
There are a thousand roads to failure, failure that might come by design, or by accident as uncontrollable forces are released.
I wonder if even trying is worth the risk.