Looking back at the fluctuations in China-India relations this year, it is clear that several events impacted bilateral relations despite the fact that they were more associated with India-Pakistan relations than China.
Since the year began, unrest in India-controlled Kashmir has been exacerbated by two successive attacks on Indian Army bases in January and September. India accused Pakistan of “backing the terrorism,” and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi even denounced their neighbor as the “mothership of terrorism.” Antagonism grew from both sides, and many in India called for “severe punishment” of Pakistan.
Sentiment even grew to the point of criticizing China for its “consistent favoring” of Pakistan over India, creating instability in the moderately stable trilateral relationship. Maintaining balanced foreign policies towards India and Pakistan has become an increasingly difficult mission for China.
Many in India believe that China “sides with” Pakistan for a couple of reasons. In June, 2015, India appealed to the United Nations Sanctions Committee to sanction Pakistan under Resolution 1267 because it released Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a suspect in the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. However, China vetoed the proposal because “India hadn’t provided sufficient information.”
Similarly in 2016, China twice did not support the charges brought by India alleging that Pakistan-based “Jaish-e-Mohammed (the Army of Muhammad)” had planned a terrorist attack in January. Due to such moves, many in India seem to have formed the perception that China supports Pakistan-based terrorist activities against India and holds a “double standard” on terrorism.
Furthermore, several Indian strategic analysts believe that China and Pakistan are forming a coalition against India. This May, India submitted an application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and Pakistan soon followed suit. Since then, India has been drumming up support both at home and abroad with high-profile promotional campaigns, evidencing strong determination to become a NSG member, yet it has met persistent obstacles. Indian news media frequently implied that China was the only hurdle to join NSG.
In fact, China supports a “two-step” process to adding NSG members in which the first stage involves exploring and reaching an agreement on a non-discriminatory formula applicable to all non-NPT states (NPT, abbreviation for Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), and saving country-specific membership issues for the second stage.
In India’s view, China’s position creates daunting barriers for India to join NSG, and China lobbied Pakistan to follow suit in an effort to curb India’s influence.
Pakistan has played an important role in China-India relations. Since the Sino-India border conflict broke out in 1962, China and Pakistan have nourished strong connect. A saying goes “China-Pakistan friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than seas and sweeter than honey.” Pakistan has become a “24/7 partner” of China and the Chinese internet coined the term “iron friendship” to describe the relationship between the two countries.
In contrast, India and Pakistan act like rivals who share historic roots, and hostility between the two seems too strong to dispel. In the Cold-War era, China and Pakistan engaged in close strategic cooperation aiming to offset India’s influence in the region. As the Cold War came to an end, China gradually adopted a balanced foreign policy to maintain friendly relations with both India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the “balancing” is undoubtedly diplomatic art that has been testing Chinese wisdom.
The India-Pakistan rivalry has only become more intense since Modi took office, which has cornered China into an “awkward” position. Believing that China “favors” Pakistan, India took inappropriate actions along with the misdirected blame, for example, arrogant actors within the Indian government leveraged the country’s diplomatic progress with the U.S. to compel China to accept its requests, which only worsened sliding China-India relations. And as for China, while endorsing the proper rights of Pakistan and protect the common interests of China and Pakistan, the Chinese government should try to convince India that China does not “favor” Pakistan – China favors the promotion of mutual understanding and cooperation between India and Pakistan.
The author is a research fellow and Deputy Chief of the Center of South Asian Studies, the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, and a research fellow with the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University.