The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan presents India with many strategic challenges. To begin with, the CPEC will traverse through India’s territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan.
Both Pakistan and China accepted in their 1963 Sino-Pakistan Agreement that the territory does not legally belong to Pakistan and so it has no ground to contest India’s sovereignty over that area. This Agreement throughout refers to China’s Sinkiang and “the contiguous areas the defence of which is under the actual control of Pakistan”.
Article 6 of the Agreement states: “The two parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the boundary as described in Article Two of the present agreement, so as to sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement, provided that in the event of the sovereign authority being Pakistan, the provisions of the present agreement and of the aforesaid protocol shall be maintained in the formal boundary treaty to be signed between the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.
Pakistan, in fact, concedes through this formulation that the final sovereignty over Gilgit/Baltistan may not be settled in its favour.
China’s statement that India should not worry about the CPEC as it does not impinge on the India-Pakistan dispute contradicts its 1963 position. China claims that this is a “commercial project”, when in fact it is a vital geostrategic project with serious military dimensions in future. China seeks access to the Indian Ocean through the historically Indian landmass, an ambition that was denied to Russia but is being facilitated today by Pakistan, created as the West’s protégé against Russia and China. The Gwadar port, the entry point for the CPEC from the Arabian Sea, will be controlled by the Chinese and will inevitably serve as an operational base for their navy in the Indian Ocean. The sale of six Chinese submarines to Pakistan serves their strategic objective of beefing up Pakistan’s naval capacities to protect its coastline assets as well as to erode India’s naval domination of the Indian Ocean by proxy, which is a well practised Chinese policy against India.
China is confounding matters by linking the CPEC to its so-called one belt-one road initiative. The idea of the CPEC has been discussed between China and Pakistan before China unveiled its larger initiative. China wants to deflect Indian concerns by inserting the CPEC into a larger trans-continental connectivity plan based on consultation and cooperation so that it loses its specific anti-India strategic connotation. China, however, has already created key connectivities for accessing natural resources, whether it is the oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Sinkiang or such pipelines across Russia to northern China, not to mention the connectivity through Myanmar. It is already boasting of rail transportation links across Eurasia connecting Shanghai with Lisbon. It has been investing in Sri Lanka to develop its maritime silk route strategy, much before announcing its one belt-one road initiative.
China’s huge financial resources and mounting hubris lies behind its connectivity initiative that is intended to expand Chinese power by spreading its trade links, limiting its maritime vulnerabilities through the development of overland infrastructure, and providing outlets for the overcapacity it is burdened with in various sectors because of insufficient domestic orders.
Some in India are being persuaded by Chinese propaganda about the win-win nature of the Chinese initiative and recommend joining it, forgetting that as far as India and Pakistan are concerned, the pre-Partition connectivity is there and can be revived, and new links can be forged provided Pakistan is willing to normalise relations with India. If Pakistan is unwilling to trade with India at Wagah and rejects transit rights to India through its territory to Afghanistan, what is CPEC’s relevance to us? We don’t need to trade with Sinkiang through PoK or with the Gulf countries through Gwadar.
In reality, China will not give up its claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Pakistan on Kashmir. China has now taken the major decision to invest massively in Pakistan despite the latter’s crumbling economic and political situation, with widespread internal terrorism and radicalisation of its society. Normally, countries avoid investing on this scale in unstable countries, but China is doing the opposite for wider strategic reasons. Pakistan will, unfortunately, see this flow of funds and arms, not only from China but also the US, as evidence of its successful leveraging of its geopolitical position and as a validation of its policies. One can see the consequence of this already in Pakistan’s more belligerent posture towards India. It has been buoyed further by its success with President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan.
India should not lower our strategic defences because of economics. China wants to expand economic ties with India without relenting strategically. India should follow a similar policy. It would be an error to unilaterally ease visa regulations for the Chinese if Beijing continues to issue stapled visas to the people of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Most important, India must protest against the CPEC going through territory that is legally Indian.
Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary
The views expressed are personal