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India must exploit China’s worries about Pakistan

But New Delhi must think that Beijing will take its side against Islamabad.

editorials Updated: Jun 16, 2019 21:32 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (PTI File Photo)

Squeeze your friend to save your friend is India’s new recommendation to China. That is the implicit message Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed on when he told China’s President Xi Jinping that India cannot hold a dialogue with Pakistan unless there is an end to cross-border terror. Even before this exchange at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kyrgyzstan, Beijing had, through public statements and its State-owned media, signalled that it wanted India and Pakistan to jaw-jaw rather than war-war. China is one of the few foreign countries with any real influence over Pakistan and the only one taken seriously by the Pakistani military. China also seems increasingly worried about stability in the southwest Asian region as a whole and the fallout of continued friction between India and Pakistan in particular. This combination provides New Delhi some leverage with regard to Islamabad’s behaviour. Sensibly, Mr Modi is seeking to exploit this.

Beijing’s interest in dialogue seems clear. It has now become Pakistan’s patron State. It provides 70% of its weapons, is by far its largest foreign investor, and, as can be seen in the United Nations, has become Islamabad’s diplomatic guardian. Yet, Pakistan is also China’s problem child. The economy is a black hole, shrinking in size and requiring an endless amount of assistance. Conflict, even proxy fighting, will do far more damage to Pakistan’s economy than India’s. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may save its host’s economy one day, but it remains under construction and places tens of thousands of Chinese civilians on the firing line if there were to be a genuine military action along the border.

There is some evidence China is not above arm-twisting Pakistan when it comes to its sponsorship of terrorism. It allowed Pakistan to be grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force on terrorism finance. Its public statements after the Balakot airstrike were guardedly neutral. It has its own domestic problems with Islamicist militancy. But no one should be under the illusion that Beijing will take New Delhi’s side against Islamabad. China broadly agrees with Pakistan that if it rolls up the jihadi network, there will be no incentive for India to negotiate over Kashmir. But Pakistan’s own weakness provides India with the ability to extract minor concessions from China in places like the United Nations and, with a bit of luck, it will be through such small victories that a more realistic stance on terrorism by Pakistan may develop.

First Published: Jun 16, 2019 21:01 IST