The answer lies in the part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that stretches through Pakistan called CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). This stretches through the Pakistani part of Kashmir.
China wants India to embrace BRI because that would secure its investment in CPEC – worth, depending on who you ask, between $15 to $62 billion.
But India cannot accept this because it delegitimises its historic claim on the entirety of Kashmir – after all it was the whole of the state that was acceded to India by Maharaja Hari Singh, the last independent ruler of the state at independence. Giving up claim on one part of Kashmir would make India’s case suspect in the eyes of the global community and would be read as a willingness to be opportunistic about it. It would raise the question, if India is willing to be opportunistic about its claim on a part of Kashmir, what other ways might it compromise about its claim on the remaining part? This is a question that India cannot have raised in the international community.
China keeps blocking the declaration of Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a global terrorist in the United Nations (UN), as a tool, among others, to arm twist the Indian acceptance of CPEC. This would allow China control over the CPEC territory and make it less vulnerable in case of conflict between India and Pakistan.
The truth is CPEC is acutely vulnerable to being cut off due to military action by India in case of a conflict. India can militarily cut off CPEC quite easily as a response action following a terror attack in India than can be traced backed to Pakistan. It could easily be deemed acceptable reaction in the international arena – countries are always concerned about whether their action is deemed kosher by others, and the global reaction to the post-Pulwama air strikes has given a clear sense that this might be considered fair and just. In this context, it must be noted that France decided to unilaterally freeze the assets of Masood Azhar after China blocked the resolution to declare him a global terrorist in the UN. France also suggested that it would campaign European Union-wide support for such a measure. The Jaish-e-Mohammed is already on the U.S. terror list. The signals for the legitimacy of India’s stance is growing stronger. What, then, the Chinese would be asking would happen if the next Indian response to a terror attack happens to cut off CEPEC? That’s a crucial doubt, and it is to India’s advantage that this is now in play.
That’s not the only way CPEC is vulnerable. Baloch nationalists are at war against CPEC as they see the project as a colonialising force in Baloch lands. Through CPEC, there are about 20,000-odd Chinese at any given point working on the project in Pakistan, and a floating population of about another 50,000 who come in and out to Pakistan from China. CPEC and Chinese interests in Pakistan, including their consulate in Karachi, have already come under attack from Baloch rebels. China is considered an enemy by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda for its treatment of Chinese Uighur Muslims, and in 2014 the terrorist Abu Zar Al Burmi declared that after the Americans were driven out of Afghanistan, the next target would be China. This is already coming to pass.
This does one critical thing – it raises Chinese doubt. How vulnerable is CPEC to an Indian military strike? How capable is Chinese to deploy military in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to protect CPEC? How badly could Baloch rebels affect CPEC? What if these forces join hands with other jihadi elements against China? All of these are questions which India must endeavour to keep strategically hanging.
The Indian strategy ought to be to keep raising this doubt. This doubt is a source of India’s strategic response to Chinese intransigence on Indian core interests in national security.
Alongside these, vital questions should be asked at home if there are political parties within India that de facto take the Chinese line – are there political parties who have a history of having supported the Chinese position rather than the Indian one, and are they guilty of doing the same today?
Just before his death in 1950, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had warned Jawaharlal Nehru in a crucial letter that China could not be trusted, and that Nehru was too trusting of Chinese intentions. Patel had pointed to Tibet and to that fact that the Indian ambassador to China of that time, he had said, seemed to be speaking the Chinese line rather than the Indian one. This is not a mistake India can afford to make again. The consequences of such mistakes were only too rudely made apparent to India when it lost the war against China in 1962.