China’s Careful Response to IAF Air Strikes Signals a New Stance
The Chinese know a thing or two about face. Therefore they clearly understood the message put out by India in the aftermath of the air strike on Balakot in Pakistan on Tuesday, 26 February. This was aimed at making it easy for Islamabad to walk away from confrontation.
The official statement put out by South Block invoked the doctrine of self-defence, enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. It described its strikes on one of the “biggest training camps of JeM in Balakot” as “non-military pre-emptive action” provoked by the imminent danger that India believed it confronted.
It deliberately introduced a degree of ambiguity by not stating that this was in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. In other words, it acknowledged that the target was not any Pakistani state entity or organisation, but “fidayeen jihadis” who were being trained as suicide bombers.
China Chooses Neutrality Over Pakistan?
Put in these words, the Chinese have not quibbled, more importantly, they have taken an even-handed stance. Addressing the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs regular briefing on Tuesday, the official spokesman Lu Kang called on “the two sides to exercise restraint and take actions that will help stabilise the situation in the region.”
Both were important countries in South Asia and would benefit from harmonious relations. Islamabad could not be particularly happy that its closest ally has chosen neutrality in its time of need.
Asked about the phone call that the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had received from his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan, Lu said that Wang “had listened carefully” to Qureshi’s briefing on the situation and the Pakistani propositions, but “he also reiterated that China supports the Pakistani and Indian sides in properly resolving the issue through dialogue as soon as possible.”
The Chinese stand was helped by Pakistan’s somewhat confused response. Earlier in the day, the Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor claimed that some Indian aircraft had intruded into the Muzaffarabad sector and were forced to return because of the timely Pakistan Air Force response.
In the process “the aircraft released payload which had free fall in open area.” No infrastructure was hit and there were no casualties, he added.
Later in the day, the Pakistani National Security Committee met under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Imran Khan. It criticised India’s “uncalled for aggression” and vowed retaliation, but it also said that India’s claims of targeting a militant camp in Balakot were “self serving, reckless and fictitious.”
So if nothing substantive happened, China did not really have to exert itself on its “iron brother’s” behalf as yet.
Does China’s Language Give Room for Pak to De-escalate?
An important reason for this is tactical. In the wake of the strikes, one of the countries that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called in the wake of the strikes was China, and the MEA said that all of them, presumably including Beijing, showed an understanding of India’s position.
More important Swaraj flew to China later in the day to attend a meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping at Wuzhen in China. On Wednesday morning, she met the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and presumably discussed the issue with him. Later, the RIC foreign ministers’ meeting got underway and provided Swaraj an invaluable opportunity to brief her colleagues.
None of this should be taken to assume that China has abandoned Pakistan. All it has done is to have taken a neutral stand in an issue which would have been hard to defend in any case.
It could not have expected New Delhi to stand by and do nothing after one of the most devastating attacks on its paramilitary personnel in Jammu & Kashmir, one that was readily claimed by a group proscribed by the United Nations.
The Chinese policy responses are always cautious in nature. This time around they cannot but be unaware that an entirely new situation has been created.
For the first time, India has invoked the right of pre-emption and struck terrorist targets in Pakistan. It has backed its action with its air power. Yet, the language it has used to do this has been low key and provides sufficient room for its ally, Islamabad, to de-escalate.
However, Pakistani jets violated the Indian airspace on Wednesday, 27 February, and dropped bombs on the way out, a day after the Indian Air Force carried out air strikes across the Line of Control (LoC).
Choosing Between a Stable India and Scorpion-Like Pak
Pakistan operates on its own calculus. Being hit by India is viewed as an existential dilemma and there must be voices in Rawalpindi (the HQ of the Pakistan Army) calling for retaliation.
In doing so, it needs to factor in the larger perspective of its relations with South Asia. It has been using Pakistan as a foil against India since the 1960s. In recent years, through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, it has upped its commitment to Islamabad which now seems to include the assurance of Pakistani economic well-being as well. But it cannot be oblivious to Islamabad’s scorpion-like behaviour of devouring itself.
Just as the doctrine of deterrence can only be given life if it is invoked each time a threat occurs, the counter-doctrine that Rawalpindi may want to follow calls for retaliation every time it is struck. Beijing needs to square this circle and it may feel compelled to re-evaluate its position in the coming days.
On the other hand, a much more stable India is providing opportunities for Chinese companies to expand themselves. The reset in Sino-Indian ties following the Wuhan Summit of 2018 has created conditions which can be of great benefit to Beijing in an era when it is facing a fundamental challenge from the United States. Who knows, New Delhi may even consider supporting the Belt & Road Initiative in some indirect fashion as the Japanese are doing.