On June 29, 2018, the deputy chief of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, told reporters that China was holding talks with Indian officials on the de-escalation of bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan. Zhao justified China’s support for an India-Pakistan rapprochement by stating that both countries would benefit greatly from suspending their arms buildups, and participating in joint economic development initiatives.
Although Zhao’s calls for improved India-Pakistan relations were met with skepticism in India, China has assumed an increasingly important role in the preservation of stability in South Asia. At last month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of “unity” among the organization’s members, when he welcomed Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the gathering. On June 20, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang described India and Pakistan as China’s neighbors and friends. This statement prompted speculation that China would host a trilateral dialogue between itself, India, and Pakistan on regional security.
China’s desire to mediate the seemingly intractable India-Pakistan conflict can be explained by three principal motivating factors. First, the Chinese government wants to neutralize India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Indian officials have repeatedly objected to CPEC’s progress because the project passes through territory of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Chinese officials have attempted to soften India’s opposition to CPEC by diplomatically engaging New Delhi. On January 29, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated China’s willingness to hold talks with India over New Delhi’s concerns about the use of Kashmiri territory.
Despite these overtures from Beijing, India has continued to insist that CPEC violates its territorial integrity. Discontent with CPEC contributed greatly to Modi’s statement of opposition to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at the recent SCO summit. The failure of China-India dialogue to assuage New Delhi’s concerns about CPEC has convinced Beijing to deal directly with the source of India’s opposition to CPEC: the strained relationship between India and Pakistan.
Although China has resolutely defended Pakistan on contentious issues like Islamabad’s alleged provision of financial support for terrorist groups, and handling of its nuclear arsenal, Beijing has attempted to portray itself as an indifferent stakeholder in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. In September 2017, the Chinese government distanced itself from Pakistan’s decision to raise the Kashmir issue at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and claimed that the Kashmir conflict can only be solved through India-Pakistan dialogue.
This objective stance won plaudits in India, and provides a platform for China to act as a mediator between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. If a non-aggression pact can be struck between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, CPEC’s long-term viability will be secured, and China will be able to realize its vision of making Gwadar a hub of international trade.
Second, China views its India-Pakistan mediation efforts as an opportunity to test its strategy of using economic integration as a tool of conflict resolution. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the BRI in 2013, Chinese officials have argued that the BRI can facilitate conflict resolution and positively contribute to international security. To demonstrate the credibility of this rhetorical pledge, China has tried to facilitate the expansion of economic cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order to promote a Kabul-Islamabad normalization.
While the long-term success of this economic integration strategy and CPEC’s potential expansion to Afghanistan remains unclear, China is also using economic cooperation as a diplomatic tool to ease India-Pakistan tensions. To counter the perception among Indian policymakers that CPEC poses a challenge to New Delhi’s economic hegemony in South Asia, China has depicted CPEC as an inclusive economic project. In May 2017, the Chinese government invited India to join CPEC and Beijing has attempted to reassure skeptical Indian policymakers by describing CPEC as an “open initiative.”
As the viability of India’s investments in Iran’s Chabahar port have been called into question due to the risk of retaliatory U.S. sanctions against New Delhi, Chinese policymakers believe that India could be enticed to cooperate with CPEC if a suitable offer is made. This optimistic scenario would result in heightened India-Pakistan economic cooperation that will reduce the risk of military conflict between the two countries. If Beijing’s India-Pakistan mediation talks lay the foundations for durable economic cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad, which ease tensions in South Asia, China’s arbitration skills will be revealed to the international community and Beijing’s superpower status aspirations will gain a considerable boost.
Third, China’s increased interest in normalizing relations between India and Pakistan is linked to Beijing’s desire to emerge as a more significant stakeholder in the resolution of the war in Afghanistan. China’s desire to resolve the Afghanistan conflict can be explained by a mixture of economic considerations, like Afghanistan’s potential to serve as a destination for Chinese infrastructure investments, and security considerations relating to Beijing’s desire to stem the inflow of Afghan militants to Xinjiang.
To increase the likelihood of Afghanistan eventually becoming a stable country and a suitable destination for Chinese investments, China has urged Pakistan and India to find common ground on the need to bring peace to Afghanistan. While China has emphatically defended Pakistan against allegations of terrorism sponsorship in Afghanistan, China’s decision not to offer blanket support for Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) suggests that it is pushing Islamabad to more effectively promote stability in Afghanistan. Similarly, China has attempted to assuage Pakistan’s concerns about Indian involvement in Afghanistan, by highlighting New Delhi’s potential to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The establishment of a sense of common purpose between India and Pakistan on restoring stability to Afghanistan could give the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) an expanded role in ending the Afghanistan conflict. During the Qingdao SCO summit in June, Xi expressed support for a strengthened SCO-Afghanistan contact group. This contact group would seek to convert the ceasefire reached by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban into a more durable peace settlement. The enhancement of the SCO contact group on Afghanistan would greatly increase the credibility of the SCO’s counterterrorism mission and give China a uniquely important role in guiding the diplomatic processes that undergird the resolution of the Afghanistan conflict.
Even though tensions over Kashmir, Afghanistan, and terrorism remain serious obstacles to an India-Pakistan rapprochement, China has attempted to reduce New Delhi-Islamabad tensions by inviting India to CPEC, fostering economic integration in South Asia, and highlighting common interests between the two countries in Afghanistan. While there has yet to be any announcement on a trilateral meeting, it is clear that Beijing will play an increasingly important role in the preservation of stability in South Asia in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.