Features | Security | South Asia

What Does the China-India Standoff in Ladakh Mean for Pakistan?

For Islamabad, the Sino-Indian border clash is a chance to press the advantage on the Kashmir issue.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai
What Does the China-India Standoff in Ladakh Mean for Pakistan?

An Indian army convoy moves on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway at Gagangeer, northeast of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, June 18, 2020..

Credit: AP photo

Understandably, due to its evolving ties with China and rivalry with India, Pakistan has been viewing the Ladakh standoff through a Chinese lens. The episode has gained substantial space in mainstream Pakistani media. As expected, there are India-bashing commentaries, analysis, and coverage on TV channels, along with official backing. The reason is obvious: Pakistan, like China, has its own long-standing territorial dispute with India. That has led to wars between the two countries, as well as frequent clashes along the Line of Control, dividing the disputed Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Civilians have lost their lives on both sides of de facto border.

During a violent face-off in Ladakh on the night of June 15 to 16, the Indian Army claimed to have lost 20 of its soldiers in the biggest clash between India and China in nearly 50 years. China’s Defense Ministry confirmed there had been casualties, without giving a number. There has not been independent reporting from either side. Instead, media in the two countries are largely reporting state propaganda, as usually happens with such border run-ins, calling the other side the aggressor.

In this context, it is interesting to note that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has alienated more than one of its neighbors. Besides China and Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan also have recent complaints over their borders with India.

Ever since the deadly standoff between China and India, Pakistan has been trying to cash in on the situation. From diplomatic maneuvering behind the scenes to publicly bashing India for the overall developments surrounding Ladakh, Pakistan has stood on the side of China. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has categorically vowed to support China on border tensions with India.

In doing so, Pakistan thinks it can benefit from the standoff. The situation has remained relatively calm along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, due to the Indian engagement in Ladakh in the same region. Independent security analysts argue that Pakistan can seize the opportunity to increase its influence in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which has been under lockdown for months following the abrogation of the article guaranteeing the region’s autonomy (which was one of the conditions under which Maharaja Hari Singh ceded Kashmir to India in 1947).

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India removed the region’s special status on August 5, bringing disputed parts of Kashmir directly under New Delhi’s control as two separate union territories. In doing so, India overlooked international and regional reservations, as well the United Nations resolutions on the Kashmir dispute. That move put Pakistan on standby, and there were even suspicions of a planned Indian military intrusions inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. But India had other plans — it wanted to confront China, the emerging power in the region. New Delhi constructed roads and bridges in Galwan Valley, at the disputed Sino-Indian border in Ladakh.

Indeed, the Ladakh stand-off can be understood through the issue of Kashmir, one of many questions left unresolved by the British after their departure from South Asia. Pakistan and India have fought most of the wars over Kashmir’s status. Parts of the Kashmir region are controlled and administered by China, too, including in Ladakh. Now overlapping claims in Ladakh have brought China and India to a deadly standoff. Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) President Sardar Masood Khan has rightly said  that the China-India clash in Ladakh was not the real issue; instead, the Kashmir conflict is the root cause of all problems in the region.

The question of Kashmir has stymied relations between India and Pakistan from the very beginning. Now it is undermining ties between China and India. India claims Kashimr in its entirety and does not want any external mediation over the issue – not even from the United States, its ally in the region. Pakistan, however, calls Kashmir a disputed territory and has encouraged international intervention. Now the Chinese and Indian standoff at Ladakh give credence to Pakistan’s claim that Kashmir is indeed disputed.

India has strongly opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion dollar project that serves as the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), from the very outset. As CPEC passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, India has been colluding with the United States, which has its own qualms about Chinese influence in Pakistan, to disrupt the project. Meanwhile, India has been carrying out infrastructure construction and other schemes in its section of Kashmir. This led to border clashes, because India considers China and Pakistan intruders in the Kashmir region, while these two countries hold India responsible for escalating tensions. With the recent deadly run-in between Chinese and Indian troops in Ladakh, the situation has reached a dead-end, with seemingly no way out.

In India, Modi has been facing increasing domestic pressure over the loss of the Indian soldiers. Modi has taken a soft tone on the border clashes with China, quite unlike his usual approach to Pakistan. Traditionally, India has bashed Pakistan over tensions on the Line of Control, in the same Kashmir region. This has, too, increased anti-Pakistani sentiments in India, and ultra-Hindu nationalists have started holding responsible Pakistan for all their problems.

Ahead of his re-election campaign in India, Modi’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric doubled up, publicly threatening Pakistan during his jalsas and rallies. As a result, the Hindu nationalists became used to his strident nationalism, and they expected Modi to do the same regarding clashes with China, which has not been the case. This has led many nationalists, as well as opposition parties in India, to bash Modi over the Ladakh fiasco.

In a sense, however, the Ladakh standoff is precisely the result of Indian nationalism against china. India’s defeat at the hands of Chinese in 1962 is still fresh in Indian minds, and the build-up in infrastructure along the disputed border was likely an attempt to prevent another embarrassing loss.

As more evidence that Kashmir is linked to all developments in the region, veteran Pakistani columnist Irfan Husain gives an interesting account of Pakistan and the Kashmir factor in the 1962 war between China and India:

As the fighting was at its height, and India had sent most of its mountain divisions from Kashmir to the war zone, the Chinese ambassador in Islamabad called on Gen. Ayub Khan [then the military ruler of Pakistan] to ask why Pakistan had not taken advantage of the situation to seize Kashmir.

Ayub passed on this information to the American and British ambassadors who sought urgent instructions from Washington and London. They returned the following day, begging Ayub to do nothing, and promising that after the fighting had ceased, their governments would pressure [Indian Prime Minister] Nehru into holding the UN-mandated vote in Kashmir. Ayub and his coterie thought it would be in Pakistan’s interest to follow the UN route rather than fight a war.

But unfortunately, despite that promise, the UN has remained silent over the Kashmir issue.

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In the nuclear era, small skirmishes can lead to bigger disasters, somewhat like a spark in a jungle that can turn the entire forest into ashes if it spreads. Similarly, all the three countries involved in the Kashmir dispute are nuclear armed. So it becomes essential to deescalate the border tensions in the region, which have been impeding economic development for decades.

When its two nuclear armed neighbors are involved in border clashes with each other, Pakistan itself risks being dragged in, too. Thus Islamabad ought to play its due role as a mediator instead of becoming a party to the conflict. But unfortunately, ground realities tell us Pakistan will act otherwise.