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In the aftermath of the Indian government’s decision to remove “special status” for Jammu and Kashmir and split the state into two union territories, the most keenly awaited regional and international reaction – and a hugely consequential one – would be that of China, not the US or even any of the other three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
This is for three reasons. First, China is the only P5 member that is party to the Kashmir dispute by virtue of its Faustian deal with Pakistan in 1963 – the Sino-Pakistan Frontier Agreement and Sino-Pakistani Boundary Agreement – as well as because of Aksai Chin being a disputed territory.
Second, it is well known that China has a larger-than-life influence over Pakistan, and therefore, indirectly, is in a position to leverage the next moves by Islamabad on the J&K situation in practical or political terms.
Third, of course, China is a veto-holding P5 member. Although not involved in the making of the UN resolutions on Kashmir in 1948-1949 – which was an Anglo-American enterprise at a juncture when Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru somehow deliberately refrained from seeking Soviet help to counter India’s isolation in the UNSC – nonetheless, China is a powerful protagonist today if the Kashmir file were to reopen in New York at Pakistan’s behest.
On Tuesday, the Chinese reaction to the announcement in Delhi on Monday relating to J&K has come in two parts in the nature of remarks by the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Beijing – a relatively low-key reaction in diplomatic terms in comparison with a full-fledged statement, as Turkey, for instance, has done. One part exclusively relates to Ladakh’s new status as union territory, while the other one relates to the “current situation” in J&K.
Both remarks are devoid of any stridency, and on the whole India can live with them, although Western media, unsurprisingly, has hyped them. In fact, neither voices any overt backing to Pakistan. And, importantly, there are no new overtones as such in the well-known Chinese stance.
The remark on the change in Ladakh’s status begins by underscoring explicitly that China is voicing its “firm and consistent position,” which “remains unchanged.” That is to say, it regards part of Ladakh to be Chinese territory and India should not unilaterally create facts on the ground through domestic laws. If India does, China will consider that unacceptable and it “will not come into force.”
The remark rounds off stating the Chinese stance that India should speak and act with prudence on the boundary question, strictly abide by relevant agreements on peace and tranquility and avoid precipitate steps.
This is exactly what China has maintained and can be expected to state. No doubt, this is also what India would expect China to observe in regard of the unresolved border dispute. The Indian stance on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a fine example.
The gray area here is whether the administration of Ladakh as a union territory will entail administrative arrangements on the ground that tread on Chinese sensitivity. Prima facie, that is unlikely to happen, since the two militaries present in the vacant spaces observe ground rules.
On the other hand, the interesting aspect of the Chinese spokeswoman’s remark on the J&K situation is that there is no direct reference to the specific situation involving the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The remark is of a generic nature. It repeats that the J&K situation is a matter of serious concern, but underscores categorically that “China’s position on the Kashmir issue is clear and consistent.”
Most important, it flags that China is in sync with the “international consensus” that the Kashmir issue is a historical conundrum that India and Pakistan have to grapple with by exercising restraint and prudence. This means, however, that the two countries “should refrain from taking actions that will unilaterally change the status quo and escalate tensions.” China calls on the two countries to “peacefully resolve … [their] relevant disputes through dialogue and consultation” in the interest of regional “peace and stability.”
Indeed, the “known unknown” here is to what extent, if any, the current upheaval in Hong Kong influenced Beijing to sidestep the Indian government’s specific move to abolish Article 370 and abandon J&K’s “special status.” To be sure, a grave situation has arisen in Hong Kong, which has assumed anti-China overtones.
No analogy holds 100% in politics, but there are similarities in the public alienation in J&K and in Hong Kong that foreign powers are exploiting. In fact, China also has to contend with its equivalent of India’s Article 370 – the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is as sacrosanct as an international bilateral treaty, signed between China and Britain on December 19, 1984, in Beijing.
Curiously, the Joint Declaration is also legally binding, and like Article 370, it commits China to allow Hong Kong to “enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except for foreign and defense affairs” even as the territory will be “directly under the authority” of Beijing.
Most important, the Joint Declaration affirms that the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is responsible for the “maintenance of public order … Military forces sent by the Central People’s Government to be stationed in … [the HKSAR] for the purpose of defense shall not interfere in the internal affairs” in the HKSAR.
The treaty is valid for 50 years, but a crisis is looming large on the horizon, and there is much speculation that patience is wearing thin in Beijing. A top Chinese official said on Wednesday: “Hong Kong is facing the most serious situation since its return to China.”
A Beijing-datelined commentary by Xinhua on Monday titled “Bottom Line on Hong Kong brooks no challenge” was furious that “black-clad, masked protesters removed the Chinese national flag from a flagpole in Tsim Sha Tsui of Hong Kong and later flung the flag into the water Saturday, an unforgivable, lawless act that has blatantly offended the national dignity, is an insult to all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots, and must be severely punished in accordance with law.”
All factors taken into account, as the saying goes, the pot cannot call the kettle black. The MEA’s response to the Chinese remarks on J&K has gently drawn attention to the reciprocity that governs inter-state relationships by underscoring that the legislation known as the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill 2019, introduced by the government in Parliament on August 5, is “an internal matter concerning the territory of India. India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.” India has scrupulously maintained silence on Hong Kong developments.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.