Interview: ‘Following CPEC, China Desiring A Greater Role in Kashmir’

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Manoj Kewalramani

By Saumy Tripathi

AMID Ladakh standoff, China has once again sought to raise the Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The development took place days after a certain Beijing-based think tank linked the August 5 events in Kashmir with the ongoing faceoff — that already saw the two nations raising war-rooms at Line of Control (LAC).

Following these developments closely, Manoj Kewalramani, known for his twitter handle “theChinaDude”, is being sought as a Chinese expert on various platforms today.

A Fellow-China Studies at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, Kewalramani has in his name a reckoning research titled the role of the US post 9/11 and its effects on the Kashmir issue.

But before becoming a policy analyst, he had his journalistic stints with NDTV, NewsX and CCTV news China, where he worked as a Senior Editor, Digital News.

His experience of working with CCTV has given him an insight into the workings of the Chinese state. He publishes a weekly brief called Eye on China for more than two years which tracks development in China.

In an exclusive chat with Kashmir Observer, Kewalramani talks about the current confrontation and its impact on the Kashmir issue.

As a Chinese expert, do you also see a link between the recent LAC attacks and the internal pressure faced by Xi Jinping on his handling of the COVID-19 crisis?

I’m not of the opinion that the current escalation in tensions along the LAC is linked to domestic pressure faced by the Chinese Communist Party with regard to its handling of the Covid-19.

If this were to be the case, we would’ve seen greater media coverage to stoke nationalism.

Instead, party-state media has generally followed the official line and been fairly circumspect this time, unlike its behaviour during the 2017 Doklam incident.

That said, it’s highly likely that the casualties following the clashes in Galwan would’ve had some impact in terms of elite politics.

A recent report by the Chinese think tank CICIR titled ‘India blinded by double confidence’ says that the recent tensions have their links in the abrogation of Article 370 by India. As somebody who tracks Beijing’s politics closely, how valid is this reasoning?

I don’t believe we can locate the cause of the current crisis to one specific issue or decision. But on the question of the abrogation of Article 370, it’s useful to go back and examine Beijing’s responses. The immediate reaction was two separate statements by the foreign ministry, which were critical of the Indian government’s actions.

Soon after the August 5th decision, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar visited Beijing to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The MEA had then said that Jaishankar told Wang the decision would have “no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control with China”.

China’s readout following the meeting said that India’s actions had challenged “the sovereign rights and interests of the Chinese side,” resulting in serious concerns, but it wouldn’t result in changing the status quo that the Chinese side exercises in terms of the territory there.

This suggests that Beijing understood that the creation of the Ladakh Union Territory would not really change facts on the ground.

However, prior to Jaishankar’s visit, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had landed in Beijing. Wang Yi had told him that China would “continue to support Pakistan in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and uphold justice for Pakistan on the international arena”. But he had also added that “Pakistan and India are both China’s friendly neighbors,” calling on both sides to proceed focussing on national development.

But thereafter, the Chinese side raised the Kashmir issue at the UNSC. The agenda item that was discussed was curiously titled the “India Pakistan Question,” although China’s representative Zhang Jun did mention the issue of Aksai Chin.

In September, scuffles were reported along Pangong Tso, but there wasn’t further escalation. In October, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi met for the informal summit in Mamallapuram, with Article 370 not being an issue.

Subsequently, the 22nd round of Special Representatives talks on the boundary issue was held in December 2019. Once again, the Chinese side made no public reference to the issue of Article 370.

What all this tells us is that while the abrogation of Article 370 did lead to concern in Beijing about New Delhi’s intentions, it would be incorrect to view it as a trigger for the current situation.

So I don’t agree with Wang Shida’s reasoning in the piece you’ve mentioned, but it does offer some insight into different strands of thought about Indian intentions doing the rounds in Beijing.

We tend to presume that Beijing has a clear understanding of New Delhi’s intentions and objectives. But that might not necessarily be the case.

States often tend to view others’ actions and intentions through the prism of their own perspectives on exercise of power and insecurities. In my view, there are tactical reasons such as changes to border infrastructure and strategic reasons of geopolitics for what’s playing out in Eastern Ladakh.

But do you think that China is now taking a more active role in Kashmir than ever?

I think China’s interest in ensuring stability and connectivity through the region are far greater than before, following the development of CPEC.

So in that sense, yes it does seem to be desiring a greater role in Kashmir, as also evident by the August meetings between Wang Yi and both Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers.

Many Indian analysts say that these LAC tensions now represent a new dual challenge on Kashmir. What do you think?

I think we should be very careful in casting what’s happening at the LAC. Each boundary has its own dynamic. To me, tensions on the LAC are representative of the wearing out of existing modalities of boundary management owing to tactical-level capacity enhancement along with the asymmetric rise of India and China and strategic shifts underway in the global order.

What this means is that we should expect increased volatility going ahead, which might characterise a new normal between the two sides.

But what should one read from the recent army statement wherein it said that the rules of engagement with China’s PLA have changed?

From what reports inform, it means that there is greater flexibility and freedom for ground commanders to decide upon the use of force and potentially firearms based on their discretion in extraordinary circumstances. This is significant.

Under Article VI of the 1996 agreement between the two sides, they both had eschewed the use of firearms and explosives within two kilometers of the LAC. The 2005 agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question had reiterated this commitment.

With PM Modi devoting his six years in power to make the India-China relations closer, how will trouble at LAC affect the Modi-Xi relationships now?

To me the key issue is not about the relationship between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi but about the deterioration of political trust in the aftermath of the Galwan clashes.

Over the years, both India and China had seemingly become used to scuffles, transgressions, and incursions at different locations along the India-China boundary.

This had become an uneasy pattern over the past decade or so along the LAC. And in this backdrop, the two sides had sought to continue to work together on issues of common and strategic interests. The clashes of June 16 mark a fundamental shift in this pattern.

It’s clear that our old mechanisms and agreements need to be renegotiated in order to arrive at a new understanding of border management. Arriving at a new modus vivendi is important, but extremely complex given the rise of both countries and geopolitical churn that is underway.

For any of this to happen, we first need the PLA to step back and the ground situation in Eastern Ladakh to return to the April status quo. This will be the first step in repairing political trust. Thereafter, the challenge will be about restoring it and establishing new mechanisms, which will require both leaders to invest significant political capital.

What options should India pursue now?

Well, it’s important for both sides to recognise that conflict does not serve their strategic interests. While military level talks are being held, disengagement will likely require higher-level political engagement between the two sides.

In the interim, it is important for India not to let its guard down militarily, and also consider asymmetric, low-intensity escalatory options in other sectors and theatres.

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