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Kashmir imbroglio: The China connection

September 14, 2010 17:19 IST

With China hardening its stance on the Kashmir issue, India now should be rethinking on appropriate policy options on Tibet, Taiwan or even on Xinjiang, says China expert Srikanth Kondapalli.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reported remark last week that China is entering into the South Asian region in a concerted manner and the Chinese reported remark (later reportedly retracted but not denied) that China considered the northern parts of Kashmir (Gilgit-Baltistan) as parts of Pakistan -- both of these in a span of couple of days indicated to the hardening of stances in India and China.

On Kashmir, there has been a mixed signal from Beijing of late, much to the chagrin of New Delhi affecting the latter's core sovereignty. The so-called neutrality of Beijing on this issue is waning with four new changes in policy of China -- issuing stapled visas to Kashmir residents of India; massive infrastructure projects (estimated at above $20 billion) and invitation to the Hurriyat leaders to visit China and deliberately intervening in the current unrest in the valley.

Beijing appears to be reconsidering the strategic value of Kashmir, for it is located strategically between the hinterlands of the Indian sub-continent, Chinese minority lands and Central Asian steppes. The total area of Jammu and Kashmir is about 222,236 sq km during the 19th century. In the 20th Century, J&K was subjected to territorial claims from India, China and Pakistan, although the Maharaja of J&K signed accession to the Indian Union in 1947. Subsequently this region was subjected to international scrutiny, political violence or even war (in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999 between India and Pakistan and in 1962 between India and China).

Today about 100,942 sq km is under Indian control (i.e. about 45 percent of J&K) while Pakistan occupies 78,114 sq.km (35 percent) and China about 43,180 sq km (about 20 percent) (including Aksai Chin and Sakshgam Valley ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963).

While the growing bonhomie between India and China during the 1950s witnessed a relative silence on the part of China (Mao Zedong in these heady days even preferred unification between India and Pakistan and considered the partition between the two countries as unnatural), tensions between the two following the Dalai Lama's flight to India in 1959 and the subsequent border skirmish between the two countries led to China voicing support to the United Nations resolution calling for plebiscite in the valley and for self-determination of the Kashmiris.

By the 1980s, China's position on the issue has considerably changed towards a status quoist position, partly due to the pragmatic leadership, growing influence of separatism by Uyghur's in Xinjiang. China's call for self-determination could boomerang in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, if not in Taiwan.

China argued in the 1990s that the Kashmir dispute should be resolved peacefully between India and Pakistan, that neither of these countries should cross the line of control and that both should abide by the bilateral treaties (Shimla of 1972). Nevertheless, in the last few years, India had expressed concern on Chinese investments (in road/railway construction activity, hydropower plants, etc) in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas (renamed last year by Pakistan as Gilgit-Baltistan areas), stapled visas to Kashmiris and invitation to Kashmir Hurriyat leaders.

In PoK, China is involved in the construction, maintenance and expansion of the Karakoram highway, small hydro-power projects, construction of a dry port at Sost, water-diversion channels, bridges, railway projects and telecommunication facilities with investments of more than $20 billion. The remark of President Hu Jintao in October 2009 (to Xinhua news agency) that he is "glad to witness the smooth progress" in these projects, provides highest political legitimacy for the Chinese efforts in the region. By these projects, China intends to create a permanent geographical wedge between India and Pakistan, besides having access to West Asia via Gwadar naval port.

In March 2010, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq met with Chinese Foreign Affairs Director Ying Gang in Geneva at the 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Farooq later wanted to visit China at the invitation of the Han Foundation -- stated to be an NGO in November 2009 but failed. In the same month Farooq said that any future negotiations on resolving the Kashmir issue should involve China, as the latter is a stakeholder in the dispute.

The hardliners in the Hurriyat went a step further in October 2009 welcoming the Chinese issuing of stapled visas to Kashmiris. This issue was further complicated for India as the joint statement issued by Presidents Barack Obama and Hu at Beijing in November 2009 mentioned about the India-Pakistan ties and the security situation in the region. This had led to speculation on possible Beijing role in resolving the Kashmir issue, although denied by Beijing.

There was also the reported Chinese attempt to include Kashmir in the agenda of the US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke's visit to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In January this year, China also called for "comprehensive dialogue" between Indian authorities and protesting Kashmiris.

When we compare New Delhi's position on Tibet or Xinjiang, China's position on Kashmir appeared to have been more revisionist than in the past. For instance, India blocked any political role for the Dalai Lama or the Tibetans living in India and had denied visa to Rubiya Kadeer, accused by China to have instigated the July 5 incident in Urumqi which killed 189 people in 2009. While China invited Farooq, India denied entry to Kadeer. Possibly, India now could be rethinking on appropriate policy options on Tibet, Taiwan or even on Xinjiang.

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Srikanth Kondapalli