Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Chinese strategy in Pakistan, the CPEC's Indian impact and the CPEC status today

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Author: SSridhar

Before, we look at the tactical questions, I would like to consider the Chinese strategy in Pakistan, the CPEC's Indian impact and the CPEC status today. They are related to the issue on hand, namely my conjecture that PRC may have had a hand in the Uri attack. IMO, China has concluded (may be quite sometime back) that Pakistan could not be saved from being dissolved as an entity, either by India or internal subversion due to various reasons or a combination of both. They cannot be faulted for this conclusion, This is a nightmare scenario for it due to several reasons, not the least of which are, and in no particular order:

  1. Its nuclear weapons and the missiles in Pakistani storage 
  2. Its loss of control over jihadi tanzeems from absorbing/training Uyghurs, which it has so far been successfully managing through blandishments, bribes and pressure 
  3. Loss of the cat's paw which is being used to keep India confined to the South Asia quagmire and leading more importantly, for China to deal directly with India, a situation it relishes 
  4. Loss of Gwadar for PLAN and the oil & gas pipelines to Kashgar 
  5. The failure of the flagship CPEC project, a precursor to other SilkRoad projects 
  6. Loss of access to the riches of Afghanistan 
  7. Failure of the encirclement strategy of India 
  8. Total loss of face that all the might of China could not prevent disintegration of its biggest ally in the world 
So, the Chinese strategy is to be tactical and prolong the existence of Pakistan as a state in its present form & content for as long as possible, in order to tackle the enemy, India, and in the process make gains geoeconomically, geopolitically as much as possible and gain stability in Xinjiang. Khunjerab Pass and Gilgit-Baltistan are the fulcrum of China's India policy. The moment CPEC was formulated, China moved its forces into GB to secure it and advised Pakistan to politically & constitutionally make it as another Pakistani province, no longer to be referred merely as 'Northern Areas'.

The CPEC posed a great dilemma to the Indian strategic community in 2014. The Modi government had just assumed power. It needed time to develop a strategy, to develop linkages with world leaders, and be firmly in saddle. There were always tactical India-Pakistan situations that needed attention - an attack here or another one there (for example, Herat Consulate attack on the very day of assumption of power by Modi)-, depriving it of attention to long-term strategies. China was putting pressure on India to join the project, and be generally on its side in its geopolitical & geoeconomic approaches etc. For example, the formation of AIIB. Nimble-footed China knew that Modi was deeply committed to improving infrastructure and the idea of India joining the Bank was immediately mooted during the visit of Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari to China in June 2014. CPEC was posing a great challenge to the nascent Modi government as it had to carefully choose between not looking 'confrontational' with the Chinese leadership who were wooing India and at the same time protecting the Indian strategic interests which not only included territorial claims (GB, Shaksgam Valley) but also its geopolitical equations with countries such as the USA & Japan. CPEC is a direct challenge to India's sovereignty over all areas of the erstwhile Princely state of J&K. So, India has been forthright on its stance with respect to CPEC whose glib-talking efforts have failed with us.

China is desperate about Pakistan. It indulged Zardari (who forced himself upon the Chinese to the point of annoyance by visiting them every month), it indulged the Sharif brothers with the hope that they would facilitate a smooth implementation of the CPEC. But, they are unable to deliver as they have not only failed miserably in forging a political unanimity but also showing signs of collapsing any minute. The political situation in Pakistan is so fraught that the Chinese are nervous about the implementation of its most ambitious and defining project. It is a great risk to invest in Pakistan at any time but to stake the entire future of Silk Road project on a shaky Pakistan is the riskiest venture, but the Chinese are forced by circumstances to do so. The Army has cleverly manipulated the Tehrik-e-Insaf and the Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to successfully bring governance to a grinding halt every now and then. They have also used the Panama Gate to the same effect and make Nawaz Sharif look very shaky. But, Nawaz Sharif is not budging on handing over CPEC to the PA. The Chinese would want to sew this up before the next Chief came in.

Speaking on the 89th founding day of the PLA, Gen. Raheel Sharif said, very pointedly, "Our resolve to break the nexus between terrorists, criminality and corruption is unflinching. Pakistan Army and PLA form the edifice of our overall strategic relations". He also promised to "leave no stone unturned" to provide security to the CPEC project. Gen. Raheel Sharif even conducted a cabinet meeting at GHQ on June 7, 2016 when Nawaz Sharif was undergoing heart surgery at London. That meeting was dedicated to deliberating on the challenges to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. After the meeting, the ISPR statement spoke of "not allowing hostile intelligence agencies and their unnamed facilitators to foment trouble in the country, and protecting core national interests and countering any negative outside influence”. What is even more striking is that immediately after the meeting, the army chief received Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Sun Weidong in his office for a discussion on “regional security and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. A month later, Gen. Sharif visited China, incidentally to Urmqui to meet his Chinese counterpart where he pledged to firmly crack down on terrorist forces. The PA is spreading false information about India sabotaging the CPEC project just so that the management of the project would fall into their lap as the Chinese also desire. The kidnapping of Kulbushan Jadhav from Iran is a part of that project.

The CPEC project is completely opaque for even the Chief Ministers of Sindh, Balochistan & KP. Only the Punjab CM, Shahbaz Sharif and the Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif visit China and discusses the project. The PA, predominantly Punjabi, has no problems with the Punjab-centricity of the project and the other three provinces being ignored. However, the other three provinces are agitated greatly.

The only institution that the Chinese can turn to is the Pakistani Army. The Chinese are impatient because they are bereft of any lever vis-a-vis the ruling political elite at this stage, though they have indulged Nawaz & Shahbaz Sharif regularly. The resolution of the question of who manages the CPEC implementation is crucial now. The Chinese have reached a limit now as the political class is unwilling to be pushed on the management of the CPEC project any further, even by the Chinese!

And to add to their woes, the unpredictable Modi mentioned Balochistan, totally out of the blue in his I-Day message. That has stirred the pot. I posted here the reaction of one of China’s South Asia experts, Hu Shisheng (director of state-run think-tank Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations affiliated to the Chinese foreign ministry). He said,

“My personal view is that if India is adamant and if Indian factor is found by China or Pakistan in disrupting the process of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), if that becomes a reality, it will really become a disturbance to China-India relations, India-Pakistan relations. If that happens China and Pakistan could have no other way but take united steps. I want to say that the Pakistan factor could surge again to become the most disturbing factor in China-India relations, even more than the Tibet, border and trade imbalance issues. I think the two countries (China and Pakistan) will do whatsoever to enhance the security and smooth construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. But what kind of forms I have no idea. I am just wondering whether military involvement could be one of the choices but in my personal view, it is very unlikely. If Indian concern is too much, China is also one part of the Kashmir issue. If the accession (area by Pakistan to China) is regarded by India as one part of the problem then let the three of us sit down to talk. In the past Chinese scholars are not so much concerned about India-US ties. We strongly believed that India's strategic independence can be trusted and can be maintained. In recent years, Indian strategic independence is facing some challenges because of security issues. The cooperation has been going really far more forward in the past one year”.

Since China expresses its foreign policy opinions through such myriad opinion-makers and think-tanks, this must be understood by India as a definite Chinese warning. This opinion was followed by an editorial in the Global Times which said that since CPEC "passes through some turbulent regions, Kashmir included" there can be potential "setbacks".

Early last month, Gen. Raheel Sharif announced in GB that the PA was aware of the nefarious design of Modi regarding CPEC and would provide 'fool-proof security. It has been 'leaked' that during his frequent trips to China Gen. Raheel Sharif has been blaming India for the delays & confusion regarding CPEC. Roughly one-fourth of the CPEC projects (USD 11.5B) are delayed or being axed. In January 2016, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad openly expressed concern and asked the relevant parties to "address their differences in order to create favourable conditions".
On what basis can we say China knew "fully well" that India would retaliate for Uri? I don't know if the Pakis were even expecting such a high number of Indian KIA at Uri; most of the deaths were because of tents catching fire. Even if they fully expected 18 deaths, why would they think we would behave any differently this time than after Pathankot? On the contrary, I think PA and ISI were lulled by our non-response to Pathankot into thinking that Modi turned out to be a Hindu Bania solely interested in economic growth, and could thus be needled ad infinitum because he would never do anything to jeopardise the Indian economy.
May be "fully well" was an overstatement. But, some response must have been expected after killing 19 soldiers. Kaluchak did not see retaliation because it was part of the "Twin Peaks" of 2001-2002 and mobilisation was already on and a confrontation was in the works with the Americans working over time to defuse the crisis. This time, it was different. The US-Pakistani relationship is in the doldrums, while the US-India relationship is quite high and the need for the US to intervene is not as much as it was in 2002. No Army, no country can let go after such a brazen attack of killing so many soldiers. That this government meant business was known after the June 2015 strikes inside Myanmar at NSCN-K camps after a similar episode of 18 Indian soldiers being killed. A few months' later, there was a similar strike in the same theatre which was played down. Even diplomatically, India has taken tough, unbending stances since May 2014. As for the large number of 'surprise' KIA, the attackers fully expected a significant Indian casualty because they deliberately chose incendiary phosphorous bombs to set fire to tents. It may be that hitting a fuel tank/pump added to the misery of the sleeping soldiers, but the attackers planned it well and knew exactly what they were doing and the likely fatalities. There is enormous difference between PAFB & Uri attacks. The only similarity is both were military targets. The Pathankot attack came immediately after a surprise visit by Modi to Lahore and it was probably felt that so sudden an attack after the visit could have been only mounted by the usual suspects, thereby giving some leeway to the civilian government. However, the Uri attack came at a different time. Pakistan had stoked a deep unrest in the Kashmir valley for several months and the Pakistani civilian government was in the forefront running the show. Pakistan Army & China couldn't have expected it to go unpunished especially with a so-called 'nationalist 56-inch chest' government. The surgical strikes were meant to convey message to four parties, the Pakistani Army, its Chinese backers, the Pakistani civilian government and the 'world community'. By all accounts, it looks like that he PA/ISI were totally deceived by crafty Indian armed forces.
When even close watchers of the India-TSP situation like us on BRF were surprised at the 28/9 surgical strike, would the Chinese/PA/JeM have bet on such an unprecedented Indian response to help Raheel Sharif secure an extension? It would seem a long shot.
As stated above, any country, especially 'Paranoidistan', must have expected a response after Uri-type attack. In fact, such a strike adds to the paranoia and strengthens the PA's demand to hand over CPEC implementation to itself.

In fact, if the whole thing was a trap laid with full expectation of an Indian surgical strike in response, why weren't PA well prepared for the Indian incursion so that Raheel could claim a victory by giving a mooh-thod jawab? Wouldn't that have made a far better case for his extension than this kerfuffle of PA being caught 400% on the backfoot, and then running around trying to deny the strike ever happened?
PA was well-prepared for some other form of attack as we saw with closing down GB airspace, PAF CAPs, PAF exercises, fighters landing on highways, Lahore/Karachi airspace restrictions, naval deployments etc., but not what happened eventually. The mooh-thod jawab fell apart. For some reason, JeM is a blue-eyed boy of China, for whose leaders China has been strenuously applying technical-hold in UNSC since c. 2009. Probably, the Chinese are sure that Nawaz would not extend the term of Gen. Raheel Sharif and they would like the CPEC management issue to be settled before he left as they might not be sure of the newcomer and in any case, it would take time for him to settle down etc. What is better for the Chinese (and perhaps Gen. Raheel Sharif) than to precipitate a limited skirmish on the LoC (of which there are dozens and they never escalated uncontrollably, the Chinese would know the history) and spin stories about India targeting CPEC? But, the wily fox India took the wind out of the sail, by not indiscriminately attacking Pakistan, not employing air power etc, but by labelling it as a counter-terror op and targeting precisely the launch-pads of the terrorists, informing the Pakistani DGMO of Indian action and announcing the end of operations etc.

Instigating the PA/ISI terror attack at Uri seems a very risky strategy though, and not typical of the Chinese. It may have been far less risky to (say) stage a spectacular terrorist attack against hapless Pakistani Christians or something... then have Raheel step forward as the sole guarantor of Pakistan's internal security, buffing his Zarb-e-Kabr credentials.

For China, there is no risk involved. Nobody suspects a China hand, doesn't it? If there was an escalation, it was for Pakistan to absorb it and possibly China would work extra-hard along with the US to defuse the situation and prevent it from spiralling out of control. But, China would have gamed all that because it knows that if at all, India would go for punitive strikes but not for a total war for this reason. We have to recall the extraordinary support provided to JeM by China including the latest ridiculous defence it has put up yesterday of there being no unanimity in the UNSC 1267 Committee. This support to JeM goes seven years back. After LeT was blacklisted, which was inevitable considering the 26/11 attacks and multiple nationalities being killed in a much televised urban warfare, Masood Azhar and his JeM have been resurrected and LeT cadres are attacking India with the JeM tag. Though the two pro-Sarkari jihadist tanzeems have collaborated with the PA in attacking India for a long time now, the LeT was always preponderant simply by virtue of its numbers, resources and clout. But, these days, we hear more and more of JeM with LeT playing a second fiddle. The proximity, on the one hand, between PRC & PA, combined with the facts that it is JeM that is playing more active role in terror these days and that China is going to ridiculous extents to support a terrorist organization such as JeM repeatedly, each time offering more and more ridiculous excuses, makes one very suspicious. By the way, China is not averse to taking risks. Its nuclear, missile proliferations, very risky support for DPRK & flouting of UNCLOS on Indo-China Sea or the NSG in grand-fathering Pakistani n-reactors are there for all to see. The Deng Xiaoping restriction on 'risky' foreign intel activities (after the 1985 episode) have been rescinded by Xi Jinping.

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