The late Samuel P Huntington put forth his seductively simple theory of the “clash of civilisations” some years ago. Although many criticised him, it does appear that there are several mutually antagonistic entities constantly in conflict with each other, shifting alliances and at war overtly or covertly. India has the unfortunate fate of being attacked simultaneously by three of these civilisational entities, while desperately trying to convince itself that it is friends with all of them.
The latest manifestation is the Chinese initiative in Pakistan linking Kashgar in Chinese-held Sinkiang to Gwadar in Balochistan, via Pakistani-Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. The proposed $46 billion project has a number of alarming and sinister implications, almost none of which is good for India.
The simplest first: in the Chinese maps that have been reprinted by many in the global media, Chinese-Occupied Kashmir (CoK, or Aksai Chin) is not even marked as disputed territory: it has been integrated into Chinese Sinkiang. Interestingly, western media that insists on drawing dotted lines around all of Kashmir and marking it ostentatiously as a disputed territory has quietly accepted this. Score 1 to the usual Chinese tactic of “creating facts on the ground”, as they did with suddenly referring to the Senkaku Islands with a new name, Daiyou, now widely accepted as an alternative.
More alarmingly, the Chinese are proposing building roads, pipelines, and suchlike projects through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which India considers its sovereign territory. It is a serious offense in India to publish any map that does not show the entirety of Jammu and Kashmir as part of India. The blatant violation of Indian sentiment and of its long-stated diplomatic stance that GB/PoK are forbidden territory are a direct challenge to India. It is also intended to put India on the defensive when PM Narendra Modi visits China as scheduled this month. The Pakistan deal will be presented to PM Modi as a fait accompli, a non-negotiable fact on the ground, much like China invaded Vietnam during Vajpayee's 1979 visit to Beijing: a 'loss of face', a snub.
More broadly, we are seeing an evolution in the menage a trois between the US, China and Pakistan. It is now clear that China, the all-weather friend, is Pakistan's 'husband', and the US just a standby “boyfriend”, a dalliance of convenience. Recent US moves imply that it will disengage from Pakistan's embrace. Their thaw towards Iran means that the US doesn't need Pakistan any more as a strategic partner to continue the war in Afghanistan: the Iran route is just as convenient, and less risky.
Besides, the US cozying up to Iran sends a signal that it doesn't need Saudi Arabia, the erstwhile kingpin of its Middle East strategy, quite so much as before: Iran and Saudi Arabia struggle for supremacy in the Persian Gulf, also reflecting the Sunni-Shia divide. The success of fracking and shale oil/gas has made the US less dependent on Opec, too. Given the abject failure of its Middle East policy of getting rid of stable dictatorships (eg. Libya, Iraq), and the resultant rise of ISIS and chaos, the US is limiting its losses there. Lee Kuan Yew once cuttingly termed the Jimmy Carter regime as “four years of pious musings about America's malaise”, and eight years of Barack Obama are getting to be not dissimilar.
If the US doesn't need Saudi Arabia, that's another reason they don't need its vassal, Pakistan, either. Furthermore, Iran is not delighted with Pakistan: there have been recent border incidents with Iranian soldiers getting killed; and the Taliban (a.k.a. ISI in beards and baggy pants) have been brutal towards the Shia Hazaras. Then there is Balochistan, which borders Iran's own province of Sistan-Balochistan; the systematic genocide by Pakistani Punjabis of the Baloch may lead to a de-facto Balochi state being created on both sides of the border. On the other hand, plans for the old Iran-Pakistan pipeline are being dusted off; nevertheless, it will be a tenuous detente between the two.
Pakistan has other problems too: if it wasn't diplomatic theatre for the consumption of outsiders, there is a tiff between the Gulf states and Pakistan. The former's request for Pakistani mercenaries to participate in the war on Yemen was declined by the latter, leading to some sharp words from the Saudis and the UAE. This may not bode well for future largesse, although the nuclear weapons Pakistan has (“the Islamic Bomb”) – despite the likelihood that it's a screwdriver job assembling Chinese components – will keep the Gulf states interested in Pakistan.
There seem to be some issues between the ISI and ISIS, too. I used to think they were made for each other, and that the ISI's manual “Quranic Concept of War” by General SK Malik was being put into practice by ISIS. But a recent suicide bomb in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, was blamed by each on the other. This could well be a red herring as well, but perhaps there don't entirely see eye to eye, and perhaps it has to do with Taliban/Al Qaeda being more to the ISI's liking than ISIS.
Thus, the Chinese are entering a deeply troubled country, knowingly. They have bigger fish to fry, clearly. What do they gain from this exercise?
First, they get to own an Arabian Sea port in Gwadar. With rail links through Pakistan/PoK/GB, this is an alternative route for trade with Europe, although they are building long-distance rail connections through Central Asia anyway. More importantly, they avoid the risk of a choke-point in the Straits of Malacca for their trade, especially their oil supplies, if they can instead ship the stuff through Pakistan, thus negating India's overwhelming geopolitical presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, at one stroke, they are making themselves less vulnerable, and at the same vastly increasing their 'string-of-pearls' capability to surround and contain India.
Second, they get first dibs on the known, vast mineral wealth of Balochistan, as well as of Afghanistan. However, they may well face resistance in already restive Balochistan, as well as in Gilgit/Baltistan.
For, let's make no mistake about it, what China seeks is a colony. This is no friendly M&A: it is a hostile takeover. There is a superb graphic in a tweet by @NarendraMenon1 quoting @YusufDFI: it shows how China captured territory after territory over the centuries, successfully “Han-izing” them. It is a gif, and it would be illegal in India as it shows CoK and Arunachal Pradesh as part of China, so I will merely mention it, and here's the gist: starting with a small territory in eastern China around 1,000 BCE with the Zhou dynasty, it has progressively swallowed (and sometimes lost) other territories, but today it controls a vast swathe, including all of Tibet and Xinjiang. And all of these territories are ethnically cleansed and turned into Han-majority areas.
This empire will now extend to the Indian subcontinent for the first time in history, and it will probably be more than either China or Pakistan bargained for. There is the law of unintended consequences.
On the one hand, China is willing to pay good money to buy influence, as seen in the $50 billion it has invested in Venezuela, with little or no chance of getting it back. The same goes for the sums it has invested in Sri Lanka and Africa, where there is a growing opposition to the rough Chinese way. The bottom line is that while Chinese money is welcome, Chinese domination and migration is not. Which conflicts with the Chinese business model of bringing in their nationals as settlers for their factories and other establishments.
The upshot of this is that the Chinese will have to build armed, gated communities where they house their nationals in Pakistan. This is, ironically, reminiscent of armed Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank; or Han settlements in Tibet; and quite likely what the Indian government will have to do if is serious about resettling Kashmiri Pandits back in J&K.
A sort of 'buyer's remorse' has set in with several Chinese client states as they realise that the Chinese were not planning to leave, and that this was colonialism by other means. In Pakistan, there is the added religious dimension: how on earth can Chinese, who consume vast amounts of pork, coexist with some of the most pious Muslims in the world, who abhor pigs? Ready-made for conflict.
China may well be, rather prematurely and presumptuously, entering the era of 'imperial overstretch' that has been plaguing the Americans as they prosecute armed conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine simultaneously. One advantage that the Chinese have is the 60 million or so 'excess men' they have due to female foeticide. These rowdy men, without moderating female influence, will be unmanageable, and it would be best to send them off to wars: why not send them to colonise, and fight with the natives? On the other hand, China may also find its finances a little crimped as its growth slows down and its military buildup and empire-building activities such as creating islands in the South China Sea start getting expensive.
Furthermore, China may find that the roads they build work both ways, importing Pakistani extremism into its own restive Xinjiang as well. The ISI has had an understanding with China to keep the Uighurs under control, thus keeping a lid on separatism in the Muslim-majority province. But with greater access, China may regret opening up Xinjiang to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Chances are that, in sum, both China and Pakistan may regret their tight embrace; Pakistan more than China because this exercise may accelerate the breakup of that country into several states: Balochistan, Sind, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan, etc, a scenario that would actually be quite good for India, because all the other statelets will be quite happy to attack Punjab, their erstwhile brutal overlords.
On the other hand, this may spill over into India, both with refugee influxes, and even the possibility of a threat to Jammu and Kashmir, along with a possible Chinese invasion of Arunachal Pradesh. India has lost the buffer state of Tibet. The threat to the dismemberment of India can become real.
The China-Pakistan deal seriously disrupts the existing equilibrium in the subcontinent, which, as undesirable as it may be, at least is a workable status quo. India needs to pursue the classical upayas of Chanakya, which I just found out extended beyond sama, dana, bheda, danda to include maya, upeksha, and indrajala, that is to say, deceit, avoidance, and jugglery/magic.
The time may have come for India to return the favour to Pakistan by instigating subversion in Balochistan quite openly: they do it in J&K, why shouldn't we in Balochistan? After all, there is a serious human rights crisis there, and Balochis never wanted to be part of Pakistan anyway: it was forced upon them. So why not ship fake Pakistani and Chinese currency to Balochistan, along with weapons carefully marked “Made in China”?
Similarly, why not do the same in Xinjiang, by instigating Uighurs against China with fake Chinese currency, atrocity tales, and weapons marked “Made in Pakistan”? And let's not forget the Tibetans either: their spirit hasn't been extinguished after decades of oppression, and they were once upon a time warriors. How can China's economic interests in Tibet be subverted by India? And we should do all this while professing unending friendship with China, just as they back-stabbed Nehru after all the heady talk of panchsheel. India should speak softly, but carry a big stick: we need that deep-water navy badly, plus all manner of covert operations.
Thus, China is forcing upon India certain unpleasant choices. On the one hand, the standard Chinese tactic is to probe with audacious moves to gauge the point of resistance. So long as there is none, they will keep on pushing their luck. However, the moment there is pushback, they will retreat. They are used to harming India's interests with no fear of retaliation, or of pain to themselves. But if they feel there will be consequences, much of this trumpeted Chinese investment in Pakistan will be quietly withdrawn. This is a trial balloon, but it has enough risk for China that it can be gently persuaded to scale down its ambitions.