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Three strands of a diplomatic hurdle India needs to watch out for after Kashmir wrangle

India needs to brace itself after the move on Jammu and Kashmir has thrown open diplomatic challenges on civil liberties, the Kashmir dispute per se and China's posture. 

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Culminating in the “informal, closed-door meeting” of the United Nations Security Council on August 16, the past two weeks have been revealing. They have made apparent three different strands to the diplomatic challenge India faces following the bifurcation of Jammu
and Kashmir and the removal of Article 370. In some senses, this is the biggest such challenge created by a domestic event since the Pokhran II nuclear tests. Many of the lead actors are the same. However, India’s leverage in the international system is much greater than in 1998.

The first challenge is the civil liberties debate. Seen dispassionately, it represents a pressing dilemma for democratic governance – between lockdown conditions that ensure peace, and a relaxing of such conditions that makes space for incitement and violence. There is no easy “sweet spot” or “right moment”. A graded easing of administrative arrangements in the Valley has begun and schools and offices are due to re-open. With the advent of the apple harvesting season in a few weeks, political activism is, in any case, likely to decline. If the government can maintain stability till then, it would have passed a milestone. Summer 2020 is another story.

Predictably, the Narendra Modi government has been condemned by a familiar assortment of New York/London-based know-alls, fringe left activists, Pakistani state agents masquerading as aggrieved neutrals, and freelance self-determinists representing nothing but their bylines. Despite this, New Delhi is determined to stick to its timelines and not be rushed. The perception here is that woolly-headed idealists and theoreticians in the West’s “opinion factories” are completely out of touch with the realist politics unfolding in Asia, across several geographies.

Also read: Imran raises nuclear bogey, says world must consider safety of India’s arsenal under Modi

The second strand relates to Kashmir per se – the historical dispute between India and Pakistan. As is obvious, Kashmir is now less of a priority for the global system than it once was. Pakistan desperately wants it to stay alive. Yet, for most major powers, there is little to gain by either wasting political capital in pressuring India on the Kashmir issue, or in promoting a quasi-independent, inevitably Islamist territory at the intersection of South and Central Asia. That may have been a Cold War fantasy; today it is a nightmare.

Apart from Pakistan, Kashmir is being kept on the table by two self-appointed third umpires – China and the United Kingdom. They were aligned at the Security Council meeting and outmanoeuvred only by the strident support India received from France and the United States, and some smaller countries. On its part, Russia took a careful middle path. It said the matter was bilateral and opposed internationalisation; on the Chinese demand for a collective statement after the meeting, it remained silent (neither supporting nor opposing).

What explains the UK’s conduct? There are two factors. For a start, the Pakistani-origin community’s role and influence in British electoral politics has made London extremely vulnerable to extra-territorial state manipulation. British diplomats talk airily of “our Kashmiri diaspora”, when in fact they refer to a population descended from
Mirpur (in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) that largely self-identifies with the Pakistani community in the UK, and with the Pakistani state and its strategic goals.

That aside, in what can only be described as unreconstructed atavism, sections of the British establishment seem to continue to believe that they have a role in “resolving” Kashmir. In reality, they are irrelevant and entirely unwelcome. Perfidious Albion has needlessly opened a new front. It will hear more on this from India in the coming days. The ugly violence outside the Indian High Commission in London on Independence Day, only reluctantly and weakly criticised by local authorities, has not helped.

The final strand relates to China. It has been extraordinarily hostile, even talking of “human rights violations” for probably the first time in diplomatic memory. This, while Hong Kong is in turmoil and Xinjiang is crowding its concentration camps. China would want Kashmir to continue to simmer as this is an inexpensive mechanism by which India is kept bogged down by Pakistan. In reimagining the contours of the Kashmir issue, testing international response, and getting tacit endorsement from a cross-section of countries – including in the Arab world – China realises India has made a significant advance. As an international cause, Kashmir is becoming yesterday’s news.

Even so, China’s principal concern is not Kashmir – it is Ladakh. As a standalone Union Territory, fully under Union government administration, Ladakh will get the attention it has long deserved. This could have profound implications. In the past 70 years, the Chinese have done more than any other power to change the ground situation in the erstwhile Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir and its periphery. They have occupied the Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin. As part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, they have built infrastructure that is both dual-use and, in some cases, simply military-use in Gilgit-Baltistan. Separately, with the annexation and militarisation of Tibet and Xinjiang, they have converted historical buffer regions into armed frontiers.

In the coming decade, if India acts strategically in Ladakh and builds appropriate capacities, some of the Chinese investments and assumptions (as described above) could be at risk. As shrewd realists, quite unlike their intellectual auxiliaries in the West, the Chinese understand India is playing for the long term. They are alarmed not by today’s realities – but tomorrow’s possibilities.

The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

By special arrangement with 

Also read: Kashmir off the table, Modi govt now wants revised ‘talking points’ with Pakistan


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  1. As a matter of interest … since you are so knowledgeable of all the ‘by lines’ appearing in the Western media and what they represent, please enlighten on who or what your own by line represents.

  2. Excellent analysis. Do not burden the reader with too much technicalities but provide information necessary. It can’t be any simpler than this. Thanks a lot

  3. An interesting article in the latest issue of ‘The Economist’ – “What if America and China clash at sea?”

    The US establishment had made a statement, perhaps immediately after the UNSC meeting (but independent of it) that how China shapes Asia will be determined by US-India strategic partnership. Forget NAM. Go for aggressive alignments. Also agree with A.K. Dev’s comment on Chinese muslims.

  4. Great analysis. Let’s look at the scenarios: (1) can Kashmir issue be peacefully resolved in the coming few years? UNLIKELY unless Pakistan comes under immense political and economic pressure, which it may not because it serves as a frontier state for a number of countries in the Middle-East and the West, not to mention China. The Great Game continues; (2) Is there a possibility of a two-front war in the next 3-5 years? UNLIKELY because unless the US and its Western allies see a strategic gain in India’s defeat (and balkanisation), there is a chance of clash of civilisations. West is unlikely to reconcile with Islamic and communist triumph; (3) will the Modi government quickly build up defensive and offensive manpower and material deterrent that discourages any or both parties (Pakistan and China)? Depends upon this government’s political will; (4) is there a risk that somebody will press the nuke button. Well, .0001% chance that some Pakistani government may. If the answers to these questions are as stated, then India’s may still have some time to bolster itself.

    Coming to Britain. The country has always shown strategic flexibility and shrewdness. It has the longest history of dealing with foreign establishments and has mostly survived and grown by addressing emergent needs. In recent years, it has gained from Chinese investments. If parts of London are Londonistan, then many parts of the UK are China towns (albeit floating Chinese population), especially the University towns. Also after Tony Blair’s collusion with Bush led to controversy, subsequent governments have desisted from following the US in a wholesale manner. Their national interest are now NOT so entwined with America’s when it comes to South Asia, though both countries publicly address each other as their most trusted ally. There is also an undercurrent in the establishment that is inclined towards mollifying the migrant muslim community (particularly of Pakistani descent) in order to keep peace in the country. It won’t be a fallacy to state that radicalisation has been a headache and there is almost a fear of Islamists. Also, perhaps Modi government has not reached out to the UK establishment the way it has to other powers (even though the chill is not as much as with Canada). However, there is BREXIT looming and the UK will want a trade deal with India. This offers an opportunity to the Indian establishment to step up as UK’s friend economically and politically, establishing a landscape rife with give-and-take. The conservative government in Britain is likely to place economic interests above geo-political aspirations.

    However, these are small challenges compared to maintaining calm and building trust vis-a-vis local and currently restive Kashmiri population. India should also step up its game in Afghanistan because any influence in the emerging politics can give great leeway. It is time to act as a benign state internally and an emerging superpower in the global arena.

  5. India must not remain silent on atrocities committed by China on its Muslim population. India has a Muslim population larger than many Muslim nations. When China can raise Kashmir issue, India must not shy away from raising Muslims issue in China.

  6. Some counterpoints:
    1) 370 had to go. Burhan Wani clarified this. Security apparatus should be with the center. Whatever consequences we need to live with them.

    2) China: using Pak as a leverage, we should not directly challenge China. More economic integration will make it less and less valuable to prop China.

    3) UK: only pretended due to pak diaspora. Indian diaspora is big and influential, no need to overblow.

    4) Russia: compelled to work with China, due to relentless hostility from US. Unlikely to go completely against India.

    5) US: India is more vulnerable for American bullying but not on Kashmir but on trade and other strategic issues.

    6) Pak: Severe worsening of economic problems, FATF limiting to propaganda only.

    7) CNN, BBC, Guardian, NYT, WaPo: overblown. Widespread image as extreme left wing, Jihad propaganda tools; not as influential as imagined.

    8) India: Focus on economic growth, nothing beats having more economic muscle.

    9) If none of this is satisfactory, read #1.

    • And it is in economic development that this government has shown its utter incompetence. The 370 imbroglio is part ideological moksha and part distraction from the economic troubles created by the dispensation.

  7. Both fronts remain as challenging as they ever were. 2. The ISIS attack on a wedding hall in Kabul is a reminder of challenges India may face once the Americans exit. 3. Had America’s support been rock solid in the UNSC, the British would not have been so unhelpful. They generally fall in line.

  8. A well researched and forward looking article which lays out the challenges India faces ahead and the true intentions of Pak, UK and China.
    It would have been better if the author could have added more strands related to Pak Army desperately wanting to create a IN focused military situation, to divert their people’s attention away from the economic crisis brewing (FATF action) in their country.

  9. A very apt analysis. i would like to add some points. Why can’t indian government manufacture a serious propoganda of chinese product and companies boycott, make them pay by not allowing huawei in 5G installation(must), talk tough with british and russian governments.
    Government should be proactive.

  10. Good article and good that you are back to writing, Malik ji. I hope to read more of your writing, now that you are back from your long hiatus with the President.

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