The China-Pakistan joint statement shows close alignment on issues that are thorny irritants in the India-China relationship.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan left China without an immediate bailout promise he was seeking for his country’s teetering economy, but that’s hardly good news for India.
Relief may yet come from Beijing, which said that in response “to the current economic and fiscal difficulties” faced by Pakistan, it would “provide help and assistance within the realm of its capability”.
Until that arrives, Imran Khan, at least, can seek some solace from the lengthy joint statement released by both governments on 4 November, which forcefully underlined the growing closeness between the two countries, much to India’s discomfort.
What is striking about this statement is the close alignment between both countries on several issues that are particularly thorny irritants in the India-China relationship, from India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to dealing with cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and ironing out the differences over CPEC.
That China should side with Pakistan’s interests is, perhaps, hardly a surprise. But what should concern Delhi is that if in the past this support was expressed with a wink and a nudge – and obscured by Beijing’s rather vague formal diplomatic stand of “non-interference” – China is now explicitly voicing this support in the black-and-white terms afforded by a formal joint statement.
Consider, for instance, Pakistan’s role in South Asia. The joint statement goes far beyond Beijing’s usual stand of supporting improving relations between India and Pakistan, and all but endorses Pakistan’s stand. The statement notes that China “appreciates Pakistan’s quest for peace through dialogue, cooperation and negotiation, on the basis of mutual respect and equality, and supports Pakistan’s efforts for improvement of Pakistan-India relations and for settlement of outstanding disputes between the two countries”.
So much for “non-interference”.
On the NSG, the China-Pakistan statement appeared to go out of its way to annoy Delhi, considering that the NSG is hardly as much a priority for Pakistan as it is for India. The statement “noted with concern the continued pursuit of double standards in the application of non-proliferation norms and procedures and called for policies upholding rule of law and long-standing rules”. This mirrors accusations from Chinese officials that the long-standing rules of the NSG, barring membership to countries that haven’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, were being waived for India.
This is also a stark contrast from the 2015 India-China joint statement. The China-Pakistan statement went as far as saying that Beijing “appreciates and supports steps taken by Pakistan for strengthening the global non-proliferation regime” – another red rag for Delhi which has, over the past year, been using international platforms to expose Pakistan’s proliferation record.
Then there is the terrorism issue. During last month’s India visit by China’s public security minister Zhao Kezhi, Delhi pressed Beijing on sanctioning the Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar. The Chinese side said it would be open to new evidence. The joint statement with Pakistan, however, suggested otherwise, saying “both sides underscored the need for all States to avoid politicisation of the UN Sanctions regime and the work of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)”. Again, this was similar to the language earlier used by Chinese officials in explaining why they blocked the sanctioning of Azhar.
On CPEC as well, which India has objected to because it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, every indication suggests it is now a priority in the China- Pakistan relationship. Even in PoK, its scope is being expanded, rather than diluted.
For India, the joint statement raises questions about whether it has indeed made any headway on these irritants after the Wuhan summit. That, at least, appeared to be Delhi’s hope in its changed approach to China over the past year. For all of 2016, India had flagged these three key core issues in its relations with China. Delhi saw these as touchstones that reflected Beijing’s true long-term intentions on how it viewed relations with India.
But towards the end of last year – when attention shifted to the border stand-off at Doklam – India’s determination to flag all the three issues as priorities with China appeared to waver, even if officials insisted otherwise. So much so that by the time Prime Minister Modi travelled to Wuhan for his informal summit with President Xi Jinping in April, Delhi’s changed line was that the relationship was far bigger than any “laundry list” of outstanding issues. That is certainly true, although it doesn’t explain why Delhi appeared to think differently not too long ago.
This isn’t to suggest that the Wuhan summit shouldn’t have happened, as the Opposition and Rahul Gandhi have claimed. It served as a much needed course-correction, at least in halting the slide in relations. Yet the case can be made that the government, for its part, may have oversold the irresistible optics of China’s most powerful leader in decades breaking protocol and spending two days outside of Beijing for the first time with a foreign leader.
The deliverables, however, are a different question. Initial Chinese commitments of opening up their pharma market to the benefit of Indian companies haven’t materialised, despite China cutting import tariffs on cancer drugs (which, Indian companies point out, hasn’t addressed their main complaint of non-tariff barriers). China has shown willingness in increasing imports of Indian agricultural products, starting with soybean, which has suffered from its trade war with the US. Even this will, at best, shave off a few hundred million dollars from a $50-billion trade deficit. The biggest immediate outcome of a first-ever joint project in Afghanistan eventually turned out to be a modest joint training exercise for diplomats.
Imran Khan’s visit has served another reminder that six months on after Wuhan, as the dust settles, not much has changed.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu.