Is the Chinese Military Stirring Conflict in South Asia?

The killing of Burhan Wani, a young militant, on July 8 by security forces has triggered the worst crisis in Indian-controlled Kashmir in a generation. The continuing disturbances—they’ve been collectively called the “Second ‘Intifada”—not only threaten relations between New Delhi and Islamabad but also could draw Beijing into deeper involvement in South Asia.

Kashmir, in ways not evident at this moment, might affect ties between the world’s two most populous states.

China and India are not destined to be adversaries. Madhav Nalapat, the influential Indian thinker at Manipal University, believes they can develop an enduring relationship because Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look like they share that goal.

Yet before the two capitals can stabilize ties, Nalapat believes, China’s leader has to first overcome a faction in his People’s Liberation Army that wants to inflame troubled Kashmir. That faction supports like-minded Pakistani hardliners who have used that disputed territory to keep New Delhi off balance. “The hope is that those loyal to Xi will move to reduce the hold of PLA hawks over foreign policy relating to India,” writes Nalapat in a mid-August piece in the Sunday Guardian, the New Delhi newspaper.

The hawks with their allies in Beijing, the scholar maintains, are “backing the generals in Pakistan in their drive to generate a crisis with India that would shift global attention from East and South-East Asia back to South Asia, preferably through a limited conflict over Kashmir.”

India and Pakistan, cut from the same country in 1947, have, in addition to numerous skirmishes, fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since then.

Nalapat’s argument involving PLA hawks suggests that Xi Jinping is not in total command of the Chinese military. If he were in charge, for instance, it would be unlikely that a group of generals would be bold enough to run its own India policy, especially one that directly undermined Xi’s.

There is reason to support Nalapat’s theory. For example, Chinese soldiers embarrassed Premier Li Keqiang just before his May 2013 visit to India by conducting a deep incursion into Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas and a part of what is called Jammu and Kashmir. As the Wall Street Journal noted at the time, there was evidence to suggest the provocation was “unsanctioned,” the work of local commanders acting independently and on their own initiative.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the September 2014 Chinese incursions into Indian-controlled territory in Eastern Ladakh, were not authorized by Xi Jinping, who was visiting India at the time. The Chinese leader was embarrassed by the provocations, which made him look weak or duplicitous. You can take your pick, but I chose the former. Considering all the circumstances, Xi was likely telling the truth when he told Modi that he was not responsible for the incursions.

And the Chinese military now seems to be dialing up the belligerence again. Nalapat in the Sunday Guardian points to current Chinese incursions not far from New Delhi, in Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand had, up to now, “been relatively free of such incidents.” “PLA hawks,” he writes, “have, over the past year, increased their level of cooperation with the Pakistan army, including in ways that pose a direct challenge to India’s interests.”

The evidence is murky, but it appears that China’s military—or at least a part of it—does have considerable latitude to implement its own policy when it comes to Pakistan and India, which means that Chinese generals, working with their Pakistani counterparts, may help prolong the ongoing protests in Kashmir.

Nalapat reports “the Pakistan army is secretly gearing up to fight a limited war in the Kashmir theater.” If that proves to be true, the next conflict there could end up a big-power struggle with India on one side and China, in some fashion, on the other.

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