ISLAMABAD — China is asserting its interests in the disputed Kashmir region after the Indian government decided to end a special status for the country’s Muslim-majority Kashmir province, and Pakistan has turned to its old friend to block the move.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi arrived in Beijing on Friday for consultations with what he called a “trusted friend,” within a day of Islamabad’s decision to order the Indian ambassador to leave the country.
The change of status for Kashmir will in future allow any Indian national to buy property in the largely mountainous province, potentially laying the groundwork for Hindus to move in, and Kashmir to become a Muslim-minority region.
But, as Western diplomats told the Nikkei Asian Review, China has additional reasons to become alarmed over events in Kashmir, notably the division of the province into three portions and the creation of a new administrative zone for Ladakh near the Chinese border. The region has a sizable number of Buddhists, whose presence on China’s border will reinforce India’s support for the Buddhist community, analysts argue in gauging the motive behind China’s reaction.
“For the Chinese, the presence of yet another Buddhist area on their border will raise a major concern,” said one Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to the Nikkei on condition of anonymity. The diplomat said that such an outcome of ongoing tension in Kashmir eventually promises to deepen the footprint of Tibetan Buddhists led by the Dalai Lama — an anti Beijing force that has been hosted by India for decades.
“For China, it is vital to try to reverse India’s move. There is too much at stake for Beijing,” added a senior Pakistani government official who spoke to the Nikkei shortly after Foreign Minister Qureshi landed in Beijing on Friday.
Pakistan’s leaders, notably Prime Minister Imran Khan, have publicly condemned the end to Kashmir’s special status on the grounds that the change will eventually alter the region’s Muslim identity.
“Pakistan’s concern is that there is now going to be a push by India to change the reality of a Muslim majority in Kashmir to a Muslim minority,” said retired Lieutenant General Abdul Qayyum, a former Pakistan army commander and now a member of the Senate, or upper house of parliament. In an interview with Nikkei, General Qayyum said that China has stepped into the fray with two of its own concerns.
“As you can see, the Chinese have opposed the Indian move. Specifically, the Chinese are concerned over the Indian move that will create a separate region with a sizable number of Buddhists,” he said, referring to a new identity for Ladakh under the Indian constitutional change.
For China, such a development will potentially encourage other communities, notably Uighur Muslims in the western Xinjiang province, to renew their push for greater autonomy and possibly independence from Beijing, analysts said.
China’s other concern, according to General Qayyum, relates to the security of China’s investments made under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan. “The CPEC route aims to connect western China with the Gwadar port [in southern Pakistan]. This is a sizable investment by China in Pakistan, where China would like to protect its investments,” added General Qayyum.
China plans to eventually spend more than $60 billion on CPEC projects in Pakistan, according to figures repeatedly put out by Pakistan’s government.
One minister in Khan’s government told Nikkei that events in Kashmir following the change of status, have created a major security risk with implications beyond just India and Pakistan.
“In February, we had the Pulwama incident and very quickly that made many countries quite worried about the risk of war between two countries armed with nuclear weapons,” he said, referring to a military escalation between India and Pakistan earlier this year, after a terrorist attack in the part of Kashmir controlled by India. The event became a pretext for India to order an air strike on an alleged militant training camp in Pakistan.
Independent accounts later confirmed that the location bombed by Indian fighter planes was a deserted place on a mountainside with no visible signs of hosting a camp of any kind. The Indian attack was quickly followed by a Pakistan Air Force strike that led to the destruction of two Indian Air Force fighter planes and the capture of an Indian air force pilot, according to Pakistani government.
“Major powers have reason to be worried about rising tensions between two countries armed with nuclear weapons,” added the Western diplomat who spoke to the Nikkei. He concluded that “China is located close to India and Pakistan. It (China) must have good reason to be worried about instability in its immediate neighborhood.”
For Foreign Minister Qureshi, choosing Beijing as his first stopover after Pakistan scaled down relations with India was likely driven by China’s anxiety over the future of Kashmir.