The Indian Government’s decision to revoke the special status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month sent shockwaves across the world.
- China lays claims to several parts of Jammu and Kashmir, including Buddhist Ladakh
- Beijing controls the disputed territories of Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Tract
- Aksai Chin is a vital piece of land for Beijing because it connects Tibet and Xinjiang
The move dissolved a temporary constitutional provision known as Article 370 which gave the India-administered Kashmir a degree of autonomy and exclusive hereditary property rights.
The decision drew condemnation from neighbours Pakistan and China, who took the issue to the United Nations Security Council, asking for the body to meet behind closed doors for the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
New Delhi was quick to criticise Beijing’s intervention, pointing to its longstanding rebukes of other countries for meddling in its “internal affairs”.
So why is China involved in what appears to be a conflict between just Pakistan and India, and what does it mean for the future of the Kashmir conflict?
What is Kashmir and why is it disputed?
Photo: India, Pakistan and China all control parts of the Jammu and Kashmir region. (ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)
The seed for the Kashmir conflict was sown in 1947, when India was partitioned into two independent states — India and Pakistan — after gaining independence from the British.
Like some other 500 princely states, the right to choose either secular India or Muslim Pakistan rested with Hari Singh, the Hindu Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, whose domain also included the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh.
But he dithered, contemplating independence from both.
Then in October 1947, tribes from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province crossed the border into Kashmir, with armed Pashtuns looting, killing and raping the Kashmiris.
Panicked, the Maharaja acceded to India, in return for its army’s protection.
India approached the United Nations, who in a 1948 resolution asked Pakistan to first remove its troops. India was to follow suit, leaving only those troops needed to maintain law and order, paving the way for an optimum condition for a plebiscite.
But Pakistan refused to withdraw the troops. India also refused to move.
In 1948, the two warring sides agreed to a ceasefire, with the Line of Control dividing Kashmir into India-administered “Jammu and Kashmir” and Pakistan-administered “Azad [Independent] Kashmir”.
India granted Jammu and Kashmir semi-autonomous status under a provision known as Article 370, which gives the state independence over all matters except defence, foreign affairs and communications.
Why is removing Article 370 so controversial?
Photo: People gathering in support of Kashmiri separatists during an anti-Indian protest in Quetta, Pakistan.
(AFP: Banaras Khan )
Scrapping the article has allowed all Indians — not only those defined as permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir — to buy property, apply for government jobs and scholarships in the area.
It has also given equal property rights to women who would have previously lost their privileges if they married someone from outside Jammu and Kashmir.
Kashmiri separatists who have been asking for independence fear the change will lead to a greater integration with the rest of India, including emboldening Indigenous Hindus — who fled in the early 1990s after a wave of Islamic terrorism — to return home.
Amnesty International estimates up to 200,000 of the minority Hindus fled Kashmir.
The exodus started after killings of prominent Hindus and threats from separatists, who called for an establishment of “Nizam-e-Mustafa” or Islamic law.
India accuses Pakistan of cross-border terrorism to fuel separatism in Kashmir, but Pakistan says it only provides moral support to those Kashmiri Muslims who want independence from India.
However, Pakistan, the leaders of which have often expressed ambitions to claim all of Kashmir, has warned India’s move will lead to an increase in terrorism and even war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The international community has largely kept its distance from the conflict, telling the two countries to resolve the situation in a bilateral and peaceful manner — China being the only exception.
What is China’s skin in the game?
China controls a 38,000-square-kilometre section known as the Aksai Chin, which India claims as part of Ladakh.
While Aksai Chin is a desolate winter desert — India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, reportedly said “not even a blade of grass grows” there — it’s sandwiched between the politically sensitive far-western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
According to the local media Indian Express, China started laying claims to the area, starting with building a gravel track in the 1950s which is now a 2,000-kilometre highway.
China seized Aksai Chin when it defeated India in the 1962 war, but Aksai Chin isn’t the only part of the Jammu and Kashmir that’s under Chinese control.
Samanvya Hooda, research assistant at New Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies, told the ABC the Chinese also controlled the Shaksgam Tract in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, given by Pakistan to Beijing under a boundary agreement in the 1960s.
China is interested in the area because of its investment in Pakistan, most significant of which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan-Administrated Kashmir.
Mr Hooda said the project will help China connect to the Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea, vital to China’s ambitious trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
How does the scrapping of Article 370 affect China?
Photo: Pakistan is one of many countries that have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (Reuters: Madoka Ikegami/Pool)
In addition to scrapping Article 370, the Indian Government also downgraded Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a “union territory”, which means that it would now be governed by New Delhi rather than a state government.
Buddhist Ladakh was then carved off from Jammu and Kashmir, and also given the status of a union territory, much to the delight of its residents, who had long demanded separation from troubled Kashmir.
But the move unsettled China in light of its claims to parts of Ladakh.
Australia India Institute’s Dr Pradeep Taneja told the ABC China had called the Indian Government’s decision to separate Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir “unacceptable”.
But Dr Taneja said in reality, nothing much had changed between India and China.
“China continues to control Aksai Chin and India continues to claim Aksai Chin — whether it is part of Jammu and Kashmir or [a] union territory, I don’t think it makes any real difference,” he said.
Dr Taneja said though China had supported Pakistan on Kashmir, China’s own disputes with other places like Taiwan made its position weak.
“China has disputes with other countries and [it] says they are China’s internal affair,” he said.
“Pakistani Government has been trying to drag China into this … [but] personally I think China is going to be reluctant to go beyond the statements it has already issued.”
Photo: A security guard during a lockdown in Srinagar after the Indian Government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy.
(AFP: Sajjad Hussain)
Mr Hooda said he believed the Indian Government would only use Aksai Chin as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with China over other land disputes, importantly Arunachal Pradesh in India’s north-east, which Beijing claims as its own.
He said India might give up its claim to Aksai Chin if China recognised India’s official borders with China.
But Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation’s Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan said China’s interference in what India considered its internal matter might affect Beijing’s own border disputes with India.
“For one-and-a-half years, India and China have been talking about the ‘Wuhan Spirit’,” Dr Rajagopalan said, referring to a 2018 informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that is said to have reset the India-China relationship after the Doklam crisis in 2017.
“But clearly, the Chinese action this time to take India to the UN Security Council on this Kashmir issue has … brought back a lot of the negative sentiments that colour the relationship between the two sides.
“So it has gotten a lot more complicated.”