Chinese President Xi Jinping has offered his support to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the issue of Kashmir and boosted military ties between the two just days before a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In his third trip to Beijing in less than a year, Khan’s office said he “underscored that China was Pakistan’s steadfast ally, staunch partner and iron brother” during Wednesday’s meeting with Xi. Khan “maintained that China had firmly stood by Pakistan in supporting Pakistan’s core national interests and played a major role in advancing Pakistan’s economic as well as national development goals.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry described the friendship between the two countries as “unbreakable and rock-solid” with cooperation that “continued to expand and deepen.” Both offices noted that Khan expressed to Xi his concerns about the humanitarian situation across their tense borders in India-administered Kashmir, where a lockdown has persisted in the two months since New Delhi revoked the special status of the disputed territory, angering both Islamabad and Beijing.
“Xi Jinping said that China is concerned about the situation in Kashmir, the rights and wrongs are clear,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “China supports the Pakistani side in safeguarding its legitimate rights and interests and hopes that the parties will resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue.”
In recent weeks, Newsweek has interviewed a number of top Pakistani officials trying to raise awareness of what they warned a was not only a humanitarian disaster across in India-administered Kashmir, but a potential catalyst for another all-out conflict between the longtime rivals that could lead to nuclear war. Khan voiced similar concerns during an impassioned address to the United Nations General Assembly late last month.
Modi made no mention of Kashmir in his own U.N. speech, but called it “absolutely essential for the world to unite against terrorism,” something his administration has often accused Islamabad of supporting. Such charges were repeated by India’s U.N. delegation as it invoked its “right of reply,” denouncing Khan for discussing “brinksmanship not statesmanship.”
The two countries, who have fought three wars over Kashmir since the 1947 partition of the former U.K.-ruled colony that left hundreds of thousands dead, saw another dramatic escalation in February after a deadly bombing in India-administered Kashmir by a Pakistan-based militant group led to cross-border engagements that saw India lose a fighter jet. Islamabad returned the captured pilot but New Delhi declined to view the move as a peace overture.
Khan has ceased attempts to talk since India’s repealed Articles 370 and 35a guaranteeing its share of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. Beijing, however, also condemned the move as it technically applied to the bordering Aksai Chin area under Chinese rule, but claimed by New Delhi.
China has its own bitter history of territorial disputes with its neighbor having ensured its dominion over Aksai Chin in a 1962 war with India. In summer 2017, the two sides nearly fought again after Indian troops confronted Chinese personnel constructing a highway at another border near another disputed point between the two countries and Bhutan.
Beyond these disputes, China has also invested heavily in Pakistan as a strategic partner and Xi has envisioned the South Asian nation as a crucial corridor of his Belt and Road Initiative, a series of intercontinental infrastructure projects. The two countries’ partnership has also manifested itself in the defense sphere, with various joint exercises and military-technical agreements.
A day before Khan and Xi’s meeting, Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa met with Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the two agreed to advance their military ties and the Pakistani armed forces’ official website China’s military was “supporting Pakistan’s principled stance on Kashmir issue” and appreciated the “sane Pakistani approach in the interest of peace.”
“They agreed that continued unresolved Pakistan-India tension will have serious implications for peace and stability in the region,” an official release said, adding that Bajwa notified Xu “that Pakistan looks forward to peace but that shall not be at the cost of any compromise on principles or honour and dignity of the nation.”
With Xi was continuing to intensify his engagement with Pakistan under Khan, President Donald Trump’s administration has adopted a cooler approach, echoing some of Modi’s concerns about terrorism while also seeking to roll back Beijing’s growing global influence. In a recent interview, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Newsweek that he noted an “obvious shift” in Washington’s embrace toward New Delhi.
“That shift took place prior to the 5th of August,” Qureshi told Newsweek, noting the date of India’s power play in the share of Kashmir it controls. “You can see that America today is looking at India as their strategic partner in the region and its also linked to the China containment policy.”
Khan also praised China on the eve of his U.N. speech, telling an Asia Society event in New York that “China came to support us when we’d hit rock bottom, and they have really helped us in every way, not only provided us help with our foreign exchange reserves, but also the Belt and Road Initiative has sort of evolved way they have helped us with our agriculture, with our productivity.”
He denied he that this had led to undue Chinese influence over Pakistan, as the U.S. has often claimed, saying “nowhere have we been helped on some condition that you have to do this.”
While Beijing and Islamabad’s embrace, a Cold War-era dynamic that used to include Washington as well, has offered Xi new inroads in South Asia, it has led to some distance from New Delhi. India, traditionally, has been a closer partner of Russia, which sold the rising economic superpower its state-of-the-art S-400 surface-to-air missile system, a defiance of U.S. sanctions threat.
Just days after his meeting with Khan, however, Xi was set to hold what would be his second informal summit with Modi near the southern Indian city of Chennai. The two men preside over the world’s second and third-largest economies, respectively, and have sought to expand their influence across Asia.
The tug-of-war between the two regional powerhouses has often been apparent in Nepal, where a communist election victory has brought government closer to Beijing. Following his talks with Modi, Xi was set to make his country’s first presidential trip to the tiny Himalayan nation sandwiched between China and India in more than two decades as he sought to shore up economic ties via Belt and Road Initiative projects.