Chinese dichotomy? Raising Pakistan's Kashmir flag, but talking of India friendship at UN

When China tried to sneak Kashmir into the affairs of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a favour to its "all-weather friend" Pakistan on Tuesday, August 5, it again ran into a wall of resistance

Arul Louis Aug 07, 2020
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When China tried to sneak Kashmir into the affairs of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a favour to its "all-weather friend" Pakistan on Tuesday, August 5, it again ran into a wall of resistance. But less than two months after the Chinese army clashed with Indian troops in Ladakh, subtleties were sprinkled in China's Permanent Representative Zhang Jun's remarks.

He referred to India as a “friendly” neighbour and spoke of Beijing's commitment to “to growing friendly relations” with New Delhi in the same breath as the Kashmir problem, which New Delhi insists should be kept out of the UN and other forums.

The Council meeting at which he brought up Kashmir was informal and secretive with no records, but Zhang's spokesperson selectively circulated a statement in a question-answer format with the remarks the diplomat had made at the meeting.

The operative parts of Zhang's remarks were addressed equally to India and Pakistan, rather than admonishing India.

“We call on relevant parties to exercise restraint and act prudently. In particular, they should refrain from taking actions that will escalate tensions,” he said.

China “calls on the two countries to focus on national development, set store by peace and stability in South Asia, properly handle historical grievances, abandon the zero-sum thinking, avoid unilateral actions, resolve disputes peacefully through dialogue and consultation, and jointly uphold peace and stability of the region.” he said according to his spokesperson's statement.

That could be interpreted to also asking Islamabad to, for example, end terrorism.

Another carefully worded point in Zhang's remarks was that the two countries should peacefully resolve their disputes based on “bilateral agreement,” a tacit acknowledgement of the Simla Agreement of 1972 by which the two South Asian neighbours agreed that disputes should be resolved bilaterally. India insists that it should be adhered to when it opposes interference from others, well-intentioned or with ulterior motives.

Zhang did mention Council resolutions, but the basic one from 1948 demands Pakistani troops, regular and irregular, leave Kashmir first.

The Chinese Kashmir initiative was timed to be more of a publicity exercise for its "iron brother" Pakistan to coincide with the anniversary of India abrogating the special status of Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, for which Islamabad was trying to get international exposure.

Difference between Chinese and Pakistani approaches

There was also a stark divergence between Pakistan's and China's approaches to the Kashmir issue.

A letter from Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Council President Dian Triansyah Djani this week focused on what he said were human rights issues in Kashmir.Zhang, according to diplomatic sources, used it as the peg for bringing up Kashmir.

But he was silent on the human rights issues that Qureshi talked about and instead treated the issue as entirely a security matter.

He was apparently mindful of the intense international criticism China is facing for its suppression of the Uyghurs and the widespread human rights violations against the Muslim minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have been put in restrictive camps – just the obverse of Pakistan's accusations against India.

Instead, Zhang said China, which has claims on territories in the Kashmir area, opposes “unilateral actions that will complicate the situation,” he said.

China was “seriously concerned” about “the relevant military actions,” he added. 

It was an ambiguous statement that could well be applied to the June clashes between Indian and Chinese troops, which New Delhi says was started by the other side.

While the past two occasions when Beijing attempted to raise the Kashmir issue at the Council also ended in failure due to the broad support India has, this time the isolation was magnified for China which has been blamed for causing the COVID-19 pandemic to spin out of control affecting the global health and economy and using it as a cover for aggressive actions from the Himalayas to the South China Sea and beyond.

The United States countered China's Kashmir bid by pointing to the cross-border terrorism problem, according to diplomatic sources. Besides the US, Germany, France and Russia made a strong defence of India at the informal meeting on Wednesday and opposed the matter being discussed at the Council as it was a bilateral matter, the sources said.

Russia referred to the Simla Agreement and said the Council was not a forum for it, the sources said. The US also was firm that there should be no press statement by the Council or anything being put out and the other countries backed it.

Having failed – as had happened several times – to get Kashmir on the Council agenda, Zhang brought it up this time after it finished closed consultations on Syria.

He used the category of “any other business,” a catchall provision for anything a member wants to talk about without the matter being acknowledged on the record, to talk about Kashmir, according to the sources.

Unusual step by the Chinese 

On the past two occasions when China had brought up Kashmir at such closed-door informal sessions, the Chinese permanent representative was able to speak to the media after the Council had refused to issue a press statement.

But now because the Council meetings were being held remotely due to the lockdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving Zhang of an opportunity to give his version to the media waiting outside the Council.

Therefore, the Chinese mission took the unusual step of selectively circulating the document that it said was a question and answer by its spokesperson on the Council session but it was only a summary of Zhang's remarks.

China brought up the Kashmir issue in August last year and in January in informal settings. It withdrew another attempt in December in the face of overwhelming opposition.

(The writer is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies and is based in New York. He can be reached at arullouis@spsindia.in and followed on Twitter @arulouis.)