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China’s ‘Calculated Ambiguity’ in Response to India-Pakistan Tensions

An expert said that the Chinese were treading a fine line since they had an all-weather friend, Pakistan, on one side and on the other side was India, a country with which they want to strengthen understanding, strategic and economic partnership.

Aishwarya Kumar | News18.com@aishwaryak03

Updated:February 28, 2019, 5:39 PM IST
China’s ‘Calculated Ambiguity’ in Response to India-Pakistan Tensions
File photo of Sushma Swaraj (L) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, China. (Image: Reuters)

New Delhi: Amid escalating tensions with India, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Wednesday night made a phone call to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Yi's office released a statement a day later saying “sovereignty should be respected and that China does not want to see actions that violate norms of international relations.”​

On Wednesday, a day after India destroyed a major Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot, India and Pakistan said that they downed each other's fighter jets, with Pakistan capturing an IAF pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since the 1971 war.

On the same day, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said the Pulwama attack was the direct result of the "impunity and cover" provided to the Jaish-e-Muhammed terror group by Pakistan.

The statement was significant as she had just concluded a meeting with her Chinese and Russian counterparts in Wuzhen. The RIC joint statement after the meeting took a committed stand on terror, with prime focus on the UNSC and the FATF.

After the capture of an IAF pilot, New Delhi issued a demarche to the acting Pakistani deputy High Commissioner and handed over dossiers containing "specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack, the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan." While most countries asked for Pakistan to act upon terror organizations operating from its soil immediately, the statement, with China using ‘sovereignty’ outrightly, has taken many by surprise.

“They are being very even handed in saying both countries should sit down and talk and respect sovereignty. Given that whatever else is happening in the background, the Chinese are essentially telling the Pakistanis to back down and lie low. I don’t, however, think there will changes in Chinese policy,” said Jabin Jacob, associate professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at the Shiv Nadar University.

Former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the government, Alka Acharya, said the Chinese were treading a fine line since they had an all-weather friend, Pakistan, on one side and on the other side was India, a country with which they want to strengthen understanding, strategic and economic partnership. China has huge stakes in Pakistan with respect to the CPEC and the BRI.

“However, their (Chinese) red line — the question of sovereignty — is something on which they would like to be seen as taking a consistent stand and position. They maintain they are against terrorism. They have supported the UNSC resolution against Jaish-e-Mohammed though not against Masood Azhar. On this they are coming up against a contradiction — condemn the organization but not the man who is its head. But by bringing up the matter of violation of sovereignty they have further muddied their earlier carefully contrived neutral stand. It could be interpreted in Pakistan as a critique of India, since the air strike inside Pak territory violates this principle of sovereignty,” she said.

Acharya also said the earlier statements were also about asking Pakistan to exercise restraint. “While it was unlikely that they would substantially side with India, their earlier reaction appeared to be reaching for a balanced and fairly nuanced stand. By advising restraint, they were also telling Pakistan to rethink options,” she said.

“By bringing in the sovereignty issue, they have attempted to inject a calibrated and calculated ambiguity in the situation. Chinese have decided to take a position that would take the heat off Pakistan and to give themselves space to work out their own strategy. That statement will definitely give Pakistan more breathing space,” she explained.

The use of sovereignty, Jabin added, by the Chinese is “context specific.” “They know the world will soon forget about this incident and it will be back to normal geopolitics. They don’t like to be seen as giving into pressure,” he added. Acharya further explained, “It is also evident that Pakistan is under tremendous international pressure. The Chinese also do not wish to be seen as standing against the stand of the major powers of the west or even the opinion of larger majority the international community,” she said.

“The statement injects ‘calculated ambiguity’ into the situation. The statement can be read by either sides the way they want to read it,” Acharya said.

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