Aksel is a third-year War Studies & History student with an interest in South Asian geopolitics.
Like many borderlands around the world, the Kashmir region of Central Asia features several intermingled populations – Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Kashmir is a critical geostrategic node bordered by Pakistan, India, and China. All three states have territorial claims in Kashmir. The region has long been the site of interstate conflict. It recently attracted global attention once again. In August 2019 India revoked Article 370, a constitutional provision that previously assured a degree of autonomy for Indian-controlled Kashmir. This effectively brought the territories of Jammu and Kashmir under direct control of New Delhi. Given overlapping territorial claims, Pakistan predictably reacted strongly to the revocation of Kashmir’s special status. What has received less attention is China’s reaction. Beijing’s vehement condemnation of India’s revocation of Article 370 is illustrative of historically rooted conflicts and alliance structures in Asia. However, more crucially, the posturing of regional actors potentially signals an emerging great-power-struggle between India and China in Asia. From post-colonial territorial disputes to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Kashmir plays an important role in modern Asian history. Accordingly, it is worth investigating what recent actions pertaining to Kashmir reveal about broader geopolitical developments.
Historically, Kashmir has produced varied, recurrent, and nearly incessant conflict. Following British decolonisation in South Asia, India and Pakistan fought the 1947 Indo-Pakistani War over borders in Kashmir. The subsequent 1962 Sino-Indian War also centred around border disputes with imperial-era origins. India maintained that the nineteenth century Ardagh-Johnson line placed Aksai Chin under its sovereignty. However, China claimed a historic right to the plateau. Following over twenty rounds of negotiations, 2 500 miles of the Himalayan frontier still remain disputed. Through war with India and agreements with Pakistan, China acquired Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract in Kashmir in the 1960s. Additional wars were fought between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1965 and 1971-1972. Furthermore, a regional insurgency in the late 1980s morphed into an interstate conflict between India and Pakistan that culminated in another brief war at the end of the twentieth century. Sporadic violence and instability has continued to mark the first two decades of the twenty-first century as well. As such, the termination of Article 370 is just the latest phase in a decades old conflict.
However, the conflict acquires a new flavour as China and India become increasingly dominant powers in Asia. An emerging bilateral conflict is visible – not least in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). The WIO links Asia with European and African markets through geostrategic choke points like the Bab-el-Mandeb. Beyond this, the offshore energy potential along Africa’s east coast is substantial. Due to its geostrategic importance, there is significant power projection in the area – notably, several French and American military bases. In recent decades, China has also made sizeable economic and political investments in the WIO. The purpose of this is to secure energy and vital minerals from Western Asia and Africa, necessary to satisfy China’s domestic demand. Protecting these supply chains through China’s so-called string of pearls in the Indian Ocean is a source of concern for Indian strategists. India fears encirclement and naval inferiority in its perceived sphere of influence. To respond, India is improving relations with Southeast Asian states; cooperating with American, Japanese, and Australian navies; pursuing construction of a blue water navy; and planning naval bases in the Indian Ocean. Escalation of the Sino-Indian rivalry is not just apparent in the WIO. A stronger Sino-Pakistani alliance is another important indicator if this development.
Kashmir is a crucial junction in Chinese access to the WIO. The BRI’s flagship undertaking, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Since the project was announced in Beijing in summer 2013, CPEC has become the most developed branch of China’s BRI, attracting substantial investment and infrastructure development. The logic behind China’s presence in Pakistan is threefold. From an internal security perspective, China sees economic development as a means of pre-empting militant elements from its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang from receiving training from Islamic militants in the Pakistan-Afghan border region. In service of China’s international ambitions as a world power, Pakistan is a useful ally to counter India, absorbing its attention and also potentially providing an additional Chinese overseas naval base – at Gwadar. Lastly, proposed special economic zones in Pakistan present economic opportunities for Chinese businesses. The de factor border in Kashmir is also a keystone in facilitating a series of infrastructure projects, including highspeed rail and roads, that link Beijing with the WIO. Whereas the alliance between China and Pakistan may provide economic benefit to both states, there is also a realist dimension. While attempting to balance Indian power there is a risk of increasing India’s sense of encirclement and insecurity.
The implications of these developments are difficult to gauge. However, Kashmir falls under the jurisdiction of three nuclear armed states that all consider control in the region a national interest. In effect, CPEC is a tacit endorsement by China of Pakistani sovereignty in part of Kashmir. Therefore, India has called on China and Pakistan to cease CPEC activities on territory over which it claims sovereignty. On its own, Kashmir may not be a catalyst for another Sino-Indian war. For example, in October 2019 Chinese officials indicated that China will regard Kashmir as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. However, taken together with Chinese assertiveness in other areas of Indian geostrategic interest and India’s fear of encirclement, CPEC activity in Kashmir becomes a symbol of Sino-Pakistani unity against India. A series of 2008 directives from the Indian Minister of Defence alerting the military of a possible “two-front” war against Pakistan and China is indicative of a shift in India’s contemporary security calculus. As India follows China in pursuit of regional – not to say global – power, risk assessments change. In a relatively short space of time, India has become more assertive and China more powerful compared to 1962. Meanwhile, America is retreating from its commitments in Asia. Consequently, Asian balance of power is in flux and searching for a new equilibrium. Under these conditions, Kashmir is just one of several points of contention that might spark a more direct confrontation.
It is worth remembering China’s stake in Kashmir. The confrontation with India in this theatre reveals broader trends in interstate relations. China’s BRI and geopolitical interests in the WIO clash with India’s national interests. CPEC and India’s continued refusal to join the BRI are points of tension. However, some comfort may be taken in the fact that there has not been a nuclear confrontation to date, despite the conflict over Kashmir dragging on for decades. Still, it will be interesting to follow India’s reaction to Chinese expansion into its sphere of influence. Few, if any, other states in Asia are in a position to challenge China. As India grows economically more powerful and consequently more assertive a new balance of power may be replacing the post-1945 Asian order. How China and India deal with Kashmir may be an indicator of what this future interstate dynamics in Asia will look like.
 Vohra, “Divergent Paths.”
 Miller, “Re-collecting Empire,” 217.
 Joshi, “Xi Jinping.”
 “Kashmir Profile – Timeline.”
 Chang, “Kashmir Region.”
 “Kashmir Profile – Timeline”
 Gurjar, “Western Indian Ocean,” 385-386.
 Ibid., 388.
 Scott, “India’s Drive,” 1.
 Gurjar, “Western Indian Ocean,” 395-396.
 Joshi, “Xi Jinping.”
 Blackwell, “Pakistan refocuses.”
 Eder and Mardell, “The BRI in Pakistan.”
 Mourdoukoutas, “India is Changing.”
 Joshi, “Xi Jinping.”
 Frankel, “Strategic Rivalry,” 5.
 Dalton and Kalwani, “South Asia Crisis.”
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