29.08.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Yet Another Flare-Up in Tensions over Kashmir


The Kashmir conflict, which began at the time the two new sovereign nations of India and Pakistan were formed at the end of 1940s, continues to garner attention from the New Eastern Outlook. It remains one of the most volatile political issues of the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, it is among other acute woes plaguing this part of the world, which stem from the troubles on the Korean Peninsula, around Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf region.

Yet another flare-up in tensions over the Kashmir issue resulted from the revocation of the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir within the Republic of India by Article 370 of the Indian constitution on August 5, 2019. And the anniversary of India’s controversial decision did not, of course, go unnoticed within the Pakistan-India-China “triangle”, which is an important part of the evolving political landscape in the Indo-Pacific.

The author would like to point to China’s obvious involvement in the issue, which was not apparent last year. At the time, the relationship between India and China was infused with the spirit of Wuhan, which remained “strong” during the second informal meeting between the leaders of the two countries in the coastal resort town of Mahabalipuram, in October 2019.

However, due to a conflict that occurred in Ladakh at the beginning of May 2020, the author must woefully admit that, at present, there is practically no sign of the aforementioned spirit or any indication that the two sides will do anything to revive it in the near future. In addition, it is becoming increasingly certain that an anti-Chinese coalition of four (with India as its key member) will be established some time in the future.

In the meantime, it seems that a counter-alliance (comprising China and Pakistan) is being further strengthened. This process has become particularly noticeable after a number of events that stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from the de facto revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and its 1-year anniversary.

A (decidedly negative) tone has permeated events and speeches, which originated in Pakistan in August of this year, i.e. a key party to the Kashmir conflict that strives to ensure this issue remains on the radar of the global community.

In fact, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and government officials were involved in various public activities that were initiated in August twice (and included trips to the border region adjoining the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir). They first took place around August 5, the day when the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral Parliament) the previous year. The second time coincided with August 14 or Pakistan’s Independence Day, when the country was declared a sovereign state in 1947. In October of last year, a decision was made to celebrate the special occasion on August 14 by expressing solidarity with people of Kashmir.

The global community (either in its entirety or in segments (comprising, for instance, Muslim-majority nations)), for the most part, is not too keen on getting involved in the given conflict. The only exception to the rule, and a fairly significant one at that, is China.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), headed by Indonesia (represented by its Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi) for the month of August, held an informal discussion about Kashmir at yet another request from Pakistan (which was made on account of the anniversary of the revocation of Article 370). But the UNSC “did not take any action or issue a statement after the virtual meeting behind closed doors”. However, China’s mission to the UN in New York did issue a comment saying that China was “seriously concerned about the current situation in Kashmir and the relevant military actions”.

After the meeting, Pakistan did not hear anything concrete regarding the issue from either leading Muslim nations or international Islamic organizations. For instance, on August 21, President of Pakistan Arif Alvi expressed appreciation for “the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran for Pakistan’s policies on the issues of the subcontinent”. However, there was no mention of what that support actually entailed.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that Iran would institute even somewhat anti-India policies. Aside from the solid neighborly relationship, lasting many a century, between Iran and India, there are equally strong political and economic ties between the two nations, irrespective of clearly pro-US aspects to India’s policies and pro-China ones to those of Iran.

Despite fairly frequent speculation to the contrary, India remains committed to funding and building a railway linking the Chabahar port to Zahedan, an important project for both Iran and India that will connect the latter to Afghanistan. Incidentally, Iran is not really an ally to Pakistan in resolving the Afghan issues, which are bound to come to the fore for both countries as the United States continues to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. The removal of US forces will happen regardless of who will win the US Presidential election in November 2020. After all, it was the country’s former democrat leader, Barack Obama, who announced the withdrawal of the troops, a process that Donald Trump continued to support.

Tensions between Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (i.e. Iran’s key opponent in the Muslim world) have also intensified recently. They first arose one a half years ago when improving ties with one of the Asian giants became an increasingly important aspect of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. This change was clearly evidenced by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud’s visit to India in February 2019 during his tour of a number of Asian nations.

At the time, the joint statement, issued at the end of the trip, said that both sides had “agreed on the need for creation of conditions necessary for the resumption of the comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan”.

Nowadays, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan appears to be even more strained after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi accused the Saudi Arabian-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of dilly-dallying on convening a foreign ministers meeting on Kashmir (in light of the anniversary of India’s decision to revoke article 370). Seemingly in response to Islamabad’s criticism of the kingdom, Riyadh “has demanded Pakistan repay part of the $3bn loan and has frozen a $3.2bn oil credit facility”.

In the current climate, with Pakistan lacking the much needed support on the Kashmir issue from other Muslim-majority countries, the fact that China (the world’s second most powerful nation) has taken a definitive stance on the dispute is growing in significance. Its motives (discussed in part before-hand) are, in fact, much wider in scope and encompass more than the aforementioned issue.

During a regularly scheduled press conference on August 5, 2020, in response to a request to comment on China’s current position on the Kashmir conflict, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said the nation’s stance on the issue was “consistent and clear”. He elaborated by stating that firstly, the existence of the dispute was “an objective fact established by the UN Charter, relevant Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements between Pakistan and India”. Secondly, according to the Spokesperson, “any unilateral change to the status quo in the Kashmir region” was illegal and invalid; and thirdly, the issue needed to “be properly and peacefully resolved through dialogue and consultation between the parties concerned”.

India’s reaction to comments on its August 2019 decision made by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not surprising. Its Ministry of External Affairs “advised China to refrain from commenting on internal affairs of other nations”.

Another notable event was the second round of China-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue (held in March 2019 for the first time) that took place on August 21 of this year. On account of the COVID-19 pandemic, such high level meetings are no longer the norm these days. According to a Joint Press Release issued by Foreign Office Spokesperson in Islamabad, “both sides were committed to” “promoting the bilateral relationship to a higher level, and delivering greater benefits to both countries and the two peoples”. The ‘iron brothers’ also “agreed on continuing their firm support on issues concerning each other’s core national interests”. The document also talked about a commitment to “further advancing the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative”, a project viewed negatively in India.

Finally, after the 1-year anniversary of the decision to scrap the special status of the Jammu and Kashmir state, a noteworthy event, linked to the renewed tensions over the Kashmir dispute, occurred within India’s political landscape. The author is referring to a joint statement issued by leaders of mainstream political parties in Kashmir expressing their commitment to the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir and its statehood. The document also said the move to abrogate Article 370 and bifurcate the state “was a challenge to the basic identity of the people of” Jammu and Kashmir.

The author cannot effectively assess last year’s move (in terms of why and on what initial grounds) by the Lok Sabha to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. History will be a better judge of such fundamental decisions (and undoubtedly, the abrogation was indeed such an act). And it is well known that history is kinder to stories of success.

If, in the long run, the aforementioned move will not result in substantial domestic and external problems for India, then Indian historians will find a number of justifications for the de facto revocation of Article 370 in the future. However, if this turns out not to be the case, individuals behind the decision will end up in an unenviable position.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.