What will China do if there is an India-Pakistan War?

In a hypothetical scenario of a new India-Pakistan war, what would China, the ‘deeper than deepest sea and sweeter than honey’ friend of Pakistan, do?

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Muhammed Kunhi, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

As a total shift from its conventional approach towards Pakistan sponsored terrorist attacks, days after Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) attack on Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama which killed over 40 paramilitary personnel, India responded with airstrikes on biggest terrorist camp in Balakot in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

Indian media reports stated that the retaliatory action for Pulwama, carefully planned with credible intelligence, occurred in the early hours of 26 February and killed more than 350 terrorists by dropping 1000 kg Israeli Precision Guided Munitions (PGM). Some of them claimed that India destroyed at least six terrorist camps inside Pakistani territory and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) by employing 12 Mirage 2000 jets, made by Dassault Aviation of France.

In an official statement, government of India declared that Pakistan’s persistent denial of existence of terrorist training camps inside its territory had forced India to take a “non-military preemptive action” against JeM camps in the light of a credible intelligence on JeM’s plan for conducting “another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country”.

Though Pakistan rejected India’s claim of heavy casualties as its “self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim” in the context of its upcoming general election, Pakistan accepted that the Indian military aircrafts violated the Line of Control (LoC) and dropped some amount of payload inside its territory. The director general of Pakistani Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor, tweeted that the “Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LoC in Muzafarabad Sector was 3-4 miles. Under forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties.

India’s use of air power – unconventional

Whatever was the casualty and damage to Pakistani military, Indian Air Force’s breaching of LoC to attack a terrorist camp inside Pakistan is a total diversion from India’s conventional approach towards employing air power against terrorist threats from Pakistani territory. It is for the first time since 1971 war that the Indian Air Force has crossed the LoC to attack a target inside Pakistan. In the past, even during the Kargil War in 1999 and when Pakistan sponsored terrorists attacked Indian parliament in 2001, India exercised restraint in employing air power against Pakistan.

Many observers are arguing that India’s airstrike in Balakot will send a clear message to Pakistan that the continuation of proxy war against India would come at a price. Whether Pakistan is willing to learn that lesson is a major question. Definitely, Indian Air Force’s crossing of LoC is a declaration that there will be serious repercussions if Pakistan is planning to continue its proxy war against India.

Challenges dominant discourse

Interestingly, India’s new airstrike on Pakistan, which is theoretically a ‘military action’, though India claims it is a ‘non-military action’ as it is not carried out against any military. The latest developments directly challenge the dominant discourse that India and Pakistan must refrain from challenging each other militarily given the imminent threat of escalation and nuclear war.

Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s recent statement that “if we would attack India with one atomic bomb, then the neighboring country could finish us by attacking with 20 bombs” clearly shows that the nuclear-war against India is not a popular option within Pakistani strategic thinking as many in India assume. They (Pakistanis) are well aware of India’s military capability and, now, also its willingness to take any risky military action.

Setting aside the nuclear conundrum, the important question is what would a humiliated Pakistan respond? Assessing the current mood of the nation and approach of the present government, it can be said that if Pakistan chooses any retaliatory military action for Indian airstrike on Balakot it would escalate the situation in the subcontinent. At the same time, India will not consider nuclear war as an option until there is a survival threat to it. Hence, we need not expect more than a conventional war, or perhaps a limited border war.

What would China do?

In a hypothetical scenario of a new India-Pakistan war, what would China, the ‘deeper than deepest sea and sweeter than honey’ friend of Pakistan, do? Expressing concern over growing tension in the subcontinent, various countries, including China and the United States, urged both India and Pakistan to “exercise restraint”. In his regular press conference, responding to a question of Chinese response to Indian airstrike on Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said “we hope the two sides will exercise restraint and take actions that will help stabilize situation in the region and improve bilateral relations instead of doing the opposite”. He added that “terrorism is a global challenge that calls for cooperation between countries so as to create enabling conditions and a favorable atmosphere for necessary international cooperation”.

Past experiences tell us that unless there is a credible challenge to its core interests, China will not militarily intervene in another country’s war. In the past, even in 1965, when the tension between India and China was at its maximum, China’s military involvement in India-Pakistan war was limited to creating some disturbances in India’s Himalayan frontier. This time, China has enormous economic and strategic interest in Pakistan, which includes multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Gwadar Port. Additionally, in terms of numbers, China’s trade with India is many times larger than its trade with Pakistan. Since India is not a grave threat to China, it would not consider harming a well-developed trade relationship with India by getting embroiled in the Indian subcontinent’s conflicts.

Considering the depth of Sino-Pakistan friendship and its strategic value for China, it may be assumed that China will not totally abandon Pakistan if the new tension in the subcontinent leads to a war, especially when a growing proximity between the United States and India is quite evident. It will not be a direct military involvement either. The Chinese help to Pakistan will be in the form of weapon-supply and in various other forms of non-military assistance. China will use the opportunity to increase its arms exports to Pakistan without risking its trade relationship with India.