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China's South Asian conundrum

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Indian army soldiers carry the coffins of their colleagues,​ who were killed after gunmen attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri, during a​ Sept. 19​ wreath laying ceremony in Srinagar.   © Reuters

The recent attack on an Indian army base inside Kashmir by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group that killed 18 servicemen is the latest in a bloody saga of such assaults stretching back decades. The India-Pakistan rivalry is an enduring staple of regional politics. But new equations within India and in the regional geopolitical environment may mean that this crisis is not business as usual. Pakistan has more to lose from an armed standoff with its South Asian adversary. But India needs to play its hand carefully in light of China's alliance with its militant neighbor.

As prime minister, Narendra Modi has brought a more hawkish, nationalist dispensation to Indian foreign policy. The country that elected him in 2014 is a more capable great power than the one his predecessors governed during previous crises following Pakistan-based terrorist attacks, notably in 2008 and 2001. India is the world's fastest-growing major economy. Its relations with leading powers including the U.S. are closer than in previous standoffs with Pakistan, giving New Delhi greater potential diplomatic leverage over its neighbor.

By contrast, official American sentiment toward Islamabad has hardened following 15 years of war in Afghanistan against Pakistani allies including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist group. The drawdown of Western forces from Afghanistan means that Pakistan today has less ability to use its vital resupply routes as leverage against Washington. But against this strategic setback is the strategic gain that Pakistan has accrued from China's decision to double down on its South Asian alliance by stepping up military, diplomatic, and economic support for the regime in Islamabad.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor the centerpiece of his grand Belt and Road Initiative to connect China and western Eurasia with a buildout of infrastructure. Pakistan's importance to this vision is manifold: Land corridors connect China's troubled province of Xinjiang through the Karakoram mountains to the Arabian Sea, while the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar could be a hub for Persian Gulf energy flows into China as well as for operations by the Chinese navy in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Pakistan has created special security forces to protect China's extensive investments there.

Historically, China has provided the Pakistani regime with nuclear and ballistic-missile technologies so as to create a balance of terror against their mutual adversary, India. More recently, to protect its client, Beijing has done Islamabad's bidding at the United Nations, where China obstructed efforts to blacklist Pakistan-based terrorist leaders, and at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where Chinese diplomats vetoed India's membership because Pakistan objected. The Jaish-e-Mohammed attack in Uri is particularly embarrassing for Beijing since its diplomats recently blocked an Indian push at the UN to sanction Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar for his involvement in previous attacks against Indian forces.

Fanning flames

China has also joined Pakistan in fanning the flames over Indian governance in Kashmir, the Muslim-majority state that has been rocked by the worst popular unrest in years. Indian security forces have been heavy-handed in breaking up protests there this summer, and the government in New Delhi has lacked its usual deftness in engaging with its political opponents in Kashmir. Beijing has not helped by siding with Islamabad in challenging India's sovereignty over the province -- a dangerous game given questions in certain quarters in New Delhi over the legitimacy of China's sovereignty in Tibet.

Now into the tempest over Kashmir come the jihadis of Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the more potent of the militant groups that have enjoyed sanctuary and sponsorship from Pakistan's security services. Their attack on an Indian army base in Uri comes after their January assault on the Pathankot air base in the Indian state of Punjab. The Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the horrific November 2008 assault on Mumbai, has also committed deadly attacks against Indian targets both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan.

Modi's emerging strategy appears to be to isolate Pakistan over its sponsorship of terrorism in major international forums, including the United Nations General Assembly which is meeting this week. In August, he invoked the threat of stepping up Indian support for separatists in Baluchistan who have been waging a decades-long struggle against Pakistani rule. During the 2014 campaign, he warned Pakistan's generals that India was not a "soft state" that could be slowly bled by asymmetric attacks without provoking an Indian military response.

The problem is that India's military options are constrained by Pakistan's nuclear deterrent and the risks of escalation that would accrue from any targeted Indian strike on Pakistani territory. India possesses the capability to foment domestic unrest in Baluchistan, but ramping up such activities to destabilize Pakistan internally is risky -- because India itself would bear the brunt of any blowback from the collapse of the Pakistani state.

The U.S. can help by more comprehensively conditioning assistance to the Pakistani military on ending its sponsorship of terrorist assets, and by pursuing policies like slashing duties on Pakistani textile imports so as to strengthen the country's civilian economy and tilt the internal political balance away from hawkish generals. China can also quietly put pressure on the Pakistani army and intelligence services it partners with closely.

Violent extremism within Pakistan puts at risk China's $46 billion in investments in that country. Politically, Beijing has no interest in allying with the sponsors of terrorist networks that could trouble its own control over Muslim minority populations in Xinjiang. Nor does China's leadership want to have to choose sides in any Indo-Pakistani military conflict, given India's growing weight in world affairs. Pakistan's military leaders should not be too sure of Beijing's backing, since China did not ride to their defense in previous wars on the subcontinent -- including when Pakistan lost half its territory in 1971 following its defeat by India.

The broader dynamic at play is that India is pulling away from Pakistan, which cannot hope to maintain parity with what is set to become one of the world's top three economic and military powers. India's importance, and the growing U.S.-India strategic entente, require China to tread gingerly in supporting Islamabad against New Delhi. By intensifying its South Asian alliance for broader strategic and economic purposes, Beijing has unwittingly shielded Pakistan from international pressure to crack down on terrorists who operate freely in its cities. More is at stake after the attack in Uri than the future of Kashmir.

Daniel Twining is director and senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund. He previously handled South Asia on the U.S. secretary of state's policy planning staff (2007-09).

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