The Chinese offer to rename the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the latest manifestation of the new style of Chinese diplomacy. From the muscular assertion in the South China Sea, the waters of the Senkaku (Diayou) islands, and frozen wastes of Aksai Chin, Beijing seems to be taking a step back and learning to say “please”.

This was, in an intriguing way, also the message contained in a recent article in the party-owned Global Times suggesting that, maybe, China could mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir dispute.

For decades now, the Chinese position has been quite straight-forward, and, even from the Indian position, quite neutral. It has spoken of the need for the two countries to resolve the dispute through bilateral dialogue, even while refraining from actually suggesting a solution or a mediation.

A week ago, in an article, Hu Weijia, a reporter with the Global Times, wrote:

“Given the massive investment that China has made in countries along the One Belt, One Road, China now has a vested interest in helping resolve regional conflicts including the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan.” 

Predictably the article created some waves in New Delhi.

But as the context of the article reveals, the writer has urged change not so much on behalf of its “iron brother” Pakistan, but Chinese self interest, as he went on to add:

“China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, but that doesn’t mean Beijing can turn a deaf ear to the demands of Chinese enterprises in protecting their overseas investments.” 

Till now China had been advocating the idea of consensus-driven decision making, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and win-win outcomes. But as its economic remit spreads across the globe, its interests expand in regions which may be volatile or across regions where countries are locked in disputes where China may be forced to take sides.

As for Jammu & Kashmir, if it had wanted to do so, China could have simply supported the Pakistani claim anytime earlier, but the Chinese style in the past was to be cautious. The Chinese position on Jammu and Kashmir is set in the Sino-Pakistan Agreement of 1963 that established a border between them. It resulted in Pakistan ceding the Shaksgam Valley to China and receiving 1,942 kms in exchange.

The two sides agreed under Article 5 of the treaty that

 “after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the People’s Republic of China , on the boundary…. So as to sign a formal Boundary Treaty to replace the present agreement.” 

In other words, China did not endorse Pakistan’s claim to Jammu and Kashmir and has been open to the possibility of India re-establishing its claim.

In the 1965 war which was triggered by a Pakistani military grab for Jammu & Kashmir, China came out in support of Pakistan. Not so much the territorial claim, but plainly and simply to pull Islamabad’s burnt chestnuts out of the fire.

Chinese chequers

In the years since China has broadly maintained its stand of neutrality in the dispute, though, it has periodically played an intriguing game. One was the issuance of stapled visas for residents of Jammu and Kashmir, including infamously the chief of the Northern Command headquartered in Udhampur. In 2010, they suddenly declared that the disputed Sino-Indian border, which by Indian count was 4,057 kms, was only 2,000 kms in length. In other words, they refused to count the Sino-Indian border in J-K as being Indian.

In fact back in 2009, there was another episode in which China offered to play a “constructive role” in what it agreed was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. “Kashmir is an issue that has been longstanding left from history,” Hu Zhengyue, the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in-charge of Asia told some visiting journalists. “As a friend, China will be happy to see such progress (in India-Pakistan consultations) and we will be happy if we can play a constructive role in resolving of the issue, but after all it is a bilateral issue,” he noted.

Of course, that was a time when direct India-Pakistan talks were taking place, though this was just at the point when the Musharraf government was about to melt down because of its quarrel with the Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court.

So, there are two compulsions now. First, that the dialogue between India and Pakistan is frozen and tensions are high all along the Line of Control. Second, China’s increasing commitment in Pakistan through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. And third, the pressure that it feels as the OBOR gets underway to play a role in resolving disputes and quarrels so as to ease the path of its connectivity plans.

For that reason, Hu’s article actually leads off from the recent Chinese mediation between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Rohingya issue. Now not many in India know that China has a key investment in the Rakhine state where the Rohingyas come from – this is the state where the port of Kyakpau is located and from where a pipelines are taking oil and gas to Kunming bypassing the Straits of Malacca. Stability in the region, therefore is as important for Myanmar, as it is for China now.

It is in this context that, as Hu noted, given its massive One Belt One Road investments, China had to abandon its long-held “principle of non interference in the internal affairs of other countries”. Indeed, China’s unique selling proposition used to be its claim that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of countries. So, it has conveneintly ignored the activities of despots like Robert Mugabe and the various Pakistani dictators.

Great power games

In Central Asia, it has to skirt between ethnic tensions involving the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyzstan. The demands of OBOR do not make it easy to avoid the continuing rivalry between Saudi Arabia, from where China imports the largest amount of oil, and Iran, to which it has given the largest amount of foreign aid in the 2001-2014 period. The situation in Europe is no better. In the Balkans, where the Chinese companies are active, there are tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia, Serbia and Albania and so on. An even bigger headache is the standoff between European Union, the key target of the One Belt One Road plan, and Russia, a critical Chinese ally, even if it is for the short term.

So China has to learn to play the role of a great power. While its economic clout gave it a certain ability to mediate, it still had to steer through the shoals of competing nationalisms and emotions, which are much more tougher to deal with, as other great powers have realised over time.

As it is, along with its desire to play a role as a benign global power, China is also caught in the dilemma posed by its own assertiveness vis-à-vis India on the border, or South-east Asian states in the South China Sea. In such circumstances, it can hardly afford to put itself forward as any kind of a mediator.

But the even bigger question comes from the possibility that to protect its growing business interests, like other global powers, China may be forced to send in its military to protect its interests and nationals. In recent times, this has already happened in the case of Libya and, more recently, Yemen. And as flag follows trade, an expansive perception of national interests could require military presence in far flung areas. This means bases, allies and the entire paraphernalia of a great power. The bases are already there in Djibouti and Gwadar and the navy is growing by the day.

As for Kashmir, we can’t foretell what a Chinese mediation will bring. As the history since 1947 reveals, the British, the Americans, the Russians and the United Nations have been there, done that– and failed.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.