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CPEC is a de facto security alliance

Sunil Chacko
  • October 10, 2020,

This 2 November 2018 photo shows Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. REUTERS

CPEC is a de facto security alliance between China and Pakistan with Russia today an overt ally of China’s that some prefer to see as China’s stealth ally. What is India’s corresponding partnership?


Tokyo: The 1962 China-India war created a still unhealed festering sore. India gave up a cherished UN P-5 Veto-bearing Security Council seat to China, presumably believing that goodwill would be reciprocated, and persisted with that static strategy even after the war. It is unclear whether India assumed that the P-5 would be enlarged to P-6, something that never happened. There are a multitude of top-secret government documents that have not been released for public discussion, especially the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report on the debacle that the 1962 war was for a then-unprepared India. Until there is informed debate on what happened before, during and since the 1962 war, India may continue to be taken by surprise, especially as the region’s politicians and bureaucrats are exceptionally skilled at disinformation.

After the 1962 catastrophe, however, there was an understanding between President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for the United States to continue supplying weapons for troops on the Eastern Front facing China, after Nehru got off his high horse of non-alignment and sought military hardware support during the Chinese invasion. Documents from even that era point to the obsession of Pakistan to take over the whole of Kashmir and to utilise friendship with China in achieving that objective. Pakistan was the first Muslim nation to recognise People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, and India was the first non-communist nation in Asia to do so the same year. The growing military relations between India and the US following the 1962 war was the factor into which China wanted to throw a spanner. At the time, China was the main backer of North Vietnam, maintaining supply routes to Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese soldiers battling US forces with the South Vietnamese, and therefore the keenest to see the US exit Asia—as it remains today.

Pakistani obsequiousness towards China was reflected in transfer of Indian land captured in the 1948 Pakistan-India war to China in order to conclude Pakistan’s border agreement with PRC in 1963. India has always been perceived by PRC as a potential rival and threat, and China has sought to use every means to keep India in check. Pakistan has understood that and has played to the Chinese gallery effectively by making India as the central factor in the PRC-Pakistan relationship. It serves Chinese interests well, as by encouraging Pakistan to squabble with India, it gives the impression to the international community that PRC is a superior power than the two neighboring countries engaged in mud wrestling. Pakistan, in turn, has attempted to play both the US card and China card, and the US never supported Pakistan unequivocally.

Ever obsessed with securing the whole of Kashmir, Pakistan prepared a four-phased strategy for war with India once PM Jawaharlal Nehru died and then-President General Ayub Khan grievously misjudged the pocket sized but lion-hearted PM Lal Bahadur Shastri:

  1. A probing encounter in some place of Pakistan’s choosing;
  2. an all-out disguised invasion of Kashmir by the Pakistani army as “guerrilla warfare” camouflaged as a revolt by the local population;
  3. a full-scale assault by the Pakistani army in the Chhamb sector in Kashmir to cut off the Indian supply line in Jammu and Kashmir;
  4. and a massive lightning armoured attack to capture Amritsar and as much of other Indian territory as possible, to be exchanged eventually for Kashmir.

Some of the above appear to remain contingency plans even today. Therefore, in terms of obduracy by Pakistan, there is no change in the past 55 years. The attempt to hide behind and manipulate “big brother” China is as active as ever. Thereafter, Pakistan became recognised as China’s pawn to trouble India, just as PRC uses DPRK to threaten Japan. During the 1965 Pakistan-India war, China had issued a formal ultimatum to India and had provided military aid and was egging-on Pakistan to continue the war through a flurry of high-level meetings and communications.

Historically, at best China only had suzerainty over Tibet, meaning that Tibet had autonomy and that China only took care of its foreign affairs. Thus, India’s border was with Tibet and not China. A central issue on the border that China disputes is whether Tibet in 1914 had treaty making powers, when it signed the McMahon map. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman recently stated that PRC does not recognise Ladakh as part of India. BJP National Executive Member and MP, Dr Subramanian Swamy tweeted: “If China can say that it doesn’t recognize Ladakh as a part of India then we can say the same for Tibet. Ladakh has been Indian territory before 1947 while Tibet was a free country in 1947. But Nehru foolishly in 1954, later Vajpayee in 2003 accepted Tibet as part of China.”

Strategic affairs analysts have pointed to what appears to be a long-term plan by China and Pakistan to decapitate Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh from India and share it between themselves. Similarly, senior Indian leaders have engaged in rhetoric that India would take back Aksai Chin. Even in 1965, three years after the end of hostilities, PRC attempted to use coercion to help its all-weather friend Pakistan by creating a two-front problem for India on the huge Himalayan massif border. PRC tacitly threatens the same today. PRC’s leadership is prone to hierarchical thinking and self-absorption, believing in self-created myths, nevertheless observers have pointed to China as being a “cautious bully” in its use of military, economic and strategic coercion. A point to note is that it is not coercing, for the moment, the US fleet or US bases in the Indo-Pacific.

Time and again, the US lost faith in the unreliable Pakistan, only to see world events focused on the region force the US to open the money spigots to Pakistan. It is therefore not surprising that posh houses and ranches in the US are today owned by retired Pakistani generals who allegedly were leading the “fight against terror”. The finding that Osama bin Laden had lived for years in Pakistan before his elimination, and the fact that the doctor who attempted to help to ferret out Bin Laden continues to remain in jail, as does indeed Dr A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s proliferation-heavy clandestine atomic bomb program that has received major support from PRC, likely who will take all the sordid secrets with him to the grave, supports the lurking suspicion whether Pakistani intelligence services did more than just be an interested observer in those events that ensured that the US had to remain a major financier of Pakistan. First it was to combat the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan, and later the year 2001 onwards war on terror.

Those who have worked closely even with Chinese-Americans born in China know that they are a hard-nosed people, hardly emotional in any way. The old Chinese idiom “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” applies—to making an example out of someone in order to threaten others. In folktales, a street entertainer earns a lot of money with his dancing monkey. One day, when the monkey refuses to dance, the entertainer kills a live chicken in front of the monkey and then the monkey resumes dancing. In this case, India might well be seen by PRC as the chicken, and the US as the monkey that has danced to Chinese tunes since the 1980s. Hence the importance for India to be fully aware and strategically prepared.


The China-India treaty of 1954 enunciated five principles that in effect sound good but have little practical meaning. They should be seen as naïve—charitably. The Chinese regard many things as weakness, and the “Panchsheel” and its modern variants would undoubtedly be categorised that way:

  1. Respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
  2. Non-aggression.
  3. Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
  4. Equality and mutual benefit.
  5. Peaceful co-existence.

That large swathes of Indian territory ended up with China after the 1962 war, and also Pakistan went so far as to transfer the Trans Karakoram Tract to China in 1963 that had originally been Indian territory, shows how hollow the above five principles have been. Granted it is hindsight that is always 20/20, but therefore to resurrect the five principles in any form today might be perceived in the hard-boiled CPC politburo as naïveté of the cum laude class.

Further, Nehru, who was accustomed to lofty moral posturing, rushed to the UN on the Kashmir issue after unilaterally declaring a ceasefire in 1948, believing that India should not be cast as an aggressor, while later flatly denying the offer of P-5 Security Council with veto membership conveyed through his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then Indian Ambassador to the UN. Those among many examples show that the personalized model of diplomacy that Nehru practised had great limitations. For a start Nehru did not seem to understand, as Israel has, that condemnation in the UN even as an aggressor, is toothless and the only thing of value, the P-5 membership, is what Nehru disdainfully rejected when Mrs Pandit conveyed the offer she had been presented with at the UN. Documentary evidence on the priceless P-5 with veto offer that Nehru cavalierly rejected, shockingly in favour of communist China, has emerged in just the past few years.

But does some of that flippancy carry over to today’s era? If indeed China has, over many years, occupied 1,000 square kilometres of Indian territory as analysed using satellite imagery in a report in a leading newspaper, is it something to be complacent about? How would other countries perceive India’s lack of strategic resolve and lethargic response, let alone China itself?

The Chinese way is to do something mild at first, seemingly a minor indiscretion, then to see if anyone objects. If they perceive that people appear to be walking on eggshells not wanting to annoy the Chinese, they say or do something stronger. If on the other hand, there is objection right away to the first transgression, they claim that they were misinterpreted—always playing the victim. Therefore, it is time for a public reappraisal on whether India has dealt with China playing right into their preconceived notions of weakness and irresoluteness.

It was the historical figure, Chinese general Sun Tzu, whom every PRC official has studied, who stated that “All warfare is based on deception. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.” In a nutshell, PRC has already given Indian military planners reason to believe in a likely two-front war. But PRC continues to enlarge those fronts and recent events in Nepal and Bhutan might make Indian strategists wonder if hordes of Chinese troops might come right through those borders too. Therefore, it is inexplicable why India does not in turn give PRC planners the potential of pressure applied in the far East, in the vast swathes of the Indo-Pacific that China has to defend too, through the operationalisation of the Quad and Quad-Plus as well as securing advanced weapons system on long-term lease without squandering financial resources to buy item by item as India is doing now.

Indeed, some of India’s past gullibility can be seen from the interactions between Premier Chou En-lai and PM Nehru. When Nehru pointed out that Chinese maps drew the border right across Indian territory, Chou “spun” that they were outdated maps when they were in fact recently created ones. Thus, by allaying Nehru’s concerns, Chou papered over what were clear violations of the Panchsheel. But no one really confronted them. Similarly, Chou made many untruthful claims such as on not imposing communism on Tibet, etc.


While the Chinese may have a sentimental approach towards a foreign Nobel prize winner and the like who have learnt Mandarin, they have a much different modus operandi towards most other mortals—one of granite realism based on their own, sometimes flawed, perceptions fed by internal propaganda. India’s first Ambassador to the PRC, the erudite scholar, Sardar K.M. Panikkar, among the most ardent apologists for China, nevertheless commented that China’s attitude towards India was a patronising one, akin to an elder brother who was considerably older and well established in the world, prepared to give his advice to a young brother struggling to make his way. Progress in India was welcome, but of course it was understood that China as the recognised Great Power in the East expected India to know her place. That modus vivendi has apparently not changed.

Following the 1947-48 Kashmir war, begun by guerilla action by “irregulars” or tribal militia, and later joined by the Pakistan military, the Trans Karakoram tract, approximately 5,800 sq km in area, came under Pakistani control. Amazingly, later under the China-Pakistan Agreement of 1963, that area was ceded by Pakistan to China illegally. The premature unilateral ceasefire in 1948 agreed to by India that was given a UN veneer meant that Gilgit-Baltistan and the western part of Kashmir, approximately 308,000 sq km in area, passed into Pakistani hands, where they have remained since. India retained two-thirds of the Kashmir valley and Jammu.

China took control of Aksai Chin, approximately 38,000 sq km from India after the month-long 1962 war, and that has remained in Chinese hands, and the Line of Actual Control therefore moved further inwards into India. Additionally, in the same 1962 war, Chinese PLA captured most of Arunachal Pradesh. While they did retreat thereafter, they have continued to claim Arunachal, approximately 83,743 sq km in area, as Chinese, and have emphasised that for example by refusing to issue and stamp visas for officials from Arunachal when they visit China—pretending that they are already Chinese and therefore don’t really need a visa to visit China. China additionally claims at least 10 regions on India’s northern border. In many ways, given the strategic nature of the origin of major rivers that the Himalayan massif is, it is also a lifeline for Northern India, and attempts to capture and dam the origins of the rivers should necessarily be perceived by India as existential.


One of the goals of the CPEC is to reduce the transportation time for oil to the west of China. Gwadar port in Pakistan to China’s Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities of PRC, near the border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, traverses 2,000 km through the length of Pakistan. Historically, Kashgar served as a trading post and strategically important city on the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe for over 2,000 years and is today a Special Economic Zone, the only city in western China with that distinction. Kashgar also forms a hub of the Karakoram Highway, whose reconstruction is an important part of the CPEC. The alternative to reach oil to Kashgar and western China was to transport it 12,900 km from the Middle-East through the Strait of Malacca to ports in Hong Kong and Tianjin and thereafter move it overland another 4,100 km. 80% of China’s oil has been shipped through the Malacca Strait, making it a potential severe choke point close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—thus the Chinese desire to diversify logistics.

The supply route between Gwadar and Kashgar is considered an energy security lifeline for China’s far west. Beyond energy, CPEC also envisages roads, railways, digital connectivity links, power plants, industrial units, agricultural development, and extraction and utilisation of Pakistan’s mineral resources. The digitization project includes a cross-border optical fibre cable linking Pakistan and China. CPEC is being used to further integrate the two economies, giving a semblance of stability to Pakistan’s shattered economy. Those projects in the CPEC portfolio are optimistically expected to create around 700,000 jobs and could add 2.5% to Pakistan’s annual GDP growth rate.

Estimates of what CPEC will cost have risen from $62 billion in 2017, to an expected $100 billion by completion in approximately 2030. One tangible benefit to the population has been the steady growth of power supply. Until the CPEC began, Pakistan suffered from severe power shortages, with some areas only having four hours of power supply a day. Coal-fired power plants, each producing 1320 MW, at Sahiwal in Pakistani Punjab, and Port Qasim in the commercial hub of Karachi, have made a difference.

Nevertheless, given the worldwide experience with PRC’s debt-trap investment diplomacy, it is only a matter of time before many CPEC projects fail or Pakistan is otherwise unable to repay high-interest loans on time amidst rampant organised crime, corruption and terrorism, and PRC takes “equity” ownership in much of those projects and properties, further cementing China’s hold over Pakistan.

India has consistently opposed the CPEC, launched in 2013, since it runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Gilgit-Baltistan came under Pakistani control through deceptive activity by the British deep state in a coup led by Major William Brown. Then-Governor Brigadier Ghansar Singh, an appointee of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, was attacked and forced to surrender following a fierce gun battle in November 1947. That is how Gilgit came under Pakistani control even after Partition. The Northern borders of India with Pakistan and China are therefore fluid because of history. Even a semblance of accommodation to India’s concerns was not done by China to re-label it as the Pakistan Kashmir Economic Corridor.


Within an individual’s or nation’s greatest success lie seeds of potential failure, it is said. PM Modi secured a mammoth electoral victory following his decisive decision to bomb deep inside Pakistani territory, Balakot, in retaliation against the attack on a convoy carrying Indian security personnel by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Pulwama. People applauded and supported him in India for that and other reasons. The adversaries, therefore, are now well aware of how to provoke India into another attack deep into Pakistani territory. However, with every passing day, it becomes easier to construe such retaliation by India as an attack against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and by extension at the vital interests of China itself—thereby providing ample justification for a two-front war. Thus, for India, deterrence is not merely an option but an essentiality.

Alone, India cannot battle a multi-front northern attack with perhaps naval manoeuvres in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean, for instance a humiliating takeover of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Absolutely needed is an alliance, an Asian version of NATO as called for by Manipal University Prof M.D. Nalapat two decades ago, and an Indo-Pacific Charter as emphasised by him, this columnist and multiple other analysts on NewsX and The Sunday Guardian. History has shown, including the collapse of the USSR, that peace does occur through strength in alliances, partnerships and collaborations. Today, the Quad and Quad-Plus are eminently and imminently actionable, even beyond a military alliance to a potentially thriving economic structure for investment, trade and health security. Then why the ominous hesitation?

CPEC is a de facto security alliance between China and Pakistan with Russia today an overt ally of China’s that some prefer to see as China’s stealth ally. What is India’s corresponding partnership? When the next major attack from the north occurs, likely the minimum of a two-front planned, massive incursion, with fake justification as “defending themselves against Indian aggression” a categorical defeat of the real aggressors will be essential. If not, India and its political, bureaucratic and geographical structures will be irretrievably changed for the foreseeable future—as if 1962 on steroids.

Dr Sunil Chacko holds degrees in medicine (Kerala), public health (Harvard) and an MBA (Columbia). He was Assistant Director of Harvard University’s Intl. Commission on Health Research, served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group, and has been a faculty member in the US, Canada, Japan and India


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