By K.M. Seethi
Even as India commemorated the twenty-third anniversary of its victory in the Kargil war on 26 July, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) came out with a strongly worded statement regarding the status of the Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the involvement of third countries in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. 22 years ago, on this day, the Indian Army recaptured all the Indian posts in the Kargil sector that fell into the hands of Pakistan’s army. Ever since, 26 July has been observed to honour the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in this war.
In reply to a question on the reports encouraging the participation of third countries in the CPEC projects, the official spokesperson of MEA, Arindam Bagchi said that any “such actions by any party directly infringe on India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He reminded that “India firmly and consistently opposes projects in the so-called CPEC, which are in Indian territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan. Such activities are inherently illegal, illegitimate and unacceptable, and will be treated accordingly by India.”
In fact, there is nothing new in Bagchi’s statement, considering the fact that CPEC had already become part of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and that India had consistently opposed this joint venture. For example, in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on 5 February 2020, India’s Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs said that the government’s concerns arose in part from the fact that the inclusion of the so-called illegal CPEC as a “flagship project of ‘BRI’ directly impinges on the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity of India.” He pointed out that this corridor “passes through parts of the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh which are under illegal occupation of Pakistan.” New Delhi also conveyed its concerns to the Chinese government about “their activities in areas illegally occupied by Pakistan in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and has asked them to cease such activities.” The Minister also pointed out that “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms. They must follow principles of openness, transparency and financial responsibility and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty, equality and territorial integrity of other nations.”
New Delhi’s concerns emerged in the context of reports that China and Pakistan welcomed any third country to join the multibillion-dollar infrastructure project of CPEC, which was reported to have faced many problems because of financial constraints and undue lags. It was only a few days ago that the CPEC Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting on International Cooperation and Coordination was held. During the meeting, both China and Pakistan reviewed the progress of CPEC and its extension to jointly agreed on priority areas. In 2018, there were reports that Pakistan had invited Saudi Arabia to be the third ‘strategic’ partner in the CPEC. After four years, both sides have sought the direct involvement of a third country in this mega project. Meanwhile, there were other reports that China and Pakistan have explored the possibility of extending the CPEC to Afghanistan in order to promote economic development and stability in the Taliban-ruled country. New Delhi does not consider the $60 billion CPEC as a project without any other considerations in spite of China’s repeated claim that it was not aimed at any third country. A country having a long-held boundary question with China—that again found a new episode of encounter in the Galwan valley two years back—India knows that Beijing has made claims of its sovereignty in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Strait, etc.
Ailing Economy of Pakistan
The ‘third country’ idea has apparently emerged in the context of huge financial liabilities that imperil the mega infrastructure project, which connects China’s Xinjiang province with Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Though it was repeatedly dismissed, there were concerns in place about the impact of the huge Chinese debt on Pakistan’s ailing economy. Pakistan was apparently struggling to repay the loans, and there were reports that the country had to avail of G-20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative. Pakistan also drew a $1 billion commercial loan from Beijing to pay back the soft loan to Saudi Arabia.
There were already fears that Pakistan would fall into a deep debt trap, as in the case of Sri Lanka. However, Pakistan narrowly escaped from the brink of bankruptcy by negotiating a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to continue a $6 billion loan programme. Still, experts warned that political instability would be a continuing roadblock to economic recovery.
Pakistan’s Finance Minister acknowledges that the country needs $41 billion in foreign exchange over the next 12 months. “We have to repay $21 billion loans, need $12 billion current-account deficit financing and another $8 billion to maintain foreign exchange reserves.” It was in this context that an official of an Islamabad-based think tank said “the most crucial next steps for stability will be obtaining loans and grants from Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates” and that “Pakistan will need to regain the confidence of Riyadh, Beijing and Abu Dhabi.”
Forgotten Spirit of the Shimla Pact
Even as India commemorated the Kargil victory, many would have consciously skipped another vital pact between India and Pakistan that witnessed the fiftieth year of its inking. It was on 2 July 1972 that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Shimla Pact that sought “to reverse the consequences of the 1971 war.” Under the Shimla Agreement, both countries “undertook to abjure conflict and confrontation which had marred relations in the past, and to work towards the establishment of durable peace, friendship and cooperation.” The hallmark of the pact was bilateralism—without the role of any third party. Both India and Pakistan committed themselves “to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. Pending the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries, neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation and both shall prevent the organization, assistance or encouragement of any acts detrimental to the maintenance of peaceful and harmonious relations.” According to the agreement, “the pre-requisite for reconciliation, good neighbourliness and durable peace between them is a commitment by both the countries to peaceful co-existence, respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”
Sadly, after 26 years, Pakistan violated the letter and spirit of the Shimla Pact in Kargil and even undermined the Lahore Declaration signed between the two countries on 21 February 1999. Again after 20 years in 2019, both countries reverted to the stage of a perpetual conflict when India abrogated the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. That itself was a sequel to a series of attacks in Pathankot (2016), Uri (2016), Pulwama (2019), and India’s airstrikes in Balakot.
The tragedy is that when India and Pakistan are set to celebrate the seventy-fifth year of their independence, in less than three weeks, they are still locked in unyielding hostility, thereby festering the wounds of partition. Everyone knows that the key to peace and stability in South Asia is peaceful relations between India-Pakistan. But it is for the ruling dispensation in both countries to ponder over removing roadblocks to peace and amity.