The Kashmir Valley and its surrounding territory have been at the heart of nearly every conflict between India and Pakistan—including three wars in 1947, 1965, and 1999. Colonialism created the problem, but the great powers have had little interest in it, with Britain washing its hands of the issue as soon as it could. But last year's abolition of Article 370, the guarantee of Kashmir's quasi-autonomy, has allowed an old player to take a stronger role: China.
China's Himalayan ambitions have become the subject of global concern after this week's bloody clash with the Indian Army, but its involvement in Indian territory goes beyond its own borders. Generations of Indian politicians have declared Kashmir a purely domestic issue. The roots of the problem go back to the state's origins, a Muslim-majority population with a Hindu ruler who, during the retreat of empire, initially tried to strike out on his own rather than being forced to pick sides between Indian and Pakistan. But for Pakistan, a nation founded on the idea that it was a homeland for Muslims, losing a Muslim-majority state would be catastrophic. To India, the idea of a Muslim state with a Hindu leader would be an ideal feather in the cap—a nation founded on pluralism with a state perfectly exemplifying it. The resulting war left the state in India's control—but with a permanently unhappy population and an angry neighbor.
Despite India's victory, the issue was far from resolved. Despite the laments of Indian politicians, Kashmir has been an international issue almost since 1947. Around 10 years after the first war was fought, in 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's right-hand man, V.K. Krishna Menon, gave the longest speech in United Nations history on India's position on Kashmir. He argued that India had a legal claim to complete sovereignty of Kashmir and that international institutions like the International Court of Justice had no place adjudicating the question. Menon's speech, and the underlying ideals, were supported by much of India, and he was dubbed the Hero of Kashmir.
Issues, once internationalized, rarely return to being solely domestic or even bilateral concerns. The idea that Kashmir could be purely an Indian question was always a fantasy. Yet Indian leaders were always keen to avoid the state turning into another Palestine. Though they did not fully succeed in the sense that Kashmir is occasionally invoked at the U.N., they did partially succeed in the sense that the issue was never as big as Palestine in much of the public and political conscience.
Pakistan, however, felt very differently—and was keen to internationalize the issue. The obvious ally was China, with which Pakistan has a long-standing friendly relationship. In 1963, the Sino-Pakistan Agreement, which was meant to address border issues between the two nations, successfully quelled certain disagreements between Islamabad and Beijing—but also drew China even further into the Kashmir question. The agreement resulted in the two nations exchanging territory, and within the parcels given up by Pakistan was the Trans-Karakoram Tract. The tract is famously inhospitable but is also disputed territory, and India argued that Pakistan had no right to give it up to the Chinese because India itself still claims it.
It was no surprise that Pakistan solidified relationships with China in 1963. India fought an ill-fated war with China the previous year that permanently damaged the idea of Sino-Indian brotherhood, and Pakistan saw an opportunity to make common cause with an Asian ally. Turning a bilateral dispute into a trilateral one, with two of the sides strongly allied, was an obvious move.
That decision has borne fruit, not least because of India's own actions. Ending Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, on the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, has been a longtime goal for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, and the party won two successive landslide victories in 2014 and 2019 partially based on its stance on this issue. In August 2019, the Indian parliament voted to abrogate Article 370. That autonomy had always been somewhat illusory, but it was powerfully regarded within Kashmir—and India accompanied the change with a mass crackdown in the region, including cutting off the internet and arresting local politicians. The bill didn't stop there. It also bifurcated the territory into two states—Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh—further cementing India's control.
Pakistan erupted in anger. Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced the action as an attack on minorities despite his and Pakistan's own questionable record on this issue. The Pakistani public has long been highly sympathetic to the oppression of Kashmiris, which receives massive coverage in the Pakistani press. But integrating the Kashmir region further into India also presents issues from a military perspective—Kashmir existed as a buffer zone of sorts in a way that the two new union states might not.
That gave China a strong interest in the issue, too. China agreed with its ally both for diplomatic reasons and for domestic ones. Part of the new territory of Ladakh contains land that Pakistan gave to China in the agreement in 1963. China sees both the abrogation of the article and the formation of the new state as a kind of aggressiveness, which is one reason for its own assertive moves on the Chinese-Indian border in the last few weeks.
In recent days, China has demanded in foreign-policy talks with India the revocation of the new legislation creating Ladakh. This is a different way of objecting to the revocation of Article 370 as a whole, and the move benefits China on multiple fronts. It allows it to strengthen its alliance with Pakistan at very little personal cost. But, perhaps more importantly, it allows Beijing to seek a protective cover of sorts for its actions in Xinjiang.
China has faced criticism from around the world over its treatment of Uighur minorities in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, and several countries, including the United States, have passed legislation addressing this critical issue. Xinjiang threatens to become a permanent stain on China's image in the Muslim world. Adopting Pakistan's stance on Kashmir and Article 370 is a cynical way to address these anti-Muslim claims, allowing China to, to an extent, deflect from its domestic misdeeds. By pointing to issues within India and New Delhi's mistreatment of Muslims, China is able to divert scrutiny from its own crackdown on religion, separation of children from their parents, forced labor, and mass internment of minorities. Its foothold in Kashmir issues has served as a useful distraction.
China's outrage over Article 370 has nothing to do with Muslim rights and everything to do with an aggressive attempt to expand its influence and territory. Pakistan and China both have horrific human rights records of their own, which suggests any criticism might be less than sincere. That being said, the Indian government should be cautious of handing grenades to enemies who will be more than happy to pull the pin and throw them.
Anik Joshi is a public policy professional in Washington DC
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.