Construction at the Neelum Jhelum Hydropower project, the biggest of its kind in Pakistan. Completed on October 23, it was jointly built by China and Pakistan in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir region (XINHUA)
The recent exchange of gunfire between India and Pakistan on the border in the disputed territory of Kashmir has resulted in dozens of deaths. The tension along the line of control in Kashmir has been continuing for months since July, and there is no sign yet that the two sides will reconciliate in the short term.
This fresh round of conflict was sparked on July 8, when Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old opposition activist and alleged commander of a militant outfit who often expressed views against the Indian Government on social media, was killed by Indian security forces in India-controlled Kashmir. Wani was popular among a number of local Muslims discontent with Indian rule. Consequently, his death triggered protests against the local authorities. Demonstrations led to conflict between protesters and security forces, eventually resulting in serious casualties—more than 80 protesters have died in the following three months. Pakistan has denounced India for the bloodshed.
Indian authorities cracked down on protests. As an assault on a military camp in the India-administered zone on September 18 by a group of militants left 18 Indian soldiers dead and more than 30 injured, it was the most serious attack on India in recent years, further rocking the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training militants in Kashmir, which Islamabad denies. The spat between the two governments over the violence in the region has led to a series of tit-for-tat measures, from military exercises and the mutual expulsion of diplomats to boycotting each other's goods and violent exchanges. As for border gunfire, officials and diplomats from both nations have repeatedly blamed each other for the rise in tension over the last few months.
In late September, India announced that its troops had carried out "surgical strikes" on militant targets across the line of control. In Bhimber District, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, some Pakistani border posts were destroyed and seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in Indian military assaults, according to Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations. This was the most serious casualty that Pakistani forces have suffered from India since a ceasefire was implemented in 2003.
An Indian military helicopter hovers above an army base to the west of Srinagar, capital of India-administered Kashmir, on September 18 (XINHUA)
The path to war?
Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim territory in the Himalayan region of South Asia, which both India and Pakistan claim full sovereignty over, but control in part. The two countries have fought two wars over the region and led numerous skirmishes since the partition of India and subsequent creation of Pakistan in 1947.
For six decades, the dispute over Kashmir has continued. Yet, in spite of the continued hostilities, a full-throttle conflict between the two countries is unlikely, because both sides are nuclear-armed. Thus, neither side can seriously risk full-on war.
The "surgical strikes" launched by India on September 29 were limited to Pakistani border posts. Indian soldiers ventured no further than 1 km from the border and retreated before a response could be mustered. The Pakistani side exercised restraint. The ensuing exchanges of gunfire in October and November were in the disputed Kashmir region.
Pakistan has no intention to wage war. Currently, its armed forces are preoccupied with countering extremists from various radical groups and working to improve domestic security.
As for the tension in Kashmir, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly urged for peace talks between the two countries. Although India and Pakistan are cautious to avoid war, they are reluctant to exhibit weakness over the dispute. Pakistan has condemned India for human rights abuses in India-controlled Kashmir. In a rebuttal, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the Pakistani Government's crackdown of separatists in the southwestern border province of Balochistan on August 15, India's Independence Day. Such cycles of condemnation have been continuous.
An Indian soldier guards a military base camp in India-administered Kashmir on September 18 (XINHUA)
Seeking a solution
The rising tension between India and Pakistan has become a concern for other countries in the region. Although it is hard to solve the Kashmiri dispute in the near future, the two sides should work together with neighboring countries to create the conditions for negotiation. Currently, China, Russia and the United States have expressed their hope for maintaining peace in South Asia. They have called on India and Pakistan to start dialogue and avoid an escalation of military conflict.
As a neighbor of Pakistan and India, China is highly concerned about the situation. A peaceful and stable relationship between India and Pakistan is beneficial to all three countries. China adheres to the principle of noninterference in foreign policy, however, this does not restrict China from playing a constructive role in promoting reconciliation in the regional conflict.
China is promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (the Belt and Road Initiative), in which South Asia is an important link. The Belt and Road Initiative can not only help India and Pakistan boost economic growth, but can also promote multilateral economic cooperation in the South Asian subcontinent.
During a state visit to India in May 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed to build the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM) in cooperation with the other three countries. This has been strongly endorsed by the leaders of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The BCIM is meant to strengthen connectivity between the two large emerging markets of China and India (In 2015, bilateral trade between China and India reached over $100 billion) as well as boost East Asian and South Asian economic expansion.
Compared with the BCIM blueprint, the other joint development proposal, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been partially implemented. CPEC is a 3,000-km network of roads, railways and pipelines to transport oil and gas from southern Pakistan's Gwadar Port to Kashgar in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. CPEC will significantly reduce the cost of oil and gas imports from Africa and the Middle East to China, and improve infrastructure construction along the route as well as boost Pakistan's economy. Sharif considers the economic corridor to be of paramount importance to the government, and has deployed a large number of security personnel to protect the construction of the corridor.
The China-proposed CPEC goes through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which has caused some complaints from the Indian side. But the Karakorum highway, which links China and Pakistan, also passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and India did not raise its eyebrow when it was constructed in the 1960s.
Although the issue of Kashmiri sovereignty has not been settled, both countries understand that there is no reason to stop the region from pursuing economic development. After all, it is the people's well-being that matters the most.
India and Pakistan should put aside their dispute and find a workable solution. The two sides should improve regional infrastructure and resume economic and people-to-people exchanges across the line of control so as to improve locals' lives and build mutual trust through economic cooperation. If so, it will not only help prevent violence and warfare in Kashmir, but also lay a solid foundation to finally settle the issue once and for all.
The author is a research fellow on South Asia at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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