New Delhi: Newspapers say that Xi Jinping of China has expressed the hope to his state visitor from Pakistan, Imran Khan, that Pakistan and India would meet “halfway” for peace. As Chinese statements go, this is rather extraordinary. For “halfway” in the India-Pakistan context could justifiably be construed to mean a settlement of Kashmir and the Indo-Pak boundary by a formalization of the status quo. This keeps the prestige of both countries intact and involves no reordering of frontiers divorced from ground realities. During the 1972 Simla Talks, Indira Gandhi had meant just such a solution when she informally proposed conversion of the Line of Control into an international border. Her Simla interlocutor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, pleaded for consultations with the Pakistani political and military establishments but turned brazenly anti-India thereafter partly to protect his turf from sullen generals smarting from the Bangladesh War defeat.

One of Indira Gandhi’s two advisors, namely P. N. Dhar, the late economist, confirmed Indira Gandhi’s offer to Bhutto to this writer. The matter, however, was not pressed, using the lever of ninety-three thousand Pakistani POWs in Indian custody, because the Indira Gandhi team understood the fragility of “victor’s justice”. The Versailles Treaty and its murderous consequences were still recent history, and one of the strongest opponents of the harsh reparations imposed on Germany was the renowned economist, John Maynard Keynes. The argument of victor’s justice was not entirely without merit. In the light of Pakistan’s concession at Simla that the Kashmir issue would be settled bilaterally, caution was even more justified. P. N. Haksar, who this writer also met in the same context, flatly denied the still secret offer. All the same, his denial appeared reflexive and lacked conviction. Possibly, he didn’t want to let out secret negotiations which are actually common between countries in the hope that Pakistan someday would come around.

Despite Haksar’s denial (and certainly Pakistan’s steadfast refusal to accept it), the settled narrative is that the formalization of the LoC as border was on the table in Simla but hidden from public view on account of Pakistani sensitivities. The Indian political establishment accepts the wisdom of it and even Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries spoke favourable on record about it to this writer years ago. In view of Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism in Kashmir, the pragmatism of the “halfway” settlement yielded to the hard line of the resolution of Parliament laying claim to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Even so, this could be taken as the maximum position countries adopt in anticipation of a negotiated settlement. Pakistan, however, has rejected a status quo settlement, insinuating bloody-mindedly that it has not fought wars with India just so as to keep PoK and surrender claims on Kashmir. The loss of East Pakistan has hardened Pakistan on Kashmir. The Pakistan army lost face in 1971 and the only conceivable compensation can be complete control of Kashmir. That, at any rate, is the maximum position of the military-dominated Pakistan state.

Because India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, it is inconceivable for either country to unilaterally alter the frontiers. As Pakistan army chief, Parvez Musharraf took just that wild gamble during the Kargil War and came a cropper. The United States and the rest of the world closed up behind restoration of the status quo ante and the Indian army ensured that through months of gritty fighting. Inside the Pakistan political and military establishment since, there is acknowledgement that there is no military solution to the Kashmir issue. The Pakistan deep state has tried terrorism but it has recoiled on the country leading to political failure and economic peril. Pakistan’s ruined economy is the wages of sinful terrorism inflicted on India.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s rather liberal-sounding prime minister, has expressed a desire to purge Pakistan of foreign terrorism. Admitting to state sponsorship of terror prior, he proclaims that Pakistan is off to a clean new start. He especially hopes to convince the Indian and Iranian leaderships of this. The Indian leadership is unlikely to take Imran Khan at his word, and Imran Khan unhelpfully harps on the necessity of a dialogue on Kashmir without admitting to the complexities involved and the requirements of a new approach. It is reasonable to surmise that Imran Khan has spoken to the outer limits of his authority in a military-dominated state but the world, and especially India, is not obliged to make concessions on that account. Against this background, Xi Jinping’s call to Imran Khan to meet India “halfway” acquires particular salience.

As Pakistan’s “iron brother”, China has not discouraged Pakistan’s hostility against India and indeed facilitated it with nuclear and conventional weapons. China visualizes India as a “troublemaker” giving political asylum to the Dalai Lama and as a strategic competitor taking sides with the United States despite professed non-alignment. More lately, as China’s rise is threatened by US-led Western pressure on the Chinese economy, Beijing finds its manoeuvrability further limited by animosities with India aroused by the 1962 Chinese aggression. While China is in no haste to settle its own disputes with India largely related to the border, it reasons that India may become more amicable to Beijing should it apply pressure on Islamabad to make durable peace with New Delhi. India has taken strenuous objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor since it passes through territories claimed by India. CPEC is the capstone of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative which is vital to China’s geopolitics and to China’s economic revival in the face of protectionist barriers to its exports. By refusing to be part of BRI because of CPEC, India hurts China; Beijing, therefore, feels constrained to placate India. India also opposes BRI for the debt burden it places on poor Asian and African states, but Beijing hopes to overcome this with a “halfway” solution to Kashmir protecting Indian interests.

Although there are limits to Chinese pressure on Pakistan on Kashmir, the “halfway” suggestion is, for all that, rather extraordinary. China needs Pakistan for a successful evolution of the CPEC to become a guaranteed lifeline for Beijing’s Middle East oil and gas imports in the extreme contingency of a US-led blockade of its littoral waters. But Pakistan needs China more because of its economic woes. It is difficult to say how well China’s “halfway” suggestion would be received by the Pakistan deep state but it cannot be brusquely ignored. The generals would indeed be fretting that China has waded into the Kashmir dispute rather on the side of India.

Pure self-interest is guiding China’s geopolitics on Kashmir, and India should accordingly plan its moves for maximum benefit. It must be understood that geo-economics is compelling Chinese pressure on Pakistan and not the Pakistan-centric election rhetoric of Narendra Modi and Co.