New Delhi: With the exception of Korea and Vietnam, China has rarely intervened militarily to preserve the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a growing possibility that that exception may also no longer apply to India and Pakistan in the context of their fraught relations. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, cast relations with Pakistan in an extraordinary light yesterday (Tuesday) while meeting his Pakistani opposite number, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Inaugurating the first China-Pakistan foreign minister-level strategic dialogue, Wang said, “No matter how things change in the world and in the region, China will firmly support Pakistan in upholding its sovereign independence and territorial integrity and dignity.” Is there something in the language and in the substance of the statement that should warn India? Perhaps.

Since terrorism is a state policy of Pakistan despite Imran Khan’s rhetoric to the contrary, and faith-based terrorism seldom recognizes state sovereignties, Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”, China, has also suffered greatly from Pakistani terrorism. Uighur terrorism originating from Pakistan has a history going back to the Afghanistan “mujahideen” wars, and while Pakistan has put enough curbs on Uighur terrorism under pressure from China, those curbs, China suspects, take the form of levers. Should the Chinese displease the Pakistanis by being miserly about funds, weapons transfers, and so on, or generally give the impression of neo-colonials owning Pakistan, Uighur terrorism is a good counter-strike weapon. Given Pakistan’s present isolation in the world and the parlous state of the economy, Pakistan conceivably cannot employ the Uighur lever with the same impunity as before, but the threat remains.

Apart from the Uighur threat, however, the China-Pakistan alliance has yielded handsome returns for China, and this is especially true in one realm: Pakistan has kept India decidedly off-balance since the late 1980s and this attrits the Indian strategic challenge to China. This has come at a cost for Pakistan which it prefers not to compute if not altogether deny. If Pakistan is an economic basket case, it is courtesy its state policy of terrorism. The other key fact that Pakistani policy-makers and strategists refuse to face is China’s curious inhibition to come to Pakistan’s assistance in a war situation with India. It stayed away in 1965, 1971 (despite US instigation) and in 1999 (when US mediation prevented an escalation). If the past is a guide, a two-front China-Pakistan war prosecuted against India is even less of a potential threat than it appears.

Until now, that is.

Given that the Chinese are very circumspect in their foreign office communiques, Wang’s support for Pakistan’s “sovereign independence and territorial integrity and dignity” is rather sweeping and -- might one add -- of a far-reaching nature. It almost reads like a preamble for a mutual assistance pact where the full scope of Chinese assistance to Pakistan is underlined and released for public consumption. Has China finally quit posing as a neutral umpire in the India-Pakistan rivalry and irrevocably tilted towards Pakistan?

Geopolitics is never so etched in black and white. While Wang Yi won’t say a word that does not reflect the considered view of the Chinese leadership, some comfort may be drawn that it is not a statement coming from a summit meeting. And then, such a statement may indeed be forthcoming. What would it suggest if it does? There are several possibilities. China, in economic decline, cannot be ambivalent about Pakistan any longer since it hosts its flagship programme, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The tail (Pakistan) may be wagging the dog (China); this is known to have happened before in international relations. Pakistan may have exaggerated its existential fears from India and held out the definite threat of unleashing a nuclear holocaust. The second possibility is that China is convinced of India’s economic retaliation in the immediate future and has pre-emptively added its weight in the balance of power in favour of Pakistan. The third possibility is that China has fired a warning shot of weighing in on Pakistan’s side in case of further Indian military misadventures post Phulwama and this definitely brings into the realm of possibility of a two-front China-Pakistan war against India should the circumstances instigate it. The Indian foreign office has its work cut out for it.