Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

October 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 7)


The Kargil Conflict: Why and How of China’s Neutrality
By Swaran Singh *


Agreeably, the sheer guts and perseverance of Indian soldiers fighting-on-the-ground have provided the most critical input in ensuring India’s victory in the recent Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil. This courage and commitment becomes especially critical considering the fact that, in addition to the onslaughts by India’s external enemies, the morale of the Indian soldiers has also survived the well-known traditional affliction of the lack of integration of forces into the country’s defence policy-making, which has been primarily responsible for India’s slower-than-expected pace of military modernisation and the resultant higher-than-expected casualties during the recent conflict in Kargil. But having said this, one also has to concede second position to the more-than-positive international responses—especially those from Washington and Beijing that comprise the other most important factor in hastening the Pakistani decision to order an earlier-than-expected retreat. And here again, while the commentators have focussed on the Clinton-Sharif deal, and fully credited it for compelling the Pakistani power elite to order retreat, it is the posture of neutrality from the Chinese leadership whose character and contribution have not been yet duly appreciated or even debated.

At a cursory glance, when the United States concluded the critical Clinton-Sharif deal of July 4, 1999, may have finally facilitated an honourable retreat for the Pakistani armed forces, yet, looking at the factors that actually made this deal possible, it was clearly China’s continued posture of neutrality that provided the most decisive input in convincing the Pakistani leadership of the futility of continuing to back up its losing armed forces as also of seeking to internationalise the Kashmir issue in the face of Pakistan’s growing global diplomatic isolation. Besides, what apparently placed China at the centre-stage in the international response to the recent Kargil conflict was also the series of high-level visits from both India and Pakistan that made China appear as the most important external actor in finding ways and means to terminate the Kargil conflict. Even if that may not be fully true, yet, China’s continued commitment to its posture of neutrality over this fourth Indo-Pak conflict definitely made the leadership in Beijing so much more noticeable and so much more effective in facilitating the Pakistani decision to seek an honourable retreat from Kargil. But above all, what made China’s response unique was its contrast with all its responses during the earlier Indo-Pak conflicts when China had openly supported and sided with the Pakistanis. And it is in the backdrop of this gradual but historic shift that this paper tries to analyse and highlight the why and how of China’s policy of neutrality during the recent Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil.


China’s Traditional Pro-Pak Posture

In addition to its immediate and actual contribution towards bringing about the Clinton-Sharif deal, any objective assessment of China’s response during the recent Kargil conflict has to be first placed in the broader historical backdrop of China’s traditional pro-Pak policies. It is in that broader perspective that one has to examine the possible compulsions and strengths of China’s changed strategic behaviour this time and fathom Beijing’s commitment to its policy of neutrality on the question of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, China’s neutrality has also to be viewed in the context of the continued suspicion amongst the Indian intelligentsia, Indian leadership and even the masses. Given China’s track-record of the last 50 years, there has to be an element of continued scepticism in Indian minds about Beijing’s commitment to neutrality. This time again, this scepticism was especially strong in view of New Delhi’s not-so-friendly ties with Beijing following India’s nuclear explosions during May 1998. Besides, at the very core, these three countries share a rather complicated history and geography and their trilateral China-India-Pak security ties have to be kept in mind while trying to gauge the overall character of Beijing’s neutrality over the recent Kargil conflict. Also, it is this broader context that would help one see how lasting this turn-around in China’s policies can be.

In all the earlier Indo-Pak conflicts, China had been known for following a standard pro-Pakistan policy. To start with, the Communists were at the peak of their fight against the Guomindang regime during the first Indo-Pak conflict of 1948 and, therefore, this conflict may not have really interested Mao who was nearly one year away from founding his Communist People’s Republic. Yet, going by his later criticism of Nehru’s bourgeoise liberal democracy, in which he described it as only a transition stage towards the heralding of an era of Communism, his views on India were neither sympathetic nor very positive. Later, he was to describe Nehru as a stooge of the Western countries which clearly reflected his perception of New Delhi’s policies. However, a more thought-out and detailed response of Chairman Mao was provided during the second Indo-Pak War of 1965. First of all, this war came too soon after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. This interlude of three years had seen China and Pakistan becoming friends against their perceived common enemy. Accordingly, following their border settlement agreement of March 1963, wherein Pakistan conceded over 5,000 sq. km. of Indian territory to the Chinese, China had gradually come to be one of Pakistan’s major suppliers of military equipment and technologies. The Pakistani generals, later, were confident about Chinese reliability and believed that Beijing had, in fact, issued New Delhi some sort of a deadline for coming to a ceasefire with the Pakistani armed forces. 1   However, even if China did not carry them out, its veiled threats to physically intervene did constrain India to retain five of its seven mountain divisions on its northern borders. Even the other two divisions were kept only in reserve and were not put on the frontline until the ceasefire was signed.

Similarly, during the last Indo-Pak War of 1971, China had called India an adventurist, expansionist and aggressor and both General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had publicly declared that, if need be, China could militarily intervene in support of Pakistan. Once again, while China may not have actually intervened militarily, it provided Pakistan weapons and equipment and even allowed Pakistan Air Force flights eastwards to over-fly from its territory. 2   All this did provide weight to Pakistani statements about China’s possible intervention, which had to be viewed in the backdrop of the problematic Sino-Indian ties. Moreover, the Sino-American entante during the early 1970s and Pakistan’s role in the historic trip by Henry Kissinger to Beijing, had made things all the more complicated for New Delhi. It was in this situation that New Delhi signed the historic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship which, however, did help New Delhi to withstand these pressures from Beijing and Washington DC. But again, this Indo-Soviet relationship, in fact, made Beijing all the more suspicious of India’s intentions and policies and only further strengthened China’s commitment to the successive regimes in Islamabad. This long-standing Sino-Pak “special relationship” was to later emerge as the single most difficult issue for India’s policy-makers as they tried to build a rapprochement with a slow-moving and reluctant Beijing.

Apart from China’s policy posture during these specific Indo-Pak Wars, China’s growing help to the Pakistani military and later its suspected transfer of various nuclear and missile technologies and components to Pakistan, were to emerge as the most central concern of India’s national security thinking. Starting from the early 1960s, China had come to be the most dependable and also the largest supplier of military technologies to the Pakistani armed forces. No doubt, Sino-Indian ties since the early 1970s have seen these two countries working together for nearly three decades. Yet the fact that Beijing decided to rebuff both Pakistan’s foreign minister and prime minister, who separately visited Beijing during the recent conflict in Kargil, was not expected by most observers of Sino-Pak ties. This is because, in spite of the Sino-Indian rapprochement from the early 1980s, China’s commitment to Pakistan was viewed purely in terms of its continued supply to Pakistan of conventional military hardware and it was even suspected of passing on extremely sensitive nuclear and missile technologies. China’s contributions are today widely recognised by most experts to be the single most important factor in making Pakistan a nuclear weapon country. This preoccupation with the military perspective was perhaps partly responsible for the fact that foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives were not really seen as more effective.

But with the change in international equations in the post-Cold War world, Pakistan seems to have gradually lost its place of pride in Beijing’s foreign policy calculations. Besides, India’s continued diplomatic engagement may have also made a dent in Beijing’s strategic thinking on these issues. There may also be many other factors for China’s gradual shift towards a more neutral posture towards Indo-Pak conflicts. Yet, the track-record of the Chinese was bound to keep most Indians extremely cautious about the Chinese posture of neutrality, with many commentators even till recently describing China’s neutrality as neutrality in favour of Pakistani intrusions in Kashmir. 3   Granted that in a scenario in which it was the Indian side that was the loser, China’s neutrality would have clearly favoured the winning side. But, by the same logic, the compulsions for the Chinese leaders to rescue their losing ally (Pakistan) were certainly far more pressing this time. And the fact that, this time round, China did not even dither from its neutral position, despite India being the one winning, should make China’s commitment to neutrality appear authentic, if not necessarily pro-New Delhi.


China’s Current Concerns in Kargil

The next important question to explore is regarding the depth and longevity of the neutral posture in the thinking of the Chinese power elite. The core issue here is to see whether or not this policy of neutrality remains rooted in China’s foreign policy concerns that will make China’s neutrality both firm and lasting. It also remains to be seen how this Chinese position of neutrality is perceived within the country as better serving its national interests. And here, seen from Beijing’s perspective, the following can perhaps be cited as the major current concerns that make its posture of neutrality appear to be the wiser policy, in dealing with the issue of Indian and Pakistani claims, of sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir.


Impact of Immediate Global Response

Talking of the global response, no doubt, any predictions about the possible international response had their own inherent limitations, considering the fact that this happened to be the first conflict in the post-Cold War era that involved nuclear weapon powers on both sides. By the great powers’ logic, this context should have made the conflict extremely unpredictable, sensitive and complicated. But, contrary to the prevalent scepticism amongst most observers, the restraint of both India and Pakistan, as also the unison response, was simply far too definite and vivid. This could be seen in the whole range of strong and not-so-strong exhortations to Pakistan to restore the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir. Amongst others, the United States was one power that pushed Pakistan hard to restore the LoC in Kashmir. And given China’s recent diplomatic stand-off with Washington, this American interest perhaps made Beijing very conscious of its responsibilities as the next emerging global power responding to a conflict on its periphery. This may have partly been responsible for China’s more objective role in dealing with the Kargil conflict. The concerns regarding the growing American interests in Kargil were vivid in China’s repeated emphasis on the threat of escalation, regional instability, and fears about Western intervention in its periphery. If anything, China seemed clearly more worried about the fact that an eventuality like Kargil “runs the risk of involving Western intervention.” 4

In a broader framework of changing global equations, various other factors may have also influenced China’s foreign policy choices with regard to the Kargil conflict. It is, for example, a well-known fact that China remains worried about the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), towards its borders as also of the rising anti-China sentiments in the United States which have been further fuelled by the recent controversies of China’s alleged hand in stealing nuclear and missile technologies from various US laboratories. More recent issues like the bombing of its embassy in Belgrade and now the controversy regarding Taiwan, may have further added to Beijing’s reasons to see Kargil in the broader context of global politics. And here, China, as a principle, has also been against encouraging any unilateralism in international relations, and, for some years, has seriously been pushing for a multipolar post-Cold War world, though there are powerful sections in China which believe the world is becoming increasingly bipolar, with Washington and Beijing being the two most dominant players. 5   It is this self-image of being the next global power that may have also contributed to China’s neutral posture in the Kargil conflict. Accordingly, Beijing actually seemed to be responding to larger issues like regional stability rather than trying to play for ad hoc gains like rescuing a time-tested ally or reciprocating to a perceived adversary’s activities. For example, commenting on reports on the possibility of Indian forces crossing the LoC, an editorial in China Daily had nothing more to say than stressing that “hope for a peaceful solution of the Kashmir issue has not died out and diplomatic means have not been exhausted.”

And finally, while looking at various factors responsible for China’s posture of neutrality over the recent conflict in Kargil, credit also goes to the Indian diplomacy, which has been able to put across its perception of the Kargil conflict at all available forums and places. In addition to various other factors, India’s continued engagement with both Washington and Beijing deserves to be credited as perhaps one of the most important factors behind this slow yet steady shift in China’s South Asia policy. The fact that both India and Pakistan now claim to be nuclear weapon powers may have also contributed to Beijing preaching restraint and early conclusion of the Kargil conflict, rather than being seen as supporting either side. Any debate on the nuclear weapons of these two countries can easily bring China’s own nuclear arsenals into focus and considering that China has not yet shown any inclination for nuclear disarmament, it may have been one of the reasons for Beijing’s decision to keep a rather low profile. The fear that both these South Asian countries possessed nuclear weapon and missiles, was clearly visible in Chines commentaries that emphasised on the threats to the stability of the entire region, of which China is a part. 6   The fact that the growing diplomatic isolation of the Pakistani elite was particularly noticeable, may have contributed the most to the determination by the leadership in Beijing to continue with their policy of neutrality.


The Nature of China’s Neutral Posture

Amongst some of the more forceful responses from the major world powers, it was perhaps the unprecedented criticism from its long-time ally, China, followed by its condemnation by the US Congress that seem to have particularly deepened Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation this time. 7   Especially, considering that these were the last resort visits by Pakistani leaders trying to cope with their growing international isolation over the recent Kargil conflict, made China’s continued neutrality so much more deliberate as also so much more decisive in bringing about the Pakistani retreat. More precisely, it was the Chinese decision to stand by their policy of neutrality even after a visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that can easily be identified as the single most decisive factor that may have compelled the Nawaz Sharif government to look for an honourable retreat. It is, therefore, important to understand the nature of the neutrality of the Chinese leadership, that possibly was largely responsible for the conclusion of the Clinton-Sharif deal, which has been credited for making Islamabad order an early retreat.

Apart from the question of the validity, authenticity and longevity of the Chinese posture of neutrality, it also still remains a fairly difficult proposition to outline what actually constitutes the Chinese policy of neutrality towards the long-standing Indo-Pak dispute on sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir. To appreciate the long-term implications of the Chinese policy with regard to Kashmir, its neutrality during the recent Kargil conflict has to be examined in the larger context of trilateral Sino-Indo-Pak ties. And here, going by the available comments and analyses by the Chinese experts and leadership, this Chinese position was perhaps most aptly summarised in a statement by China’s Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, which he reportedly made during his meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz, during the latter’s visit to Beijing on June 11, 1999. Tang said: “The Kashmir issue is a complicated affair with a long history and should be, and could only be, solved through peaceful means. China hopes Pakistan and India will find an effective approach to bringing about a political solution to the Kashmir issue through negotiations and consultations.” 8   The same neutral approach has been echoed by most other official statements of Chinese leaders and other expert analyses that preceded or followed it. Broadly, this only reiterated what President Jiang Zemin had advised during his speech to the Pakistani Senate, while on his last visit to that country in December 1996.

Amongst the series of other things that brought the Chinese neutrality into the limelight, the first important event was the sudden air dash by the Pakistani foreign minister who went to consult leaders in Beijing on the very eve of his visit to New Delhi. The fact that this visit was put up in a hurry and also the fact that this visit by Sartaj Aziz was soon to be followed by a pre-planned visit to Beijing by India’s Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, may have been a major reason for the restraint on the Chinese side. In contrast to this, the visit by Jaswant Singh was seen as a major event as the Indian foreign minister sought to make an important contribution to the tenor of Sino-Indian ties which had not been going very well following India’s nuclear explosions during May 1998. Amongst the other major contributions towards normalising Sino-Indian ties, Jaswant Singh’s visit led to a formal change in India’s official posture towards Beijing. Before this visit by Jaswant Singh, India’s China policy had been defined in the framework of speeches by India’s Defence Minister George Fernandes as also in the context of the now-famous letter of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to President Bill Clinton, both of which had described China as a perceived threat, at least potentially.

However, from a foreign minister’s standpoint, Jaswant Singh sought to allay all fears and misunderstanding by underlining that New Delhi does not consider China a threat, potentially or otherwise. And to gauge the effect he made on the Chinese, Premier Zhu Rongji described Jaswant Singh’s visit as very successful in the Chinese eyes. Jaswant Singh was later quoted as having said that “India is not a threat to the People’s Republic of China and we do not treat the People’s Republic of China as a threat to India.” 9   This was duly reciprocated by his Chinese counterpart who was also quoted as saying that “India is an important neighbour of China and the development of good neighbourly, friendly cooperation with India is one of China’s basic national policies.” 10   This seemed to have put Sino-Indian ties back on the rails, thus, further facilitating continuation of Chinese neutrality in Kargil. It was this changed tenor of Sino-Indian ties that may have also contributed to the lacklustre performance of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who visited Beijing during June 28-July 3. Continuing on these positive gains, Jaswant Singh had his second post-Kargil meeting with his Chinese counterpart on July 24 during the annual meeting of the Asean Region Forum in Singapore, where the two agreed on six joint initiatives in their bilateral cooperation and the Chinese side reportedly endorsed India’s “stabilising role” in South Asia, thus, reflecting the new tenor of Sino-Indian ties. 11


Implications of China’s Neutrality Over Kargil

Though, it may appear to be too early to look for any long-term implications of China’s posture of neutrality in the recent Indo-Pak conflict in Kargil, yet, going by the way the Chinese conducted themselves, it would be clearly wrong to project it as either anti-Islamabad or pro-New Delhi. Chinese neutrality in the recent conflict in Kargil was definitely far more subtle and sophisticated, almost trying to achieve a win-win situation from both the parties in the conflict. Nevertheless, it remains impossible to expect both India and Pakistan to draw similar conclusions about this Chinese posture of neutrality. The single most important event that finally established the credibility of the Chinese posture of neutrality during the Kargil conflict, remains the Chinese response to the visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And, going by their traditional dependence on Beijing, this single gesture was definitely very disappointing for the Pakistani power elite.

Despite the fact that it came on the heels of increasing US pressures to retreat and restore the LoC, this visit was officially described by both sides as a routine interaction, and accordingly Kashmir was apparently not allowed to overshadow this visit. This low profile was sought to be further projected through four trade agreements that were signed during this visit. But the manner in which Nawaz Sharif had to curtail his week-long planned “working visit” to Beijing, Kunming and Hong Kong, clearly showed its negative impact on Sino-Pak ties. This seemed to be Islamabad’s last hope to recover its lost ground in its aim to at least internationalise the Kashmir dispute. 12   To guestimate Islamabad’s wish-list, in addition to supporting Islamabad’s version of the Kargil conflict, Pakistan had expected China to push this issue at the forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly or even to take it up at the UN Security Council. This was because Pakistan, by this time, was losing its game both amongst international opinion-makers and also on the ground in Kargil. And it is precisely for this reason that the Chinese simply refused to oblige, to say the least.

In his meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was reported to having told Nawaz Sharif to seek political solutions by reviving the Lahore Declaration of March 1999. Providing expression to China’s policy on Kargil, Premier Zhu Rongji described Kashmir as a “historical issue involving territorial, ethnic and religious elements” which require to “be solved only through peaceful means” and the initiatives for this were expected to come from Islamabad and New Delhi. 13   In view of the fact that China failed to oblige, Sharif had little time to spare in carrying out hectic diplomatic parleys with Pakistan’s other most trusted ally in Washington DC, where he finally agreed to “take concrete steps” towards restoring the LoC in Kashmir. All this clearly shows China’s continuing role in setting the tenor of Indo-Pak ties, even if, in the long run, that role may not be decisive; definitely not so from the perspective of India’s policy initiatives. Nevertheless, irrespective of whether one likes it or not, this does establish the fact that China’s continuing neutrality will have a definite positive impact on the process of resolving the knots of Indo-Pak ties.



To conclude, while the debate on whether Pakistan did or did not succeed in internationalising Kashmir will remain inconclusive, going by what happened during Nawaz Sharif’s meetings with China’s leaders in Beijing, followed by his meeting with President Bill Clinton in Washington DC, it clearly seems to be the Chinese neutral response that played the most decisive role in facilitating what has since come to be known as the Clinton-Sharif deal that has been credited as the most important external factor in hastening the conclusion of the Kargil conflict. Providing an honourable exit for the Pakistani armed forces, the Clinton-Sharif deal has stressed that “concrete steps will be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control (LoC) in accordance with the Simla Agreement by Pakistan.” 14   In return, President Clinton seems to have promised to take “personal interest” in the Kashmir dispute and is again planning to visit South Asia some time before he lays down office early next year.

And, if recent developments are an indicator of this changed new context of Sino-US diplomatic stand-off, any positive initiatives in Indo-US or Sino-Indian ties are going to have a mutually reinforcing impact. Amongst other various factors, India’s improving relations with Beijing and Washington will further ensure the continuation of China’s neutrality regarding Indo-Pak issues. This, however, would demand not only serious initiatives from Indian policy makers, but for some time to come, Indian diplomacy will have to achieve the critical balance between holding on to its long pole of strength (military modernisation) and also keeping its balance on the tight rope between Beijing and Washington.



*: Research Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).  Back.

Note 1: General Mohammad Musa (Retd.), My Version: India-Pakistan War 1965 (Lahore: Wajidalis Ltd., 1983), pp. 11, 92. Back.

Note 2: Sukhbir Choudhary, Indo-Pak War and Big Powers (New Delhi: Trimurti Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1972), pp. 41-45. Back.

Note 3: V.R. Raghavan, “China, India and Kashmir”, The Hindu, June 15, 1999, p. 10. Back.

Note 4: “Seek Peace in Kashmir” (To the Point: Editorial), China Daily, June 26, 1999, p. 4. Back.

Note 5: C. Raja Mohan, “Third Parties in Sino-Indian Ties”, The Hindu, June 15, 1999, p. 11. Back.

Note 6: Shao Zongwei, “Call for Talks to End Fight”, China Daily, June 30, 1999, p. 1; also Jin Zeqing, “War Never Ends Disputes”, China Daily, June 5, 1999, p. 4. Back.

Note 7: Zahid Hussain, “Islamabad Dealt Double Blow by Beijing Criticism and Condemnation in US Congress”, South China Morning Post, July 3, 1999. Back.

Note 8: “China Hopes for Effective Solution in Kashmir”, China Daily, June 12, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 9: “India, China Not a Threat to Each Other”, China Daily, June 19, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 10: Sun Shangwu, “Threat Fears Must Cease for Sino-India Ties”, China Daily, June 15, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 11: P.S. Suryanarana, “China Renews Offer of Security Dialogue: ‘Shift’ in Indo-US Ties”, The Hindu, July 25, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 12: Tim Metcalfe, “Looking to an ‘Old Friend’ to Solve Crisis”, South China Morning Post, July 3, 1999. Back.

Note 13: Shao Zongwei, “Zhu Urges Quick Return to Stability in Kashmir”, China Daily, June 29, 1999, p. 1; also “Li: Solve Kashmir Crisis Peacefully,” China Daily, June 12, 1999, p. 1. Back.

Note 14: “Sharif Faces Uphill Task to Sell Deal on Kashmir”, China Daily, July 9, 1999, p. 4. Back.