Tokyo’s relationship with China and North Korea in a post-Abe era will continue to be an issue pertaining to Japan’s future foreign policy. Nuclear weapons development, ballistic missile tests over Japanese territory and resolution of the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea require proactive engagement.
This brings to light the deeper linkages and nexus of North Korea with China, and the illicit nuclear and missile web that Beijing ran across Northeast Asia and South Asia with North Korea and Pakistan as its primary “client” states.
China At the Center
Kick-started in the 1980s, China’s nuclear and missile-related proliferation activities ran across Asia, directly and indirectly, causing irretrievable alteration of Northeast and South Asia’s strategic balance.
China’s covert nuclear and missile assistance and transfers included medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear and conventional warheads. The China-Pakistan missile collaboration on certain systems has been found to identically match a Chinese design that Beijing had exported to North Korea in 2011.
Pyongyang’s missile aspirations began many decades ago with the production of a Chinese Type-63 multiple rocket launcher and supply of the HY-1 naval missiles from Beijing to the DPRK. Further, six Chinese transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) showed up in downtown Pyongyang in April 2012. North Korea has a long history of acquiring demilitarized vehicles and thereafter adapting them.
It has been well documented that North Korea procured chassis from abroad, given that they are too expensive and complex to produce domestically. Linkages in this reference can be traced between Wanshan, a company based in Xiaogan, in the easternmost part of central China’s Hubei Province. Wanshan falls under the control of the 9th Academy of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
Known for producing specialty vehicles and chassis for civilian and military applications, Wanshan traded with North Korea as of 2009, records of the Information Bureau of Yuan’an County have shown. However, the records do not specify the type of trade that occurred. The Wanshan facility remains critical as it produces WS-series vehicles for use as TELs that are used by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
With their much-blemished record in non-proliferation, China, North Korea, and Pakistan need to be investigated for their role in spinning an unlawful nuclear and missile web throughout Asia for almost 40 years. Northeast Asian and South Asian security and strategic stability will be haunted continually by China’s regional strategic objective of keeping Japan and India confined by their neighbors.
India’s ‘Very Serious’ Border Situation
India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar commented on the current situation along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC), noting that “this ‘very serious’ situation has been going on since the beginning of May.” He went on, “calling for ‘very, very deep conversations’ between the two sides at a political level.”
The comment came just before Mr. Jaishankar headed to Moscow to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers’ meeting (September 9-11).
Speaking through a virtual public platform, Jaishankar went on to explain that “the state of the border cannot be delinked from the state of the relationship.”
The Indian external affairs minister further underscored the point, saying, “If peace and tranquility on the border is not a given, then it cannot be that the rest of the relationship continues on the same basis…. If you look at the last 30 years, because there was peace and tranquility on the border, there were problems also…. I am not disregarding that.”
The Potential for a Two-front War Against India
There are multiple reasons the Indian external affairs minister termed the situation “very serious.” To begin with, India’s military is faced with a live western border with Pakistan, continuing for decades. But more significantly, it now faces a very live and precarious eastern front with China. This presents a real-time hands-on challenge of a “two-front war” scenario for the Indian Army in particular, and the Indian Armed Forces in totality.
The possibility of such a situation was first articulated within the military circles in 2007-2008. At the time, it was regarded as a “potential future military scenario that could well be in the offing,” requiring India’s ability to respond.
Another side of the issue is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which runs through Pakistan in a linear fashion. The corridor project aims to link northwestern China to southern Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline through a network of roads, railways, and pipelines.
The CPEC has emerged as a vital pivot in this area’s geostrategic calculations. India, seemingly, has been left with no option but to cater to the wide-ranging variables of deterrence in the Indo-China border areas, now with the aggressive presence of China, and Pakistan becoming progressively far more compelling.
All of this comes in the midst of perhaps the most pressing question for India’s military. In a potential hot conflict scenario between India and Pakistan, would China open up a second front against India, even if limited to a narrow zone?
Similarly, would Pakistan open a live theater against India in the event of a Sino-Indian border conflict?
Beijing’s involvement in an potential India-Pakistan dispute will have a vital geopolitical and geostrategic context, in that China will likely appear more than willing to get involved in negotiating for larger chunks of territory as part of its greater South Asia strategy.
The plausible military strategy would be for China and Pakistan to keep both fronts tactically active and simultaneously alive against the Indian Armed Forces.
21-year Old China-Pakistan Strategy
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi reportedly undertook detailed discussions on Kashmir and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor during their August 2020 visit to the southern Chinese island of Hainan. Notably, the China-Pakistan joint strategy during wartime vis-à-vis India’s borders dates back 21 years, when the 1999 war in Kargil (a district in present day Indian Union territory of Ladakh) occurred between India and Pakistan.
Among the many lessons emerging from the war for India was that as long as territorial disputes prevail, the continued waging of a proxy war against India (by Pakistan) or a limited/extended border war with China, cannot be entirely ruled out. China was very much on the prowl, watching during the Kargil conflict with China’s PLA patrolling and carrying on other activities on India’s northern border during the course of the Kargil conflict.
The above has been chronicled in a telling account by General VP Malik, who was the Indian Army’s chief during the course of the Kargil conflict. In his memoir, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory (Harper Collins, India, 2010), Malik narrates how in 1998, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) got absorbed into India’s newly formed National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and collated intelligence assessments from different sources pertaining to developments that would expectedly have had a bearing on national security.
The JIC’s April 1999 review predicted that the long-standing cooperation among China, North Korea, and Pakistan was likely to continue. It then covered the strategic significance of Sino-Pakistan relations after Chinese Premier Li Peng’s visit to Pakistan in April 1999.
Shortly thereafter, in May 1999, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security, the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), and all other officials dealing directly with the CCS were “on board” as far as assessment of the situation in the Kargil sector. They were also in agreement on India’s politico-military strategy to deal with the developments.
As a follow-up to this politico-military strategy, India’s three service chiefs were to work out their military strategy and plan of action. Among the many tasks for the military, the immediate ones included maintaining alertness on the border with China.
As per a 2002 account by VR Raghavan titled Siachen: Conflict Without End, (Viking, 2002), China did indeed articulate the view of maintaining a “neutral posture politically” during the Kargil conflict. However, at the ground level, its PLA enhanced levels of activity along the LAC in Ladakh, as well as in the sector lying opposite India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Heightened PLA activities along the LAC, indicated a demonstrative support to Pakistan militarily, in a purported attempt to be prepared to take advantage of the Indian Army’s involvement on the western borders. This scenario, drawn 21 years back, remains perhaps exactly the same, or even furthermore heightened in the present-day context.
Along with reports of induction of additional troops opposite Arunachal Pradesh, major Chinese PLA patrol activities during the Kargil war were also reported at Demchok (in eastern Ladakh), Trig Heights (in Ladakh), Pangong Tso (in Ladakh), and Chantze (in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh).
Malik’s 2010 memoir also outlines on how the Indian army had, in fact, received many intelligence reports that the PLA’s director in the Department of Armament (which handles the Chinese Army’s conventional weapons and equipment) had visited Islamabad during the time of the conflict to help the Pakistan Army overcome its critical deficiencies in armament, ammunition, and equipment.
The politico-military equation between Pakistan and China continues to remain strategically complimentary, with the military assuming a vital role in the affairs of the state. The authoritarian political-military partnership model of governance in communist states, and in countries where the military dons an absolute dictatorial role in the affairs of the state gets mirrored amply in the case of China and Pakistan.
The contemporary policy options being put in place by China and Pakistan in the borders of Kashmir and Ladakh precisely illustrate the importance of geopolitics and the strategies flowing out of it to obtain desired geo-strategic objectives. Their individual and joint approaches adopted against India also depict how China’s long-drawn assessment of the borders shared with India will remain a case study of political exploitation of geographic realities and barefaced distortion of history.
Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.