When Beijing hosted both the Pakistani prime minister and Indian defence minister for rare back-to-back visits this month, many observers focused on how the meetings supported China’s bid to strengthen economic and military ties with South Asia.
But analysts believe stronger relationships with the two regional powers may also serve another purpose: to help pacify ethnic conflict and unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.
The vast autonomous regions, which stretch along much of China’s borders with India and Pakistan, stand to benefit from improved ties. Beijing is hoping any economic growth translates into social stability.
“If China works with our neighbours to bring about regional prosperity, this would be very useful in curing social ills,” said Zhou Gancheng, director of South Asia studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“Separatist movements are a social ill and faster economic development would help eliminate that kind of thinking.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meetings with President Xi Jinping and top Chinese leaders touched on plans for an economic corridor – consisting of a series of special economic zones, a railway and possibly a pipeline – linking Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar to Kashgar , in resource-rich Xinjiang. Islamabad is hoping Chinese capital and technical support will help it develop hydroelectric dams and other energy sources to cope with its national energy crisis.
Meanwhile, A.K. Antony – making the first visit by an Indian defence minister to China in seven years – discussed a wide range of topics with Premier Li Keqiang and Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan . Both sides agreed to boost military exchanges and work to resolve long-standing border disputes.
“We’re seeing China round out its South Asian diplomacy,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Washington. “Pakistan and China’s relationship was in the past almost fully military, and now they’re diversifying into economic partnerships. And while India and China have long enjoyed a booming trade relationship, there’s been a high level of distrust on the military side.”
In September, Du Ying, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that investment from “other Asian countries” would play a role in a new round of western region development.
China’s interactions with India and Pakistan also reflect Beijing’s ability to maintain relationships with regional rivals and potentially become an effective mediating force globally.