Indian and Chinese soldiers on the Line of Actual Control in Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh (Photo: AP)
WHEN INDIAN and Chinese troops came to blows in early May along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, parallels were immediately drawn between the standoff at Doklam in 2017. But the analogy was misleading. China and India now face off with each other in a hostile manner in at least four locations in the region. To this list one can add the tense situation at Naku La in Sikkim that occurred just about at that time. This is perhaps the first time that India and China have seen elevated tensions at multiple points across their long—and disputed—border in a very long time.
This newfound Chinese aggression has surprised many. But India is not alone. Around the time when Indian and Chinese soldiers were coming to blows, a Chinese military vessel was chasing a Japanese fishing boat thousands of kilometres away in East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands that belong to Japan. To this list one can add the muscle-flexing on ‘unifying’ Taiwan with China and a new security law passed by Beijing that all but extinguishes whatever freedoms Hong Kong is left with. If this were not enough, China now has a corps of very abrasive diplomats who frequently indulge in Twitter spats. Seen together, they paint a very different picture of China, one that is far-removed from the ‘peaceful rise’ thesis that so many Beijing apologists have written about.
In the eastern Ladakh region, China has tried to inch its way in the Pangong Tso lake area. On the northern banks of the lake, a number of mountain ridges slope down as ‘fingers’ right down to the lake. Of these, India claims eight. The Indian border claim runs even further east to the edge of a thin connecting water link that further connects a part of the lake that is wholly within Chinese territory. In May, the Chinese landed at ‘finger 4’ where they were finally confronted by soldiers and troopers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) force. Much further north, there are three points in the Galwan Valley where a similar situation persists a month later.
‘Chinese moves, especially around Galwan, appear designed to prevent India from completing these road projects, given China’s general weakness at the tactical level in the area. These events, perhaps, are a classic expression of the security dilemma—China views India as changing the LAC status quo, even if India sees its moves as an attempt to consolidate the status quo along the LAC,’ Michael Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently wrote in the Monkey Cage blog in <The Washington Post>. Fravel was referring to a number of such border road projects that India has completed in the last decade that have allowed it to connect hitherto inaccessible regions along the LAC.
In the month since the standoff, India has reinforced its troops in the region with acclimatized men, material and supplies while Chinese supply lines are stretched thin. But that has not led to any kind of bravado from the Indian side
Share this on
One particular road that was completed last year, further north in the region, the Daulat Beg Oldie-Darbuk-Shyok (DBO-DS) road in particular, has attracted Chinese ire. India’s construction of a feeder road that links Galwan river with the DBO-DS road says Fravel, was a trigger for the current standoff. The ‘discovery’ of the road that runs almost parallel to the LAC, has ‘upset’ the Chinese side. All construction activity took place on the Indian side of the LAC, allowing the Army to dominate the region.
Locally, India is in an advantageous position in the area. In the month since the standoff, India has reinforced its troops in the region with acclimatised men, material and supplies while Chinese supply lines are stretched thin. But that has not led to any kind of bravado from the Indian side: the official position, on paper and in action, is to resolve the situation by diplomatic means. Even in Beijing, the foreign office said that the two countries were capable of resolving border issues through dialogue and negotiations at the military and diplomatic levels. The lesson that India has learnt since a similar standoff in Depsang in north Ladakh in 2013 is not to blink on the ground while being firm to its stand at the diplomatic level.
But something has changed in the broader Indian response as well.
In almost every engagement with like-minded Western democracies with an interest in Asia, India has been cautious so that China does not assume ‘ganging up’ against it. In multilateral military exercises like Malabar—a trilateral exercise between the navies of India, US and Japan—India has always been careful with regard to Australian participation lest China assume it to be some kind of ‘Asian NATO’. Similarly, the Quadrilateral Dialogue between the four countries was deliberately kept low key—mainly an exchange of ideas among officials—for so long that it nearly died of exhaustion. Observers see this as some kind of behaviour where India chooses to be ‘equidistant’ between the US and China. What events in Ladakh show is that this policy of balancing has not worked.
Perhaps India realises that but has had no viable options to handle China. The military and economic differential between the two countries is so huge that India has to be cautious in whatever it does. But there are enough hints that India also realises the limitations of that approach. To give one anecdote: In the recent telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, China was discussed. The readout of the chat issued by the Ministry of External Affairs stated: ‘The two leaders also exchanged views on other topical issues, such as the COVID-19 situation in the two countries, the situation on the India-China border, and the need for reforms in the World Health Organisation.’ This is an unusual departure from the Indian norm of keeping China out of the equation in bilateral relations with countries like the US and, now probably, Australia.
While Prime Minister Modi did not mention China in his Atmanirbhar Bahrat Abhiyan, the risks of not having vital supplies produced within one’s country were very much lurking in the background
Share this on
What is happening at the India-China border may be explained away as India altering the local security dynamics and China responding to it. But what can explain China’s beef import ban from Australia, its hammering away of Hong Kong’s autonomy, browbeating countries in the South China Sea littoral and a host of other transgressions?
Something very different may be at work. Since 1978, when China opened up to the world after the death of Mao Zedong and the reforms of Deng Xiaopeng, the world has accepted China with open arms. China’s transition from a backward agrarian economy to a rival to the US has come about by its integration into the global economy, a process that picked up speed in the 1990s. All along, the guiding assumption has been that as China gets prosperous, it will shed its old insecurities and join other modernising countries as an equal partner.
China’s rise depended on one essential ingredient: that it would keep on exporting to Western countries and they would keep on buying from it. Those musical chairs began slowing in 2008 with the global economic crisis. Since 2015, the world has become increasingly protectionist and the music has become not so pleasing to hear. From 2017—the year when China tried to wrest the Doklam plateau from Bhutan—the process accelerated. In 2020, after the Covid-19 crisis and China’s ham-handed attempts to corner medical supply chains from countries as diverse as Australia and others in Asia, the process of globalisation without costs is finally nearing an end. Countries realise that they simply cannot buy from China without additional security and other costs in the process. While Prime Minister Modi did not mention China in his Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, the risks of not having vital supplies produced within one’s country were very much lurking in the background. There is a healthy fear of import-substitution industrialisation in the minds of economists but that concern does not factor in the dangers of excessive reliance on China.
China realises this change in the world. It also realises that with dwindling export possibilities, probably it has leveraged all that it could from an open world. Henceforth, it has to rely on its own. The corollary of all this is that probably, its window of catching up with the US in military, economic and political terms has been closed prematurely. But what it has is sufficient to pick up a fight with neighbours like India, Vietnam and further offshore, those like the Philippines and Indonesia. Even a country as friendly to it as Australia, is now fair game in this geopolitical slugfest.
What should countries like India do to handle an aggressive China? For starters, the Indian approach of being resolute on the ground and firm at the diplomatic level needs an injection of energy. The truth is that any territory China lays its hands on, it seldom returns without a fight. India is rightly careful not to expand the zone of current confrontation from a region where it enjoys local tactical superiority to those where it may face severe challenges. But if it comes to blows, there will be no other option but to return them. It is high time that the psychological baggage acquired in 1962 is discarded. There is every need for caution but none for pusillanimity. Even as India battles a viral pandemic and a weak economy, it should be within its means to devise a politico-military strategy to handle China.
The newfound Chinese aggression has surprised many, including the muscle-flexing on ‘unifying’ Taiwan with China and a few security law passed by Beijing that all but extinguishes whatever freedoms Hong Kong is left with
Share this on
It is also high time that India realised that being overly cautious about Chinese sensitivities does not pay. What it also does not mean is a sudden, panic-stricken, invitation to countries like the US. What India now needs is a rethink of how it deals with China. That, in turn, means getting clear about the simple fact that China does not believe in friendship between equals but is only ‘benevolent’ towards others in a hierarchical conception of the world. A free India certainly should not harbour any illusions about the nature of the Chinese state and what it wants. This means, for starters, the Quadrilateral Dialogue must discuss geo-economic and geostrategic options with respect to China in an open and frank manner. In the meantime, India sorely needs military muscle. High time its defence planners got real about it.