Making sense of China’s bellicosity in Ladakh
Things look grim along the LAC. A prolonged war with China looks far more possible today than it did a month or two back. Why and how the situation deteriorated so fast is a matter that analysts are delving into in think tanks around the world. Given the fact that China is a closed society with no free discourse in the media, and its President Xi Jinping is a reticent leader who seldom makes policy statements in public, many theories are being advanced as to how and why Modi, and Xi, who met as many as 18 times in the last six years, have failed to pick up the phone to bring the spiraling crisis to a halt. Obviously, neither of the two strongmen wants to blink first.
The Galwan brawl took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers, with some casualties in the Chinese side. The brief fisticuff riled the Indian establishment, and has whipped up anti-China sentiments in Indian streets. To make matters worse, satellite images show that the Chinese have returned to the disputed location in strength, and now officially claim the entire Galwan valley as theirs. This has widened the chasm between the rival sides further. As if to tease India further, the Chinese have started provocative patrol in Pong Tso area’s eight locations known as ‘Fingers’.
In 2017, the two sides stood eye ball to eye ball in Dokhlam, but chose not to start a war. After a tense two-month stand-off, the matter was amicably settled. What, then, explains such Chinese assertiveness now?
Between 2014-and ’19, Prime Minister Modi was very careful not to rub China in the wrong side despite pressure from the U.S. to join it in an anti-China military alliance with Australia, and Japan as the other two members. India remained a passive participant to this formulation known as QUAD. India’s lukewarm stance pleased China. In Pacific area conferences such as the ASEAN, India refused to join the chorus against China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, agreeing to sign on a vaguely worded resolution asserting the freedom of shipping in the South China Sea. India was mindful of the fact that China considers the South China Sea as its backyard, and wouldn’t take kindly to any effort to limit its rights. Even over the gross oppression of human rights of the Uighur Muslims in Xinxiang province in northwest China, India remained mute. In the economic front, India allowed Chinese investors to pick up stakes in Indian companies. Things appeared to be going smooth for the two neighbours. Modi and XI had agreed not to let the simmering border tensions to cast a shadow on their political and economic engagement.
Things changed radically after Covid-19 broke out in China, and spread everywhere like wildfire. Things went downhill for China globally. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. under President Trump had clamped tight controls on Chinese imports strangling China’s factories and its export-driven economy. China was losing a vast lucrative export market in the U.S. that it had enjoyed for decades to buttress its economy. The coronavirus pandemic brought stigma and humiliation to China globally. Europe too began to see China suspiciously. This was bad news for President XI Jinping, who had begun to be seen as the life time leader destined to make China the superpower, ahead of the U.S. That image and ambition took a hit.
Not long ago in history, the Soviet Union had challenged the U.S. quite successfully for the top slot in the world stage, but it imploded under its own ideological baggage. China, had learned lessons from this downfall of its Communist alley. It decided, quite wisely, not to be too orthodox in its practice of communism. It embraced capitalism to propel it upwards, steered clear of world’s military conflicts, and started massive infrastructure projects worldwide to stamp its dominance in global trade. Trump’s trade sanctions, and the Coronavirus pandemic shattered China’s golden dreams. It made President Xi vengeful, looking for opportunities to assert China’s might.
What did India do wrong? First, Modi befriended Trump too overtly knowing pretty well that the latter was loathed by China. Trump practices a transactional type of politics, and adopts measures that suit U.S. interests only. Courting Trump annoyed China. The abrogation of Article 370, and Amit Shah’s assertion that the entire Aksai Chin area would be recovered from China in future made China angry. After Article 370 was bulldozed by India, Pakistan wept in China’s shoulders, and the latter had to demonstrate that it is indeed a friend in need. China began making hostile noises. India’s haste in pushing the CAA, NRC, and the NPR regulations, and the hurtful language used both by Prime Minister Modi, and Home Minister Amit Shah to describe Muslim migrants antagonized an array of Islamic countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In one stroke, all these historic friends turned hostile to India. China was watching India’s discomfiture with glee. After Covid-19 engulfed the world, India joined a group of Australia-led nations to demand a probe into the origin of the coronavirus. China was miffed by India’s readiness to join a probe that could smear China’s image. When India blocked the entry of Chinese investors coming in to pick up distressed Indian assets at give-away prices, post-Covid, China lost its cool.
It’s not that China has been belligerent with India alone. It has begun saber-rattling in Taiwan, because its newly-elected president, Ms. Tsai is a stridently pro-independence leader. In Hong Kong, it has enacted a Security law that, in effect, gives mainland China unfettered power to smother protests. It has aggressively gone into the disputed South China Sea to pump out crude oil and gas and exploit other resources, much to the chagrin of the smaller claimant nations. It has drawn swords with Canada over the arrest of one of Huawei’s executives. Two Australian academics have been jailed for life by China on espionage charges. Trump’s diatribes against it are met with more hateful barbs emanating from Bejing
Encircled by so many hostile nations, China has begun to growl. Gone are the days in which China portrayed itself as a rising power more intent on its own economic growth, than on rancorous world politics. Now, China demands respect, and attention. Coercion is part of China’s foreign policy. President Xi wants to be the nation-builder that China’s history will remember for posterity.
India, on the other hand, looks like a power in decline. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, India’s economy was sputtering, losing momentum for 11 quarters in a row. The pandemic has given the knock-out punch. Sadly for India, its international rating with regard to press freedom, security for minorities, democratic values, health index, have all been progressively declining year after year. Many international newspapers and magazines routinely carry pieces questioning the current leadership’s ability to ensure quick, inclusive growth and stick to liberal values. India’s soft power no longer shines. A sad example of India’s failure of foreign policy is the way Nepal has drifted away from it. Such a faltering image has emboldened China to coerce India.
The remedy is to avoid the temptation to align with the west to counter China. That is a short-sighted, fraught solution. The better way is to work on the economy, befriend the countries in the neighborhood and in West Asia by removing their misgivings, rebuild the country’s institutions to their past glory, restore genuine media neutrality, and most importantly, build a robust military. All these are doable, if PM Modi summons all his passion and energy. He has the charisma and the nation’s support, and he must leverage it.