Reactionary China: India rising military, diplomatic edge trigger border clashes

File Photo: Indian and Chinese army personnel at a joint exercise.

(Editor’s Note: The opinions are that of the writer’s.)

By Siddhartha Sharma

For over three decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has spread propaganda and pumped corporate earnings, through channel stuffing, to portray China as an economic powerhouse in the region.

The CCP’s mendacious propaganda has now tied its hands into a reactionary force. Internationally, China is shamed and called on to disclose the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has devastated the global economy and pushed millions into poverty, effectively nullifying the three-decades long fight against poverty. It has also rendered all alleviation efforts of the international community futile.

Therefore, the world is justified to ask China to come clean. It should not startle us that emerging evidence points towards recombinant pieces of several genomes to produce the pandemic-causing pathogen. At this point, however, it is unclear whether it is a natural evolutionary step or a lab-work.

India and China share a lengthy 3,488-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border. Both nations claim territories in their respective western and eastern parts, leading to disputed areas. As part of the Panchsheel Treaty of 1954, the Jawaharlal Nehru-led Government of India acknowledged that Tibet was a part of China. Hence, India gave up its extraterritorial rights in Tibet inherited from the British, hoping China accepts the fait accompli.

Consequently, Nehru ordered new maps of India published showing the expansive Indian territorial claims as definite boundaries including Aksai Chin, which together with the failure of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and the 14th Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, set in motion the ground for the War of 1962 between India and China.

Sections within Chinese establishment consider Indian military to continue to be in the 1962 state of readiness, which obviously is untrue in 2020. Realising the growth of its arch-rival, the CCP faces un-comforting challenges. On many occasions, since the “package settlement” offer by Deng Xiaoping in 1981, both India and China have had border skirmishes and stand-offs.

Between 2000 and 2010, China rapidly expanded and carried out hectic construction. They consolidated position, improved access, and the agility of deployment along the LAC. India frequently protested but never confronted. Such passive activities encouraged China to bully Indian forces along the LAC and its other smaller neighbours. It led to a significant power differential, tilted in favour of China.

In 2015, India’s former Minister of Defence late Manohar Parrikar admitted “regulations for border infrastructure have handicapped the construction of roads leading to the country’s borders” at an investment summit organised by Confederation of Indian Industry. Further, the Narendra Modi-led government restructured the ailing Border Roads Organisation and rushed to accelerate the long-overdue construction of strategic infrastructure along the LAC.

Moreover, the Ministry of Defence undertook several measures to fast-track the laying of border roads. The enhanced speed of development to meet the Indian Army’s strategic requirements has played a pivotal role, and this is the critical factor distinguishing the recent stand-offs, be it the latest or the 2017 Doklam incident.

While many argued about India’s position in Doklam, it is worth noting that India, in a strategic sense, gained face by directly looking eye-to-eye at the Chinese in an over 70-day confrontation. Lethal incidents did not occur, but India showed extreme resolve to not turn around, which was new to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Another factor, more importantly, unlike Doklam, this time the conflict is on the Indian territory. It indicates, unlike usual Indian reaction to Chinese construction activity, the Chinese are now reacting to India’s road-building efforts.

Strategically, this discomforts the CCP leadership’s playbook. Over the course of the last five years, India has constantly refused to be a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and strongly opposed it.

India has, on many occasions, registered its protest with China over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) violating its sovereignty. To counter Chinese advances across the world, India together with the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ of Australia, Japan, and the United States, launched its ‘Blue Dot Network’.

India and Japan, with a few Africa countries, counter Chinese maritime advances in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). Digital connectivity, through the AAGC, will also support the growth of innovative technology and services between Asia and Africa.

For the first time since 1988-89, India has challenged the PLA, which is terrible for CCP’s propaganda. It also questions the Chinese narrative of a big regional powerhouse. In China, the tutored youth learns about a colonised but reformed China regaining territories.

With access to the Internet and knowledge of India’s growing military prowess and diplomatic edge, the faith and belief of the Chinese people on the CCP are now shaky. Together with the agony of the pandemic in China, which is playing against the Communist narrative, Chinese citizens have steadily started to value freedom of expression. Recent incidents in Hong Kong and the way Taiwan handled the Coronavirus epidemic have added more fuel to the public’s distrust of Chinese politicians.

For the 40 years, China’s growth was unquestioned. It practised a very shady business. Public companies in the United States are now facing the wrath of American market regulator SEC. Chinese-listed businesses do not comply with the disclosure and transparency measures required of companies traded on US stock exchanges.

Now with the growth fading, the Chinese leadership is desperate to retain its clasp on power, and hence we are witnessing jingoist propaganda. In simplest terms, the latest incursions are heavy-handed Chinese response to thwart Indian efforts to narrow that power differential forcibly.

Amazingly, the Indian leadership is leaving no stone un-turned to protect its strategic interests. Amid a pandemic and stand-off, over 10,000 workers are arriving near the border to complete projects. The move came even as Indian and Chinese soldiers were eyeball-to-eyeball at four locations along the LAC in the western front.

Mirroring Chinese deployment of tanks and artillery guns, the uniformed services of India are setting up their camps in a proactive localised deployment. Reinforcements from the Indian Army together with a small naval presence in Pangong Tso are reported. Indian Air Force fighters rushed in, following Chinese aerial activity, to counter what appears to be a multi-front purposive ploy by China.

Indian Air Force performs regular fly-by with its Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft fleet and the newly acquired Apache gunships in Leh. Although inadvertent incursions happen due to poorly demarcated boundaries, the aerial incursions, using the Chinese helicopter fleet, deliberately leaves tell-tale signs to stake claim on areas which are part of India.

Fearing a retaliation for the Handwara terror attack by India, Pakistan has ramped up its night sorties using F-16s and JF-17s along India’s north-western border. With operational detachments of the Air Force at Leh and the THOISE air bases, IAF is today much prepared than in the past.

War-like conditions also favour China economically, as well. The US and Australian trade wars have intensified, and multiple manufacturing companies look at India as a preferred alternative destination.

Investments in a war-torn country are unlikely. It slows the outflow of manufacturers from China and buys CCP time to thwart India’s attempts to lure manufacturers out of China. It is a textbook case of Chinese military ploys. Recently the PLA Navy performed power projections and muscle-flexing with smaller nations in its South China Sea.

Incidentally, the Chinese leadership was surprised by the Indian voice on the South China Sea disputes. It was a response to the multi-front assertive aggression by the Chinese across Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Although the current stand-off is likely to cool-off soon, the bilateral differences will likely drag on as more troops dig in on both sides.

(The writer is a member of think-tank networks Royal United Services Institute or RUSI and International Institute of Strategic Studies or IISS, London)

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