Deal with China cannily and cautiously

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on September 15, 2020

Beijing’s got no compunctions about breaking its diplomatic word if it can get away with it

Indian and Chinese troops will be facing each other down through the bleak Ladakh winter even though the two countries pledged to seek to “disengage as quickly as possible.” Any disengagement is going to take a long time and the big question is whether the two armies confronting each other at such tense close quarters can avoid more skirmishes that could escalate into outright conflict.

It’s always chilly at those high-altitudes but temperatures really start plunging in November and plummet to -30 degree C by January. The Indian Army is used to keeping its tanks in working order through the season and hostilities are theoretically possible even during the severe winter months as there’s no snow.

The meeting between Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, a veteran China hand who’s said to enjoy good chemistry with Chinese diplomats, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Moscow did seem to lower tensions a notch, and, conspicuously, both sides avoided blaming the other. The talks raised prospects of confidence-building steps to preserve “the peace and tranquillity” along the LAC — a phrase that now seems to have reached its sell-by date.

But less hopefully, the negotiating ball seems to be firmly back in the court of the army brass in Ladakh. They've already been talking for months to little effect. The problem is both nations have left themselves with scant wriggle-room and even the smallest pullback will be seen as a loss of face. Any negotiated settlement would likely need the impetus from Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping.

Costly affair

Certainly, there are strong arguments for a pullback. Conditions for soldiers will be miserable and also both countries will have to count the costs of a large troop deployment through the Ladakh winter One estimate is it will cost India ₹8,000 crore each month to maintain the current force levels through the winter. Ideally, Jaishankar and Wang should have created room for a pullback but it doesn’t appear they even got within hailing distance of that possibility. This at a time when the Covid pandemic has drained India’s finances.

So, given the border dynamics and what is likely to be a protracted diplomatic and military engagement, we still have the worry of a military confrontation. It would be tough for either side to achieve a conclusive victory as the surprise element vanished months ago. But to keep the standoff peaceful, India needs to seriously apply its mind to how it wants relations to move ahead. The PLA began edging forward several months ago and it’s obvious these were not moves by a reckless local commander but a provocation. The PLA Western Theatre Command reports directly to Beijing and it’s clear every major move must have been cleared with Chinese supremo Xi Jinping.

Wrong focus

Could it be that Prime Minister Modi was taken in by a 21st-century version of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai? For far too long, our strategic thinking and planning have centred narrowly on Pakistan when we should have been focussing intently on China too. There is also the question of why India did not respond faster to the Chinese encroachment and we must ensure we maintain a state of operational readiness to deal with such contingencies.

Throw into this mix is the fact the Chinese have little regard for India. For starters, our economy is one-fifth the size of theirs, making it impossible for us to match them on defence or any other spending. Also, the Chinese have nothing but contempt for our democratic system which they find incomprehensible.

Nevertheless, political analysts believe China always keeps one eye on India because it views us as the sole country in Asia that might eventually be able to challenge it economically and militarily. To avert that day arriving, China is trying to sideline and diminish us as much as possible. It’s already seeking to achieve this by increasing its clout with our long-time neighbouring allies such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and, of course, in a different category Pakistan. It will spare no expense in helping these countries build the infrastructure they may or may not need, undermining the advantage of our geographical proximity.

Secondly, China will work to stymie our Look East policy so we have minimal influence elsewhere in Asia. Would China go to the extent of forcing a minor conflict in Ladakh to put us firmly in our place? That would probably rank poorly in any risk-reward analysis. But nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

Bully on charge

All our dealings with China must be done extremely cannily and cautiously. As the rising power of Asia and the globe, Beijing has got no compunctions about breaking its diplomatic word if it can get away with it. Any agreement must be struck keeping this in mind. China’s very much like Germany in the early 1900s: insecure and wanting to cut all its rivals to size and it has picked fights in just about every corner of the globe in recent months.

Beijing’s scrap with Australia has just turned nastier and two Australian journalists were forced to leave the country after being questioned by security services. And Wang got a frosty reception when travelling around Europe last month after Beijing’s passage of Hong Kong’s national security law.

Atmospherics at a virtual summit Monday between the EU and China were also strained with the EU demanding China respect human rights and open its markets, calling reciprocity a fundamental basis of their bilateral relationship.

For India, though, it’s a higher-stakes game since we share an almost 4,000-km border with this new global power. India must counter China at all levels — from the high seas to the mountainous heights to ensure that it’s not pushed to the sidelines even in its own region.

India will soon host a meeting of the Quad, the quadrilateral security dialogue, which also includes Australia, Japan and the US. But we have to look out for ourselves and can’t rely on the Quad as any kind of bulwark against China.

Simultaneously, while it’s important to tighten the screws on Chinese businesses in India as the Ladakh standoff drags on, ultimately better commercial relations are desirable. For instance, we’re still, a long way from self-reliance in bulk drugs for which we depend on China for supplies to make everything from high blood pressure medications to antibiotics. Chinese businesses wishing to invest in India should be scrutinised closely but permitted. China, with its total lack of democracy and insistence racial minorities be welded into the Han Chinese way of life, finds it hard to understand India with its chaotic democracy and celebration of diversity. We need to show them that our system works just as well or even better on many counts.

Published on September 15, 2020

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