[An Indian soldier stopping a PLA soldier — a mobile pic hurriedly snapped]
The Press reported that on Saturday May 23 the Army Chief, MM Naravane, briefed Defence Minister Rajnath Singh about the state of affairs in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control he visited in the days previous. That the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat attended this briefing suggests the situation is more worrisome than the army has let on.
Indeed in a short interview carried by Indian Express May 14, (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/army-chief-mm-naravane-downplays-india-china-border-skirmishes-in-ladakh-and-sikkim/) Naravane was complacent, pooh-poohing the violently intrusive tack the PLA has taken in asserting China’s territorial rights to the detriment of India’s claims. “All such incidents are managed by established mechanisms where-in local formations from both sides resolve issues mutually as per established protocols and strategic guidelines given by the PM after the Wuhan and Mallaparam summits,” he averred. He clarified, helpfully, that such confrontations arise due to the unresolved “differing perceptions of the alignment of boundaries”. To tamp down on speculation regarding the potential for such incidents to snowball into active hostilities, he added that the Chinese aggression in the Pangong Lake region of eastern Ladakh and on the Sikkim border in the Naku La section (on May 5-6) are not “co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities”. In other words, that these were one-off incidences with no connecting policy skin and that the Indian media would do well not to play them up.
However, on May 13 newspapers had reported serious injuries to a Colonel and a Major in the Pangong Tso environs because they were clubbed by the intruding Chinese troops with a new version of a medieval weapon — nail-studded wooden batons — that were being swung freely and with intention to do harm. In short, it was not latest in the series of mildly frictive pushing and shoving matches (as at Dok La in 2017) that have to-date typified Sino-Indian border interactions.
Apparently, General Naravane and the Modi government do not consider the use against senior Indian field officers of long nail-studded wooden clubs by Chinese troops an escalation nor perceive such incidents to be other than of little account because their public statements seem to be drafted by the worst of the panda-huggers in the Ministry of External Affairs. The best possible spin on this is that Army HQrs have imbibed a bit too much of the Wuhan and Mallapuram spirits brewed up by Modi than is good for India’s security, thereby indicating that they cannot be relied upon to call a spade a shovel where China and LAC are concerned, let alone to respond heftily in kind. Not for the forward deployed Indian units then the retaliatory joys of cracking open a few senior Chinese officers’ heads with a policy of ambush and hammer.
A weak-kneed Indian government has long been suspected as infecting the Indian military with its preference for shambolic gestures instead. So, two Su-30s were dispatched from the Leh air base to patrol the skies around the Pangong Lake located at 5,000 metre altitude to do what good is anyone’s guess. Because a Sino-Indian agreement to peacefully manage the LAC bars combat aircraft from flying within 10 kms of it. If an aerial gesture had to be made, why did the PMO (which has to clear any and every proactive measure or meaningful action and reaction on the 3,800 km-long China border) not deploy an armed helicopter or two for low-level flying the PLA troops could see to deter them from physically belabouring Indian soldiers in the cruel manner they did? Helicopters are permitted by the same accord to fly within one kilometre of LAC. In any case, the minimum response to such PLA atrocities should have seen Naravane decree that, along with normal infantry weapons, every Indian soldier be armed with a heavily weighted baseball-type bat with sharp protruding metal spikes he can pull out and smash PLA troopers’ faces with with at the first hint of trouble at close quarters. This, of course, hasn’t happened.
Indeed, Indian army brass have taken great care to mention that these border ruckuses also involve Indian troops, thereby in effect equating Indian soldiers guarding the peace on LAC and the Chinese troops disrupting it, perhaps, because they expect the Indian jawans to stand still while getting whacked in their faces. In fact, the over-conciliatory tone adopted by Naravane with subdued action in train may now be the military’s norm. This even when PLA troops seem at liberty, when not wielding their 5.8 mm QBZ-95 assault rifle, to clobber Indian soldiers with metal spiked clubs. The Indian political and military leadership alike take comfort, ironically, from the short duration of these faceoffs, little realizing that such PLA actions can, when not meant to intimidate, instantly lead to unanticipated but planned follow-up actions. Absent the sort of dense military use infrastructure buildup on the Chinese side of LAC and beyond into Indian territory, the Indian forces, will find such moves hard to resist.
Ponder, for the nonce, the PLA’s modus operandi. The Pangong Lake terrain features 8 hilly features, referred to as “fingers”. The western side of the lakefront is claimed by India, with Delhi stating that the LAC, running alongside these fingers, “co-terminates” with Finger 8. China, on the other hand, asserts its rights to almost all of the lake barring the 45 km lakefront held by India. By Delhi’s reckoning, Finger 2 lies wholly within Indian territory, except PLA built a 5 km motorable road in this area in 1998 when the Indian army was busy evicting the Pakistan army’s Northern Light Infantry from its redoubts in the Kargil heights, and which road the Chinese have patrolled with light vehicles ever since. There’s similar construction, for instance, in the Finger 4 area. In other words, even as China has constructed such roads, the Indian army and government contend that no such infrastructure has come up! The better, presumably, to deny that any violation of the LAC has taken place at all!
Does this not mean that anytime the PLA aggressively stakes its interest in a piece of contested territory, Indian army and government all but readily concede it? So, the likely future is for a slow territorial aggrandizement by China — an exercise in which the Indian army and government are and will, in equal parts, be complicit and for which they are culpable.
That leads us to the issue of why it is that Beijing decided to stir up trouble in the first place along the entire LAC, including the Central Sector, with armed interventions even in and around Barahoti, which until now was considered “settled” border, meaning about which neither side had any problems? There are two sets of reasons — one military-political, the other internal.
“It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War,” declared Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi last evening at a press conference in Beijing. The possibility of a Cold War of the kind that brought down the Soviet Union in the early-’90s and which the Xi Jinping regime believes Trump’s America can unleash, is very much on Zhongnanhai’s mind. The vilification campaign against China as the locus genesis of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the closing off of America to Chinese travelers and most exports, and the sanctioning of Chinese high-tech companies (Huawei, et al) is perceived by Trump as only the opening shot in this war. The undertaking by the World Health Organization to examine the coronavirus spread and to assign responsibility for it, will provide Washington with the ammunition to begin orchestrating a much wider, more telling, international political criticism and effort to quarantine and globally sideline China by cutting off its revenue stream, market access, and strategic reach.
In just the first two months of 2020 China’s exports, according to the South China Morning Post, dropped by 17.2% with that country for the first time since 2009 experiencing a trade deficit of US$7.09 billion, compared to the surplus of US$41.45 billion over the same period last year. This could be a prelude to a plummeting of the Chinese economy, a process that could accelerate should Beijing reject the demands by disparate countries of sub-Saharan Africa and even states like Pakistan to write off infrastructure projects-related debt totaling hundreds of billions of dollars that have have so far been racked up. In that case China stands to lose both goodwill and markets and still be saddled with unserviced debt that Beijing can do nothing about short of wiping it off its slate at heavy cost to itself.
Along with a downward spiraling economy, there’s the military angle. The US Navy has increased its freedom of navigation patrols through the waters of the South China Sea at a time when Vietnam and Malaysia at the two ends of the Southeast Asian littoral, far from backing down, are actively protecting their maritime assets and brown water and blue water territories. And as if to worsen the situation from the optics as well as the substantive ends, Taiwan has resoundingly re-elected Tsai Ing-Wen to, in effect, sound a death knell for the “one country, two systems” conceit Beijing has nursed all these years. “We hope that this election result”, said President Tsai, “can give the Chinese government an accurate message: the Taiwanese people reject ‘one country two systems’. We value our democratic lifestyle, and we defend our sovereignty.” Complicating the situation some more for China, Tsai has promised help to Hong Kong. Taiwan will, she said in a Facebook post, “even more proactively perfect and forge ahead with relevant support work, and provide Hong Kong’s people with necessary assistance”. In the last four months, there has been a 150% increase in immigrants to Taiwan from Hong Kong.
The murmurings inside PLA circles about forcefully stopping the Independent Taiwan wagon in its tracks, now that it might pick up speed, by invading that fortified island-nation is mired in serious doubts about whether the Chinese military, despite the out-sized growth in its capabilities, can pull it off. Worse, the relative pimple of a problem — Hong Kong, is proving nettlesome; its people long used to democratic rights and freedoms are resisting Beijing’s attempts at curbing them. It prompted Beijing to simply end that erstwhile British colony’s status as an entity separate from China — no pretense here about two systems, etc. The President for life, Xi Jinping, suddenly finds his dilemma to be like the proverbial frog’s in the warming bowl of water — unable to jump out because China still benefits all round from propping up the current international system, but facing far too many challenges to do nothing.
With the welcoming world order China exploited since Dengxiaoping’s time in the late 1970s collapsing around it, and Taipei and the Hong Kong people throwing down the gauntlet, Xi no doubt feels uneasy and, therefore, senses he has to do something. More so because internally there are sections within his support base in the PLA and the Communist Party which are inclined to blame Xi, in the instance of Taiwan and Hong Kong, for doing nothing and doing something a little late respectively, and on the other hand, for needlessly goading America into action by disregarding Deng’s aphorism about “hiding your strength, biding your time” by openly flexing China’s military and technological muscles guaranteed, even without an impulsively bellicose Trump in the White House, to get the US all riled up and ready to get at China’s throat.
So, PLA felt compelled to let off steam safely and a calculating Beijing to allow it, but against whom? Hong Kong is in the bag — small change, Taiwan cannot be invaded, Japan cannot be run out of the Senkaku Islands, Russia cannot be pushed around, Vietnam cannot be browbeaten, and taking on the US is surely to end China’s dream run. That leaves the usual target — the weak-willed, strategically dim-witted, India to pick on. But this too is a balancing act. Beijing has to calibrate the hostilities in a way so as to not precipitate a war and lose a huge market that grows more precious by the loss of markets elsewhere, but nevertheless to show up a big India and America’s friend as a country without a fight in it, and to hold out this non-confrontation as an episode for other Asian states watching the show to learn from.
In the circumstances, what should a self-respecting India do, assuming such an avatar emerges by magic?
Well, Delhi can follow what I have been advocating over the last 20-odd years. In no particular order (1) ask Beijing to shut the f…k up on Kashmir, and take to wagging an admonishing finger at Beijing on every forum now that it has tethered the freedom loving Hong Kongese to the Chinese Communist totalitarian yoke; (2) publicly initiate negotiations with Taipei to upgrade the extant trade and consular relations into a full fledged diplomatic relationship with the sovereign state of Taiwan, and use Taiwan’s manifest superiority in high-technology to upgrade India’s manufacturing base, and industrial and military wherewithal — a perfect riposte to Beijing’s recently raking up the Sikkim status issue; the “virtual participation” in President Tsai’s investiture ceremony by BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan ought to be a precursor event; (3) officially bury China’s spurious “one country, two systems” policy by withdrawing support for it with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong and also Tibet, the last on the legally sound basis, I have long advocated, of Tibet not being genuinely “autonomous” in any way and hence no part of China as Delhi had originally recognized it, thereafter India should spearhead a worldwide “free Tibet” Movement; (4) openly support the Uyghur cause and use the OIC to mobilize the Islamic opposition to China’s systematic denigration of the native Muslims there and for turning Xinjiang into a vast prison camp for the natives; (5) cutoff imports of all goods from China, and having done that negotiate small incremental increases in access to the Indian market in return for strict reciprocity in trade and commerce combined with a heavily punitive regime to prevent small and big time traders within India from transacting any goods from China, and the formalization of LAC as formal border; (6) as current chairman presiding over WHO, use the underway scrutiny of China on the Covid-19 issue to skewer China and pillory it as an opaque and irresponsible state not worthy of respect from the international community; (7) for God’s sake, use the precedent of China’s secretly transferring nuclear weapons and missile technologies to Pakistan to pay back Beijing in the same coin, even if 40 years too late, by onpassing the very same technologies, or better still, the nuclear warheaded Brahmos cruise missile, to any state on China’s periphery desiring the ultimate means of militarily keeping Beijing quiet. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, are you listening?!, and (8) by way of meta-strategic arrangements, minimize China’s global salience by weaponizing BRICS by excising China from it and getting Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa (BRIS) into a loose and informal security coalition; and to complement it by sewing up a similar coalition to India’s east — the ‘Mod Quad’ — the Quadrilateral of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of rich and capable Southeast Asian countries minus the unreliable United States. It is an organic security scheme that will permanently box in China politically, militarily and economically with a marginal, extra-territorial, role for the US should it want one.
What India will actually do owing to a long habit of slavish thinking and a self-abnegatory mindset is this: It will continue doing what it is doing — trying simultaneously to curry favour with both Beijing and Washington — a high theme of the late K. Subrahmanyam’s supposedly superlative thinking Modi subscribes to and is now bureaucratically furthered by his son, S. Jaishankar as MEA minister. It is a policy previous governments, for reasons that are incomprehensible, have been entranced by and which Modi feels will serve him as well. But he does not see, as Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh did not in their time at the helm, about what will, in fact, transpire. In attempting to be too clever by half, India will end up getting sucker-punched by both. But to be laid low thus requires India to be a sucker, and that is what India has time and again proven to be. And a sucker, as WC Fields reminded us, never gets an even break.