China has risen to be a great power in part because its leaders have had the knack for never missing an opportunity to exploit a situation or kick an adversary when he’s down. For instance, Mao leveraged the support Nikita Khrushchev sought from China in his Kremlin power struggle with Georgy Malenkov, immediate successor to Stalin, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in the mid-1950s, for Russian transfer of nuclear weapons and missile technologies. And, always inclined from early in his reign to show up the “cocky” Nehru, Mao chose exactly the time when John F Kennedy blockaded Cuba for a showdown with Khrushchev over Russian missiles there in October 1962 to attack India.
It is the sort of ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of power Indian leaders can apparently summon only against their political rivals at home. In the external sphere, they are ‘bheegi billees’ — timid and cautious, ready to take the counsel of fear. And it is fear and risk aversion that the China Study Group’s advice to Indian governments usually reeks of. CSG is the main shaper of the government’s China policy. In the present circumstances, its urging the Modi government to have the GOC, XIV Corps, continue parlaying with the Chinese sector commander, carry on with the buffer zone-concept that has compromized India’s territorial claims in eastern Ladakh, and otherwise seek refuge in interminable exchanges with the Chinese at various official levels, is not getting India anywhere, but who cares.
Consider the context China unexpectedly finds itself in. The US and the West are pretty much hanging up on Beijing on the trade and technology fronts. The Chinese economy is slumping. The corona pandemic, the new Chinese security law imposed on Hong Kong and President Trump’s desire to economically and security-wise scapegoat China for his re-election purposes, has led to America orchestrating an international campaign against China as the irresponsible spreader of the corona virus, ending Hong Kong’s special trading privileges, threatening economic sanctions, terminating Chinese investments in cutting edge technology companies in the US, and denying visas to Chinese citizens. Further, the US and the UK governments have banned the Chinese tech giant Huawei from the American and the British 5G telecommunications markets — a move that India too has wisely subscribed to, deployed two American aircraft carrier groups in the Philippine Sea — a proverbial stone’s throw away from the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, accelerated deliveries of advanced armaments to Japan and Taiwan, and asked its allies and friends to vote against a seat for China on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, which the US Assistant Secretary of State State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell likened to “hiring an arsonist to help run the fire department.”
Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang called in the U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad “to warn the U.S. sternly that any bullying and unfairness imposed on China by the U.S. will meet resolute counterattack from China, and the U.S. attempt to obstruct China’s development”, he added, unconvincingly, “is doomed to failure.”
One hopes, the Modi government has enough sense to vote with like-minded countries to prevent China from occupying a seat on the Sea Tribunal.
But to get to the more urgent point: With China rattled and besieged on all fronts and stretched militarily in the east and the west, it is in no position to engage in all out hostilities in Ladakh. Now is therefore the time, an opportune one, for Delhi to trash all the ridiculous understandings to-date, end talks at all levels, and to announce a time limit of two-three weeks, starting now, for the PLA to get the hell out of Indian territory. And, in this regard, to issue a clear and public warning to Beijing, and so communicate it to the world so that international pressure can be mobilized, that the Indian armed forces will undertake limited military operations using all conventional means at their disposal to vacate every last square inch of Chinese troops come what may, and at whatever cost. The PLA has to unconditionally and voluntarily restore the status quo ante that foreign minister Jaishankar has already formally demanded, or be forced to do so. The Modi regime should follow up with the facilitation of high paced preparations by the Indian military for war backed, as I have suggested in earlier posts, by moving Agni missiles to the theatre and ordering the Arihant SSBN on patrol to loiter in its launch area just in case and, at the end of the 2-3 week deadline, to initiate without ado the promised military actions. The international community will sympathize with India and press Beijing to get out and keep out of Indian Ladakh.
The Indian government has so routinely messed up on historic opportunities to make strategic good, it will be no surprise if Narendra Modi too fails to be decisive, and stays with his ridiculous public stance that China is not in occupation of any Indian territory, and hence that there is no problem of territorial aggrandizement that needs to be addressed. The CSG members will cluck in satisfaction that they have done well.
Except, Modi needs to be reminded that it was a private American company, Maxar, that first released commercially available satellite imagery showing deep PLA penetrations into Indian Ladakh, detailing the infrastructure buildup — intelligence that Indian satellites had long ago picked up and conveyed to the Indian government. The real scandal, in the event, is that Modi did nothing with this information and, ostrich like, stuck his neck in the sand, implicitly denying that his good and great friend Xi Jinping did anything wrong.
Not sure how Modi will live down this episode, but that’s his personal outlook. That India has had its territory so brazenly annexed without China suffering any cost whatsoever, will mean such intrusive adventures will be repeated every summer by the PLA. And Beijing will rely on the Indian PM to ex post-facto legitimate the LAC being thus steadily pushed India-wards.