Context: The clashes in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh is the first incident of fatalities on the India-China border in 45 years. China has revived its claim on the entire Galwan Valley and has asked India to pull back from the areas.
- Satellite images suggest that China has set up defence positions in the valley as well as the disputed “Fingers” of Pangong Tso.
- Both sides are engaged in a face-off at Hot Springs.
- Despite multiple rounds of military-level talks, tensions are unlikely to ease given the complexity of the ground situation.
- This has led to question the real motive behind China’s aggression.
India’s behaviour not aggressive:
- Doklam standoff: In 2017, India and China agreed to amicably resolve the Doklam standoff that lasted for more than two months. No blood was spilt then, and no shots fired.
- India did not upset China’s domestic and geopolitical sensitivities: India has occasionally issued joint statements with leaders from the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries, reasserting India’s commitment to “freedom of navigation” (a veiled criticism of China’s claims over the South China Sea).
- India has stayed away from criticising China on controversial topics, whether its “de-radicalisation” camps in Xinjiang, crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, or disputes with Taiwan.
- Superficial local factors: The reasons cited are India’s infrastructure upgrade and its decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
- Driving India deeper into the U.S camp: There is an argument that China’s LAC action will put India into the anti-China camp which belongs to the USA.
So India did not provoke China. The reasons for Chinese agressions are different.
Deeper strategic reasons behind chinese action: Its moves are inﬂuenced by a host of factors — from the fractures in the global order to the decline of India’s smart power.
- Shift in Chinese foreign policy post the COVID-19 outbreak: The tensions along the LAC are part of this shift. The clear policy shift is seen in
- China’s rising tensions with the U.S.,
- its threats against Taiwan,
- repeated naval incidents in the South China Sea, and
- a new security law for Hong Kong.
- China is an ambitious rising power: It wants to reorient the global order.
- Dissimilarities with Soviet Union: Although China is not an ideological state that intends to export communism to other countries but like the Soviet Union of the post-war world, China is the new superpower on the block.
- Era of peaceful rise is over: When it was rising, China had adopted different tactical positions — “hide your capacity and bide your time”, “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development”. That era is over.
- Broken global order
- China believes that global order is broken because the global economy is in an irrecoverable crisis given by the COVID-19 outbreak.
- COVID 19 & geopolitical manoeuvring:
- Weakening global powers: Europe has been devastated by the virus. The U.S. is battling in an election year the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the deepest economic meltdown since the Great Depression.
- Challenges from USA: The U.S. under an isolationist President Trump is taking the most aggressive position towards China.
- Salami slice strategy: It is fighting back its challenges through “salami tactics” — where a dominant power attempts to establish its hegemony piece by piece. India is one slice in this salami slice strategy.
- India is not a ‘swing state’ any more for China: It sees India as an ally-in-progress of the U.S. If India is what many in the West call the “counterweight” to China’s rise, Beijing’s definite message is that it is not deterred by the counterweight.
- India’s problems:
- The Indian economy was in trouble even before COVID-19 struck the country, slowing down its rise.
- Social upheaval over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the National Register of Citizens had weakened the Indian polity.
- Dipping neighbourhood relations:
- Tensions with Pakistan have been high keeping the troops occupied in the border areas.Nepal raised boundary issues with India; Sri Lanka is diversifying its foreign policy and China is making deep inroads into that region; and Bangladesh was deeply miffed with the CAA.
- Even in Afghanistan, where Pakistan, China, Russia and the U.S. are involved in the transition process, India is out.
- Strategically disastrous Balakot airstrike: India lost a jet to the neighbour and its pilot was captured and later released by Pakistan. The whole operation exposed the chinks in our armour, eroding India’s deterrence
A confluence of all these factors, which point to a decline in the country’s smart power, allowed China to make aggressive moves on the LAC.
- A deep embrace of a declining U.S. is a part of the problem. Pakistan embraced a far steadier U.S. during the Cold War to check India. What happened to Pakistan thereafter should be a lesson for India. The USA is a weakening power. It won’t be of much help to India in case of a India-China conflict.
- A national security strategy: This strategy should be decoupled from the compulsions of domestic politics and anchored in neighbourhood realism.
- Facing China: It should stand up to China’s bullying on the border now.
- Winning neighbours: Long-term focus on enhancing capacities and winning back its friendly neighbours.