Representative image
Representative image

Takeaway lessons from the Sino-Indian border

ANI | Updated: Jun 30, 2020 13:20 IST

Hong Kong, June 30 (ANI): The world has been very slow to wake up to the threat that China, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its demagogue general secretary Xi Jinping, poses. Through the bloody and ongoing confrontation in Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India has been reminded the hard way that Beijing does not respect countries weaker than itself, and that its words are often meaningless.
As US National Security Advisor Robert C. O'Brien said in a stunningly pointed speech on 24 June: "America...has finally awoken to the threat the Chinese Communist Party's actions and the threat they pose to our very way of life. As China grew richer and stronger, we believed the CCP would liberalize to meet the rising democratic aspirations of its people ... Unfortunately, it turned out to be very naive. We could not have been more wrong - and this miscalculation is the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s."
O'Brien pondered, "How did we make such a mistake? How did we fail to understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party? The answer is simple: because we did not pay heed to the CCP's ideology." He warned that the CCP "seeks total control over people's lives. This means economic control, it means political control, it means physical control and, perhaps most importantly, it means thought control."
The savage melee in the Galwan Valley on 15 June brings to the fore several key takeaways about Chinese behavior. The first is that China is increasingly expansionist and aggressive.
Doctor Euan Graham, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, commented recently on Chinese actions: "The really worrisome aspect here is that China has taken on so many issues - Hong Kong, Taiwan, the military standoff ongoing with India across the Himalayan frontier, the 'wolf warrior' attacks on unsuspecting countries - one hesitates to see where next ... The willingness to take on all-comers on all these various fronts at the same time, where you have a major land dispute with a major power such as India, it's really very troublesome."
Xi stated in 2018 that China "cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors". Unfortunately, China is persistently laying claim to territory it has never before owned. Regardless, there is emphasis on "sovereignty", whether the South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the Indian border.
There have been calls from retired senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) figures to prepare for escalation along the LAC. For example, retired air force major general Qiao Liang posted on WeChat, "We should not overestimate India's response, but we must also not let our guard down." He encouraged China to "take the initiative". "If we must fight a war, we must strike quickly and contain the scale in a small and mid-sized war aimed at causing pain to our opponents and hence gaining respect via small wars."
Qiao thus believes victory in combat along the LAC would act as a warning demonstration to countries like Taiwan and the USA. The Chinese have a proverb to describe this, "Kill the chicken to scare the monkey."
Meanwhile, retired PLA Navy officer Wang Yunfei wrote, "...In case of a transgression by the Indian Army into the Chinese side of the LAC, we will counterattack resolutely and such an attack should not be bound by the LAC...until we have completely forced the Indian army into retreat."
China's secrecy means it has not acknowledged the number of deaths or injuries incurred in the 15 June hand-to-hand fighting. A list of 38 PLA soldiers killed in the Galwan clash has appeared on Chinese social media, but it is impossible to verify its accuracy. On the list was Yang Haitao, known to be a battalion commander. China looks down on India, so any loss of soldiers would sting deeply.
General Xu Qiling apparently took up the post of PLA ground forces commander for the Western Theater Command in April 2020, even if it was not reported by media until early June. It is unclear whether he moved there with specific instructions to stoke tensions, or whether the timing is unrelated. Whatever the case, this is not the action of just a renegade commander, but prosecution of a campaign dreamt up at the highest levels.
Doctor Graham tweeted, "...PLA activity along such a wide area of the LAC suggests significant planning. If COVID was a factor, seems more likely China sensed weakness and opportunity on the Indian side."
Graham also posed a question whether PLA inter-service rivalry could be part of the equation. The navy and air force have Taiwan and the South China Sea to prove their mettle, but the army does not have any avenue available. Graham pondered whether that "leaves the Himalayas as the army's South China Sea". Nonetheless, he concluded, "I think they smelled weakness, fundamentally."
M. Taylor Fravel, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks the PLA could have begun planning this as far back as the fall of 2019. He believes PLA deployments commenced on 19 April.
Despite its greater aggressive spirit, China does not want an armed confrontation along the Indian border. Its priorities are elsewhere - Taiwan foremost, but also the South China Sea. The fatal battle at Galwan seems most likely an unexpected and escalatory event, but one for which China was prepared.
What is happening in Ladakh is simply part of a visible and established pattern of Chinese behavior along the Sino-Indian border and in the South China Sea.
A second point we learn from current Sino-Indian border tensions is that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered Xi's calculus of risk and reward. China was stung by international criticism over its bungled handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, and its relationship with the USA, already under pressure, has deteriorated further. China clearly believes it has less to lose right now, that its relationship with the USA can be permitted to fracture more than it already has. Instead, it sees alternative opportunities to advances its territory and influence, thinking at the same time that it can manage any smearing of its name.

It has always been to China's benefit to have an ambiguous and un-demarcated border. This allows it to press forward and to claim territory when it sees fit. Its claims of "indisputable sovereignty and historic rights" in the South China Sea serve the same purpose. Indeed, its undefined Nine-Dash Line there has never been demarcated, deliberately so. With China refusing to admit guilt, and with sovereignty uppermost in its thinking, border tensions are likely to dominate bilateral relations with India and be a constant source of friction. Xi can live with that.
Indeed, Derek Grossman wrote for the Observer Research Foundation, "...Beijing is content with the ambiguous status quo because it enables China to ramp up pressure on India in disputed areas when deemed politically or geostrategically advantageous to do so."
Grossman added: "Although Chinese military preparation for potential contingencies against Taiwan or in the East or South China Seas understandably receives much of the attention in the West, Chinese military scholars have written extensively about the potential for a renewed border war against India along the Himalayas. In fact, armed conflict with India is so prominent in Chinese military thinking that it is encapsulated in a campaign called the 'Joint Border Area Operations' - the only known campaign of China's five official campaigns that would not primarily occur in the naval and air warfighting domains. According to Ian Easton, who has studied these campaigns closely, a war against Taiwan occurring simultaneously with another one against India in the south would be a 'nightmare scenario' for Beijing. Thus, India's strengthening security ties with the United States would be a worrisome development on China's western flank, where it already apparently feels vulnerable."
China traditionally aligns with Pakistan against India on practically every issue. Its "all-weather" alliance effectively constrains any improvement in Sino-Indian relations. Its friendship with Pakistan serves as a strategic counterweight to keep Delhi preoccupied.
Yet, right now, China is more dangerous than ever because Xi has his back to the wall both domestically and internationally. A bristling China now wants to telegraph strength, at a time when the CCP is under strain and facing unheralded criticism.
A third aspect we should be cognizant of is that words and promises of Chinese officialdom are meaningless. While it is good that Indian and Chinese militaries are meeting in a series of talks to defuse tensions, the Chinese side remains inscrutable and gives nothing away.
So far, talks have not resulted in any withdrawal of Chinese troops. Furthermore, it would seem that, with new positions solidified in advanced positions, the PLA has no intention of relinquishing them. It wishes to present Delhi with a fait accompli. China is stringing India on with these talks, made obvious by the fact that Chinese troops are now maneuvering at Depsang. Military talks help chew up time, with China determined to give nothing away.
In fact, all Chinese assurances should be treated with caution, if not outright skepticism. Who can forget Xi's 2015 promise to former President Barak Obama in Washington's Rose Garden that China would never militarize the South China Sea?
In October 2017, Xi said in his 19th Party Congress speech, "China will deepen relations with its neighbors in accordance with the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefits and inclusiveness, and the policy of forging friendship and partnership with its neighbors."
Such flowery words are easily uttered, but Chinese actions speak louder than its words. By now it should be obvious to all that Beijing's selfish approach to its neighbors is designed to advance only its own interests.
China is a master in opaqueness, hiding its true sentiments behind a veneer of inscrutability, something Indian negotiators already know. ASEAN delegates encounter exactly the same frustrations negotiating the South China Sea Code of Conduct. In that case, Beijing's main purpose is to slow the process, but continue it just so it can argue that it has goodwill and is faithfully seeking a solution.
Instead of blaming India's August 2019 declaration making Jammu & Kashmir a union territory, or commentators defending Chinese angst because of India inching closer to Washington militarily, or India's outright rejection of the Belt and Road Initiative, or India developing infrastructure on its side of the LAC, as the root causes of this clash, it must be realized that China is responsible for its own actions.
It is not India stoking tensions, but rather Beijing deliberate deciding to exploit Indian distractedness by COVID-19. Although Chinese officials point as many fingers as they possess, the fact is that China and the PLA are seeking to march inexorably forward.
Sun Weidong, Chinese Ambassador to India, said in a 25 June interview, "The incident was completely instigated by the Indian side and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side ... The Indian side violated the consensus and started provocation which led to escalation of the situation ... The Indian side violated a series of agreements reached between the two countries."
"The onus is not on China," Sun stated. In typical Chinese-speak, Sun proclaimed Chinese innocence. "We hope the Indian side meet the Chinese side halfway, avoid taking actions that may complicate the border situation and take concrete actions to maintain stability in the border areas."
Beijing has a track record of describing its actions as only defensive and reactive. This "cult of defense" is simply part of China's assertive and dishonest narrative, one that India needs to counter strongly.
In the past couple of months, Xi and the CCP have successfully raised the ire of the Indian people. While Pakistan is India's traditional nemesis, China has done much to villainize itself in their eyes. China must now be forced to recognize there is a price to pay for its bullying behavior. Advances and incursions along the border must be met with resolve, and India must back up its displeasure with determined action.
China's brutal actions along the LAC, and its incessant protestations of innocence, have shown up the "Wuhan Spirit" for what it always was - a nebulous and illusory phantasm. A lot has happened since the 2018 summit in Wuhan, with Xi taking off his gloves and baring his grazed knuckles. (ANI)