In a way to showcase its regional super power status as the only economic giant of South Asia against all weak and failing nations around, including its arch nuclear rival Pakistan, India has made an effort to outsmart Asian super power China in a flash fashion by a visa action that would offend Beijing. New Delhi has issued visas to Chinese Uyghur nationals (Muslims) to visit India whom Beijing considers as ‘terrorists’ for seeking freedoms, in protest against China’s defense at UN of Masood Azhar, a supposed terrorist in Indian state list.
In a move that is certain to rile China, India has issued visas to at least four Uyghur nationals—all of them deemed dissidents and at least one ‘a terrorist’ by Beijing—to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, next week. The Indian move comes against the immediate backdrop of China putting a ‘technical hold’ on India’s efforts to get Pakistan-based Islamist militant leader Maulana Masood Azhar designated a terrorist by the United Nations (UN) last month.
The matter of fact is New Delhi is wary of the all-weather friendship between China and India’s arch rival Pakistan with which it has fought four wars, three of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, that both countries claim in full and administer in parts. Beijing is wary of India’s warming relations with the USA by promoting the Asia Pivot agenda of President Obama targeting both China and Russia, and the Washington’s efforts to draw New Delhi into future defense architecture of the Asian Pacific region.
Already, the Indian government is upset about Chinese plans to build a $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor announced last April making India, eager to see a weak and destabilized Pakistan, go nervous as China is making a ‘terrorist Pakistan’ strong. China shares a part of Kashmir that was “gifted” by Pakistan and in turn China assists Islamabad with economic projects. The corridor, a network of roads, railways and pipelines, will start in Kashgar in the troubled Chinese Xinjiang province and run through Pakistan-administered Kashmir before ending in Karachi.
India accuses Pakistan of sheltering ‘Islamist militants’ like Masood Azhar and New Delhi suspects that the ‘technical hold’ or block put on designating Azhar a ‘terrorist’ by the UN was done by China at Pakistan’s behest. Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group is blamed by for the 2 January ‘attack’ on the Pathankot airbase in Punjab, though it appears to be a purely Indian effort to demonize Islamabad and gain surplus help from USA.
India has raised the issues with China, but with seemingly very little effect. The Tibetan spiritual leader is to receive Isa and other Uyghur leaders in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile in India. As China repeatedly justifies blocking New Delhi’s proposal at the UN to designate Pakistan-based Masood Azhar a terrorist, India has angered Beijing by granting visa to a prominent Chinese dissident leader it accuses of being a ‘terrorist’.
China has been battling Uyghur ‘Islamic extremism’ in the Xinjiang province since the 1990s. On its part, China has long been suspicious of India granting asylum and continuous support to the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 following a failed uprising. The India-China war of 1962 was sparked by Chinese anger towards India following the grant of asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader. China has protested against the Dalai Lama’s activities in India but New Delhi says that it regards the Tibetan spiritual leader as an honored guest and does not encourage any ‘political activity’ by the Dalai Lama “that could affect relations” between India and China.
Dolkun Isa has been a German citizen since 2006, and has been in the forefront of the movement for democracy, often speaking out against the human rights abuse by Chinese authorities. He is the chairman of the World Uyghur Congress.
The Uyghurs are the largest Turkic ethnic group living in Xinjiang. Isa has denied the Chinese charges that declare him as a terrorist. According to Dolkun Isa, chairman of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the one branded as a ‘terrorist’ by China, India has kindly issued a “visa to four of us.” This was separately confirmed by a high official familiar with developments in New Delhi. Dolkun Isa is a Germany-based Uyghur activist. China accuses him of terror activities in the remote Xinjiang region where there is frequent violence between the local Uyghur population and government forces. Isa, who hails from the restive Chinese Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, added on the phone from Germany that the delegation was travelling to India for a conference which was to be addressed by the Dalai Lama, who is viewed by China as a “violent separatist.”
Isa told the media said he had an electronic visa to come to India next week for a pro-democracy conference to be held in Dharamsala, which the Dalai Lama is also expected to attend. “I haven’t decided yet on whether to come to India.. The Chinese government is not happy, India should guarantee my security and free movement”, he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has referred to an Interpol red corner notice against Isa and said: “Bringing him to justice is a due obligation of relevant countries.” Isa said: “China has put me on Interpol list since 1997. Most countries have just ignored it. India is a democracy. I don’t think I’ll be arrested but I don’t want any difficulties either.” Isa was given asylum in Germany in the 1990s.
According to Isa, the conference he and others are to attend will start on 28 April. “But I still have to make up my mind about coming to India,” Isa said, adding this was because of an Interpol Red Corner notice against him. A Red Corner notice means an international alert against a person “to seek the location and arrest…with a view to extradition or similar lawful action”, according to the Interpol website. Isa said his caution stemmed from his detention in Seoul in 2009 at the instance of China due to the Red Corner notice. “I was sent back to Germany after three days,” he said, adding that he became a German citizen in 2006 after fleeing China in 1997, following repeated prison terms for his alleged ‘activism’.
India has been home to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and the capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile. India has upped the ante with China by issuing visas to World Uyghur Congress leader Dolkun Isa and three others, and by allowing them to visit India for a conference in Dharamsala
Though the plan to allow the conference to be held with the Chinese dissidents was taken months before China’s refusal in the UN, this could be PM Narendra Modi’s muscular foreign policy in action. Although much has been made of the new aggressive foreign policy of the NDA government, the Prime Minister’s record in external relations so far has been good. He has shown no aggression, and has carried on the UPA policy, albeit with much more vigor and determination.
Not only RSS-BJP duo but even Congress party also enjoys the emerging duel. They want India to act as a strong power, notwithstanding the fact that New Delhi lacks both China’s economic clout and its defense, diplomatic capabilities. Many hawks in the Indian establishment have welcomed the government’s move. “China has for a long time got away scot-free – whether it is claiming Arunachal as its own, or the Masood Azhar case, where China twice bailed out Pakistan at the UN. If India continues to take all this then it creates the impression that China is strong, while we (India) swallow everything it throws at us,” said Cabinet Secretary Chandra, who was also India’s ambassador in Washington. He thinks that India should not be seen as docile towards China.
Whether Dolkun Isa eventually comes to India for the conference, or if he sends his colleagues instead is not the point. Beijing is angry with India’s move to grant them visas, thereby directly opposing the Chinese views.
In recent days, India has raised the issue of China’s stand on Masood Azhar at the highest levels. Having found no response, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Manohar Parrikar took it up directly with the Chinese leadership this week. “India does not consider Uyghurs terrorists,” said Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary, adding that he “would personally applaud the Indian government for its move” to grant visas to the Uyghur delegation. “If China views certain Uyghurs as ‘terrorists’, then that’s between them and China,” he said, pointing out that China had made a similar argument in Masood Azhar’s case. “China is not sensitive to our concerns on terrorism,” he said.
China stresses its right to defend its foreign policy and to work against Indo US pivot in Asia.
India has been successful against Pakistan and Kashmir, but continuously failing against formidable China with veto handle. The brief border war between India and China – when the PLA troops rolled into Arunachal as an ill prepared Indian army beat a hasty retreat, left a psychological blow on India. Suspicion of China is pervasive in the Indian establishment. The good news is that despite the irritants, both countries are pragmatic enough to ensure that the situation does not get out of hand. As officials on both sides keep pointing out that the border between the two countries continues to be peaceful, not a shot has been fired here.
Maybe another cold war is in the making in Asia which may have repercussion in other regions in Asian continent. Meanwhile, President Pranab Mukherjee is slated to visit China at the end of May. Hopefully, by then the two sides will get over this latest blip. The initial euphoria of improved ties between the two Asian giants, following President Xi Jinping’s visit to India and Prime Minister Modi’s subsequent return trip to China, will fade quickly and the relations will continue to be lukewarm at best.
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
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