Early May saw a new aggravation of the border conflict between India and China, this time in Ladakh. The withdrawal of extra contingents, which had been brought to the border during a few weeks of the confrontation, began only on June 10th, following a series of online and offline meetings of military representatives of the two countries. Amid all these developments, India signed an agreement with Australia on mutual access to military bases. The two countries’ Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison agreed to expand military and technical cooperation in the course of an online summit. Earlier, India signed a similar agreement with the USA. New Delhi has also welcomed Donald Trump’s initiative to include India in an enlarged G7. How far will the current India-China cooling go?
As far as the border “incident” in May is concerned, Indian and Chinese news media have been making practically identical accusations against one another. Both parties claim that there has been a «considerable» advancement of military units in-land, into the territories either party claims to be their own. Also, they talk about “well-fortified camps in infiltration zones” and “deployment of extra forces” on the territory of either state along the “de facto control line”.
According to Indian critics of Modi, the responsibility for the recent aggravation rests with China. Beijing’s moves came in response to India’s decision to eliminate Kashmir’s autonomy in August last year. At present, India controls 45% of the historical territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where the greater part of the population lives, while Pakistan controls 35%. The rest 20%, deserted and scarcely populated plateau Aksai Chin, is under the control of China. India views Aksai Chin as an integral part of the historical region of Ladakh – the eastern part of Jammu and Kashmir and uses this as a foundation to lay claims on it and question its belonging to China. The region carries significance due to its role in the distribution of water resources of the Indus basin. In August 2019 India deprived Kashmir of autonomy and established a new federal territory, Ladakh, which comprised Aksai China plateau. China was quick to strongly condemn New Delhi’s policy.
In the opinion of Chinese observers, tactically the recent escalation on the border with China is being used by New Delhi for “self-assertion”. Strategically, India counts on presenting such moves to the West as part of global efforts to contain Beijing, thereby paving the way for rapprochement with leading western countries, in the first place, the United States. The development of Indian-Australian ties is seen in the same context. According to Chinese data, India is even ready to reconsider its negative attitude to Canberra’s participation in American-Japanese-Indian naval exercises “Malabar”.
Historically, a state of confrontation appears “natural” for relations between India and China. Sincethe early 1960s the two countries have been mostly busy getting ready for a war and an overt escalation. By the early 2000s the rapid economic and geopolitical upsurge of China transformed the country into a major challenger for India. At present, China holds the firm position of а country that determines India’s foreign policy. The previous border conflict – in Doklam – occurred in summer 2017 and resulted in a new cooling of bilateral relations.
However, in 2018 the relations between two major Asian powers revealed a tendency for a warm-up. During 2018 Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi met five times – an unprecedented number for relations between Beijing and New Delhi. In a matter of just a few months the two sides expanded the agenda of bilateral relations to include an extensive range of issues, including the possibility of holding joint military exercises. In December 2018 New Delhi hosted talks between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers after which the Chinese foreign minister pointed out that through joint effort China and India had built a “brilliant eastern civilization”. In October 2019, in wake of an informal summit in Chennai, Modi announced “the start of a new era in relations between India and China”.
Speaking in favor of India-China rapprochement are a number of factors. «…In spite of all the difficulties and inevitable tactical losses, such consolidation would undoubtedly meet long-term interests of both countries». The joining of efforts would facilitate «stabilization of geopolitical situation throughout the vast European expanses and would create new opportunities for trans-continental cooperation in various areas». The benefits of strategic rapprochement between Beijing and New Delhi are too “numerous” and “too evident” not to become an issue of consideration for strategists on both sides of the Himalays».
Meanwhile, Chinese-Indian relations bear quite a few strategic differences. Both China and India are coming to rely on national identity. The Bharatiya Janata Party – the party of Indian nationalists – has been in power in New Delhi since 2014. From the point of view of domestic policy, the stake on national feelings of the Hindu majority has yielded considerable dividends for the party. In turn, China’s rhetoric on the territorial issue is as unyielding as ever. China also continues to develop strategic ties with Pakistan – India’s historical opponent. Finally, China has been pushing India out of South Asia and the Indian Ocean – territories traditionally regarded by New Delhi as a zone of India’s vital interests. And India’s trade deficit has been on the rise, having amounted to 60 billion dollars.
In addition, a demonstration of resoluteness in all spheres has become the main feature of Chinese foreign policy of late. «The new … approach, which manifests itself in social networks, in newspapers, and at negotiating table…» is part of China’s campaign for «what the Chinese leaders believe to be China’s legitimate place in the world». Critics describe Beijing’s new foreign policy as “assertive”, signaling a «grave conflict» with the officially declared policy of striving for “mutual gains”.Given the situation, there are grounds to assume that the growing social and economic superiority is intangibly changing Beijing’s attitude to its “backward” neighbor, making it more lenient.
In the meantime, the policy of national consolidation is fraught with new problems for both countries. Traditionally, New Delhi stakes on a multi-vector foreign policy and rejection of strategic coalitions. At the moment, India is trying to avoid a situation in which it would have to choose sides in a rapidly unfolding cold war between China and the United States. Firstly, for New Delhi, a choice of one of the sides in the war – Beijing or Washington – would radically destabilize the status quo and would destroy the fragile balance in the system of international relations, at least, in the Eastern hemisphere. Secondly, right now India would have to accept a secondary role, both in the Chinese “Community of Shared Future for Mankind”, and in the American strategy for “Indo-Pacific Region”. As a result, New Delhi’s “hesitations” is all but intensifying distrust, both in Washington, and in Beijing.
China, in turn, is set on avoiding a role similar to that of the USSR in the 1970s, when the United States made a breakthrough in relations with China, thereby putting the Soviet leadership in a difficult position. Should there appear a strategic alliance between New Delhi and Washington, then China would find itself in a position of geopolitical disadvantage. If Washington could put into effect its policy of institutionalizing the so-called “union of Pacific democracies”, “Asian Atlanta”, particularly with the participation of all four major players – the United States, India, Japan and Australia, America would regain dominating positions in Asia-Pacific Region.
In the course of last year, trends that do not encourage a warming of China-India relations hit a new level. InIndia the year 2019 marked parliamentary elections and transition to a more pronounced policy of national consolidation on the basis of the principle ‘India is a nation of Hindus’. This triggered mass protests of Muslims across the country. There was also an escalation of confrontation with Pakistan, which has China as a strategic patron in recent years. Indian-American ties continued to develop – President Trump paid a visit to India in February this year.
India’s social and economic weakness is becoming a major obstacle to the country’s greater status in Asia and elsewhere in the world. In addition, according to Indian observers, strategically, New Delhi “is incapable of resisting the irreversible large-scale industrial and infrastructural advancement of Beijing via the Himalayas and the sea routes of South Asia, which are considered a traditional sphere of influence of India, and is thus forced to resort to a counter-balance strategy”. A major element of such a strategy is the closest possible rapprochement with America.
Meanwhile, China has irreversibly been drawn into a full-blown trade war with the United States, which in 2019 entered the phase of confrontation of financial systems and a ‘cold war’ in the sphere of new technologies. Given the situation, Beijing is less willing to hide its anger over an unrelenting, in its opinion, rapprochement between New Delhi and Washington. On June 7 Global Times, a branch of People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, warns India against being fooled by the Americans. The article also says that China will not concede “a single inch of territory” to India. In another publication of Global Times India’s readiness to join G7, whose expansion but without China was recently proclaimed by Donald Trump, is described as “a dangerous game”.
As it happens, “the ideal” foreign policy framework for India is to be an autonomous center of strength, which is cooperating with different competing poles simultaneously and maintaining a constructive balance of interests amid competition between leading powers. Meanwhile, for China, given a mounting confrontation with the United States, further constructive relations with India appear to be one of the most favorable scenarios in the conditions of the changing architecture of a world order after the corona crisis. History shows that «political willpower and readiness for compromise» can overcome even the most deep-rooted differences. In the long run, both countries should be realistic enough to understand that an alternative to normalization of bilateral relations is a new escalation of crisis.
Moscow is fully aware of the challenge of establishing a dialogue between so big, so ambitious and so different, in many respects, countries. Russia wants the world’s two most densely populated nations to search for solutions which would make their relations better and more effective, without jeopardizing the positive experience of cooperation they accumulated in previous years. It is essential to find a way between continuation of constructive effort in the absence of full consensus, on the one hand, and refusal to cooperate under the pretext of outstanding differences, on the other.
From our partner International Affairs
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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