The 15th June, 2020 may very well mark a new chapter in the Indo-Chinese relationship and pave the way for totally new politico-strategic equations, shaping the way for a more complex and unstable world order in the near future. On this night, a bloody, violent and unusual armed clash took place between two of the world’s fiercest armies, Indian and Chinese, at the heights of Galwan Valley in Ladakh. Officially, India has admitted losing 20 of its soldiers, including a senior officer while China, continues to be discreet about PLA casualties and after a good 8-months hiatus, came up with a what everyone knows a blatant lie– a 4-death figure.
This border conflict however, has made the situation volatile between the two Asian powers. The borders between the two, almost 3,400 Kms continue to remain unclear and non-demarcated in the form of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and that is something the Chinese side, is quite keen to continue with. It is the Chinese strategy that it has employed since 1950s to continue occupying territories without firing a single bullet. From Tibet to Aksai Chin to South China Seas, China has gained territories by portraying itself as a great military power but not really able to showcase its military might anywhere.
However, the efficacy of its military remains questionable on certain credible grounds. It is well known that the Chinese PLA comprises of officers and troops who are recruited on account of their loyalty and service to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and not entirely on professional grounds and hence, is a politicized force. Internal reports leaked out from China have also indicated of massive restructuring and training exercises for the PLA to keep it as a proper fighting force, being initiated on direct orders of the Chines President, Xi Jinping.
The PLA again does not have a distinguished military track record. In 1954, it occupied Tibet, a free, sovereign country till then who had at best, a medieval age, security force to defend itself. In 1962 border conflict with India, it won due to the impuissance of Nehru and his lack of politico-strategic vision and leadership. However, the border conflict at Nathu La with India in 1967, proved to be its undoing with PLA losing more than 300 soldiers against Indian losses of 80 troops.
Even in the Vietnam war, it failed to emerge as a clear winner against the tiny Vietnam. Since then, it has had no real time fighting exposure. In one of the highly embarrassing episodes, a unit of the PLA as part of the UN peacekeeping duties, ran away leaving their weaponry and armaments, in Sudan in 2016. In the very recent Galwan fight-off with the Indian border troops, again the PLA failed to show it in a gallant light as in spite of a virtual 4:1 ratio against Indians, it failed to ensure a victory and in fact had to concede the area to Indians it had occupied surreptitiously a few weeks ago.
It is true that since the commencement of economic reforms in China in early 1980s, the single party political dictatorship has helped China to grow economically and emerge as the manufacturing hub of the world. The impressive economic turnaround has helped China to enhance its political stature in the comity of nations while also providing with enough money to use them for furthering its politico-strategic objectives. From making huge investments in national economies of Europe, US, Canada to Africa, South and South-East Asia to becoming a major player in global capital and bond markets, China has strategically made its presence felt.
With Xi Jinping’s accession as the Chairman of CCP, ambitions of China got a new fillip. The highly ambitious politico-strategic initiative, in the form of debt diplomacy, the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) emerged as the innovative neo-colonialist Chinese weapon to secure the political and military control of the world. Already many countries beneficial of Chinese strategic benevolence like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Congo, Senegal, Kazakhstan are feeling the pinch. Their politico-strategic sovereignty is under a severe threat from China. No wonder, other countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and many others are trying to balance their politico-strategic relationship with the middle kingdom.
Subsequent to the Galwan fiasco, after the Doklam setback in 2017 China seems to be in a catch-22 situation. It is not in a position to go for even a limited war with India while compelled to a negotiated settlement with India, has affected its perceived military capability adversely. While losing the political and military trust of India in a hurry, it has made India more emboldened and cautious.
India has suddenly gone into a military build-up overdrive with scores of new missiles and armaments that have been tested in recent months. On the politico-strategic front, much to China’s dismay, QUAD is getting into a shape while the US Navy and Air Force is constantly increasing its presence in South China Seas. Taiwan too, is getting bold and willing to face China, with the US as its protector.
Japan that till recently maintained its dependence on the US alone for its security, too has opened up and started bolstering its defences with China in mind. Countries in the region like Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam are getting into strategic dialogues with India to counter China’s strategic dominance. They are also opening up to arms imports from India. And most importantly India has started seeing itself as a strategic rival to China, more explicitly. Voices in New Delhi regarding getting closer to Taiwan, are undoubtedly a pointer in that direction. And so is the Chinese reactions when its embassy is seen publishing full page advertorials in Indian media, cautioning against abandoning the so-called One-China policy.
While military and diplomatic negotiations on disengagement and de-escalation continue between India and China, it will remain debateable if China actually gained out of its latest incursions in Ladakh. While its PLA had an element of aura till Galwan, since then questions repeatedly are being raised on the capability and leadership of the entire PLA. How far those assessments are correct or otherwise need to be seen but it seems absolutely certain that China has lost much in the process. It will have to prepare for a new, emerging politico-strategic dynamics that could well be not to its liking.