China’s aggression in 1962, leading to war, is only notionally over; it continues by other means, most notably repeated incursions across the Line of Actual Control
'He who wishes to fight must first count the cost' — Sun Tzu’s Art of War
There is an interesting animated graphic which shows the seeding, birth and expansion of what we know today as the People’s Republic of China. The graphic begins with the Shang dynasty-ruled patch of land along the Yellow River, and then flickers through to its current shape and size, each flicker adding vast swathes of land to what the Shang held. The ‘Great Wall of China’ is an indicator of how the country has expanded its territory over the centuries through the expedient means of smash and grab.
In recent times, beginning with the artificial creation of Inner Mongolia in 1947, Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950-51) have been annexed by violent means. Just like its land border — drawn, erased and redrawn, only to be erased and redrawn again — China’s history too has been continuously tailored and retrofitted to its insatiable greed for territory. Zhongguo, or the ‘Middle Kingdom’, as imperial China described itself, was supposed to be the ‘civilised’ centre of the world, surrounded by ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’.
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This description served the purpose of pandering to the inflated sense of self-importance of Chinese rulers through the ages; it was also a demonstration of their blinding ignorance of civilisations and cultures to the south, east and west of their land. That ignorance has transmogrified into crass insensitivity coupled with callous disregard for an international order based on laws and rules.
Economic growth and prosperity have not liberated China’s mind from the medieval worldview of the ‘Middle Kingdom’, nor has it tamed its lust for land or, more correctly, territory. From building islands in what it calls the South China Sea to seeking to colonise countries far and wide by luring them into a debt trap called BRI and turning them into handmaidens of Beijing, the urge to smash and grab what belongs to others remains as strong as ever.
The border dispute between India and China, and the latter’s illegitimate claim on Indian territory based on jaundiced history authored by Communist Party of China’s fiction writers as part of their party propaganda literature, stems from that medieval urge. China’s aggression in 1962, leading to war, is only notionally over; it continues by other means, most notably repeated incursions across the Line of Actual Control that runs for 3,488 km between India and Tibet. Twenty-two rounds of border talks and numerous official and unofficial summit meetings between India and China have resulted in little else than parrot-like repetition of the pious commitment to maintain ‘peace and tranquillity’ along the LAC, a commitment that has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance by Beijing.
Hence, three years after the Doklam standoff, which saw China stepping back with a bruised ego if not a twisted nose, and numerous incursions in between, we have the PLA intruding across the LAC in eastern Ladakh and building up the presence of troops as well as stockpiling weaponry. On the face of it, there is little for China to gain in a barren land devoid of either human habitation or vegetation. However, China did grab Aksai Chin in 1962. It could be suggested, without fear of and honest contradiction, that it now eyes Ladakh: A nibble here, a nibble there and then make an attempt to devour the whole territory.
‘India’s China conundrum: How to tame a bully’ dealt with possible reasons for the timing of Beijing’s (mis)adventurism in east Ladakh. The timing is less important than the underlying urge. Instead of looking at quick-fix solutions to what are described as ‘irritants’, India now needs to start working on medium- and long-term strategies crafted around an implacable foe geographically rooted as a neighbour that can’t be wished away. These have to play out in three different arenas.
First, India has to discard its timidity of approach to the conundrum called China. As the military-level talks of June 6 indicate, there are neither easy nor swift solutions through dialogue. While the conversation must continue, on the ground India should be prepared, and demonstrate its preparedness, to stare the bully in the eye. To blink now would be disastrous.
Mobilisation of troops and stockpiling of weapons must continue to match those of the PLA. India must proceed on the assumption that this will be a long standoff and even if the intrusion were to be reversed by the PLA, they will not pack up and leave. It did not happen in Doklam, it will not happen in east Ladakh. A robust military response does not necessarily mean open hostility; but if skirmishes happen, so be it. Peace and tranquillity, Sun Tzu would stress, are enforced by weapons of war, not ploughshares. If the skirmishes were to evolve from stones and sticks to bayonets and bombs, India must be prepared.
Second, India must make the most of the current global sentiment against China in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the medium term, this sentiment is likely to harden from Australia to America, via Europe. The Ministry of External Affairs would do well to discard its crusty old ‘Karo Na’ principle of not doing anything that would disrupt South Block’s settled policy of playing a safe game of dribbling the ball without shooting at the goalpost lest the stands get excited. Sophistry as diplomacy has run its course and is of little value in this day and age of fluid alliances and alignments.
Tyrants and tyrannies are not without the proverbial Achilles’ heel. In China’s case, it is the fear of democracy. India must not only embrace but incubate a rainbow coalition of democracies that believe in, and subscribe to, a rules-based world order. From a vigorous pursuit of fulfilling its ordained role in the Indo-Pacific to regaining influence in the Indian Ocean, a rising India needs to stand up and be counted. The ‘Quad’, or ‘Quad Plus’, understandably upsets China. This is precisely why India cannot shy away from openly, robustly seeking a leadership role in this arrangement.
India has to get smarter in order to game the system through which control is seized and exercised over international organisations. China has mastered the art of manoeuvring itself into positions of control, influence and power. It has been a low cost operation shorn of ideological pretensions. India has to take more than a page out of China’s playbook: Transactional deals are not to be scoffed at and definitely should not be shunned.
Third, and possibly the most important, India has to build economic muscles, rapidly and ruthlessly. The post-COVID-19 world will witness major, if not total, realignment of global supply lines and chains. The United States, Australia and many European countries are preparing to delink their economies from China. They will be seeking partners and allies. Factories looking to relocate will be seeking new destinations. Investors wary of persisting with investing heavily in China will be revisiting their options.
How prepared is the elephant to seize the opportunity to strike and wound the dragon where it hurts most? Does India have the resolve to put a total freeze on doing business with China unless it is able to rid itself of a trade deficit of $57 billion? Indian tech companies have demonstrated that they can do without China Tech, most conspicuously by spurning Huawei. Indian markets no longer have the shelf space for cheap Chinese products. Indian governments are eager to reform and restructure antiquated rules and laws to pave the path for factories relocating from China. Indians do not subscribe to the entrenched political view that toeing the line of least resistance is the best way to keep China at bay.
Yet, there is a strange, inexplicable reluctance to confront and stand up to the bully on the block. At a time when the world is vociferous in its criticism of China, India maintains a coy silence. This flies in the face of India’s unbridled aspiration to be recognised as a rising power on its way to becoming a big power. Neither is this reluctance well-crafted strategy nor is this silence well-considered tactics. It is plain and simple timidity.
Big powers, as has been wisely said, not only have the capacity to absorb punishment, they also have the ability to inflict punishment. The first without the latter is the hallmark of a failed power. India must decide what it wishes to be. The proverbial ‘mausam’ is now.
(This article was published in the ORF.)Kanchan Gupta is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Views are personal.