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India-China border tension | Beijing's power projection comes at a wrong time for China

China is staring at a multi-front crisis emanating from a global anti-Beijing regrouping, a resurgent India and its own unstable domestic affairs with a slowing economy and soaring unemployment

June 17, 2020 / 10:23 AM IST
(Representative Image: PTI)

(Representative Image: PTI)

Jhinuk Chowdhury

The violent face-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China alters a 45-year-old history of a zero bloodshed border row. Although border skirmishes aren't new to the two nations, this is the first time since 1975 for a standoff to witness any casualties.

Experts observe that the current hostilities mark the beginning of China entering into a more 'volatile chapter' concerning the LAC. Despite attempts at the high level for an amicable resolution through exchanges between the Ministry of External Affairs and the Chinese counterparts, and the commander-level talks, nothing could abate the border row — under way for over a month now — from escalating.

However Beijing's choice of time for its power projection at New Delhi's Himalayan border is miscalculated.

Far from being a reluctant power of yesteryears, the India of 2020 is confident, ambitious and knows how to leverage its position in the world — both as a strategic and a soft power. This confidence is visible in how India is consolidating its peninsular bearings not just by entering into big ticket alliances with major powers, but by also proactively engaging with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) through COVID-19 assistance. It is also taking bold steps of moving away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to use its own minilateralist organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to engage with the Southeast Asian nations.

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While featuring as a major United States ally, alongside Japan and Australia, in the Indo-Pacific Command — a region renamed to underline India's centrality in the area — certainly demonstrates India's growing maritime stature. What's interesting is how New Delhi is actively engaging with the IOR nations — efforts which are bringing it significant diplomatic goodwill.

In response to the COVID - 19 crisis, India sent multiple batches of medicines to Sri Lanka, apart from naval ships to the Western Indian Ocean states such as the Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles. This is the first time when New Delhi covered a single assistance mission to these western Indian Ocean nations. Experts observe that though Beijing too is providing assistance, most of its aids are coupled with loans and talks about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The global sentiments too aren't in China's favour, while the same might act to India's advantage. Given Beijing's increasingly aggressive overtures, a gradual regrouping of the global alliances seems to be in the offing.

Beijing's major trading partner, the European Union (EU), is reported to be planning a bilateral dialogue with the US to deal with China’s ‘growing assertiveness’. The report comes after an apparent 'lack of commitment' by Beijing on deeper market access for European businesses in China.

There is also a growing viewpoint that the EU must become a more independent international actor, and be 'able to stand up to its rivals and to defend its values and interests’. Interestingly, in a 10-point action plan released last year, the EU is said to have described China as a ‘systemic rival’.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is in the process of founding the D-10, after the deferral of the G-7. This new organisation strives to gather the world's top ten democracies comprising the current G-7 members plus India, Australia, and South Korea, in a bid to allow greater cooperation among the democratic nations on issues such as 5G mobile communications, supply chains and reducing reliance on China.

Closer home, the Philippines — wary of Beijing's South China Sea overtures — seems to be 're-embracing' Washington. Recently, it decided to delay the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, a pact that provides the legal framework for the US military activities in the Philippines.

On the domestic front, the Chinese economy is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19, evident by Beijing's skipping of setting its annual economic growth rate, first time in several years. Its manufacturing sector is said to be facing one of the worst lows in over four years, and unemployment seems to be soaring with 80 million people  losing jobs due to the pandemic. All of these have caused a huge dent to Chinese President Xi Jinping's announced goal of eradicating poverty by 2020.

So Beijing will do good to focus on its internal crisis and not push New Delhi any further to build up a joint front in Asia. While China today stands isolated on the global stage, India's diplomatic muscle is growing and so is its capacity to rejig its defence posturing to give a fitting response to Beijing's misadventures.

Jhinuk Chowdhury is a communications professional with interest in South Asian affairs. Twitter: @jhinuk28. Views are personal.
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