has, for years, refused to accept — if not proactively check — India’s growing profile. But now, the changing global conversation on China provides a whole new political context to fashion afresh approach.
True, it’s not wise for India to get caught in a fight between the two major powers. The last time India was faced with such a situation, it chose the path of non-alignment. But it was the 1962 debacle at the hands of China that exposed the limitations of that policy, especially in a military conflict.
The current build-up across the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in Ladakh is quite serious. It’s bigger in size, wider in area of deployment, and likely to stretch longer compared to earlier stand-offs. Indian and Chinese troops are in direct sight of each other at four points — the closest in Galwan and Pangong Tso — but have moved up resources and deployed artillery across a larger length of the LoAC. In all, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has mobilised an estimated 5,000-plus troops, closing in on a division’s worth of resources.
And, more importantly, unlike Dokalam, the dispute is on Indian territory.
There’s a key factor that distinguishes this stand-off. It’s not an Indian reaction to Chinese construction activity, but a Chinese reaction to India’s road-building effort. Much through 2000-10, China carried out hectic construction to consolidate its position, improve its access, and speed of deployment along the LoAC. On most occasions, India protested, but looked the other way.
As a result, over time, the power differential on the LoAC tilted, rather distinctly, in China’s favour. India began at the start of this decade, with construction gathering pace only in the past few years after the restructuring of the
Border Roads Organisation (BRO).
What we are witnessing is a heavy handed Chinese response to forcibly thwart Indian efforts to narrow that power differential.
In broader terms, this is China trying to deny India any sort of respectable parity on the LoAC, just like it tried to deny nuclear parity when it sought to block the India-US civil nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Ensuring an ever-widening power differential with India is a strategic objective for China, and what’s happening in
Ladakh is in keeping with that policy.
It’s in this backdrop that India needs to look at the US-China stand-off. By all accounts, the decoupling process between these two powers has begun. US President Donald Trump signalled this with three decisions he took in one
go, while most of China had hoped he would, at least, be incremental.
First, ending Hong Kong’s special status with the US. Chinese banks conduct bulk of their international dollar
business from Hong Kong, and this decision is bound to hurt. Second, to put curbs on Chinese students seeking research visas above the undergraduate level.
The order clearly states that any research students with links to PLA are at ‘high risk’ to be co-opted and are of particular concern. In the Chinese system, a wider interpretation of ‘association with PLA’ could translate as
a large number of applicants. Either way, the move will bring Chinese students under tougher visa scrutiny.
Third, of course, was to withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the Covid-19 outbreak.
This is a show of power by US, the principal financial contributor to WHO.
But that’s not all, the US brings with it a whole ecosystem of scientific research on public health and medicine.
Can China underwrite WHO, or replace the US? The answer is probably no, which is why the minus-China G7 or
G10 meeting will be of significance.
Clearly, the strategic churn around China has begun, and through its actions on the LoAC, Beijing is only forcing New Delhi to take a stand. And, perhaps, that’s an option India must examine because its measured ambiguity on China seems to have run its course.
If China has decided to object to Indian efforts at seeking respectable parity on the LoAC, then these stand-offs
are only going to increase. Largely because India is only going to hasten the pace of building its border and hinterland infrastructure along the LoAC.
Thus, it’s important that India also starts to have this discussion within its domestic polity. Unlike Pakistan, where
there’s clear unanimity on public positioning, China tends to evoke different responses on the domestic front. But if
the need is to reassess the nature of the relationship, then a reset of the political narrative may also be warranted.
China itself has been a beneficiary of such strategic churning in the past.
Back in the day, Mao Zedong famously told then-US President Richard Nixon while pointing to Henry Kissinger, ‘Seize the hour, seize the day’. This meeting of February 1972 started the decoupling of China from the erstwhile Soviet Union as Pakistan proved to be useful contact bridge with the US.
Now, when that old architecture is under considerable duress, India cannot afford to be a bystander. Especially because it shares an undefined, disputed land boundary with one of the principal actors, China.
Views expressed are author’s own
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