There is an ancient Chinese game of ‘GO’ in which players, if making their moves intelligently, ignore small battles for tactical gains in favour of a larger strategic game-plan. Leaving local disputes unresolved means that later, when the game intensifies, and the opponent is unguarded, you can snatch prizes at a lower cost! During the past seven decades, ever since China truly became India’s neighbour by occupying Tibet, the world’s two most populous countries have seemingly played a similar game. Even as their leaders met at the many summits, and bilateral trade thrived, the Asian giants have been in a mess of territorial disputes, which continue to fester.
China’s claims are over some 130,000 square kilometres on either side of their 4000 odd km-long border, which despite a Chinese “lesson-teaching” invasion in 1962, has rarely invited armed skirmishes or fisticuffs between patrols/armies, leaving the border zone relatively calm; much of the terrain is too rugged and empty to fight over! The 1962 War left an ill-defined ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LAC), of which both sides have their own interpretations. As long as neither side shifts the status quo, even if there are no proper markers on long stretches of the border, skirmishes have been few, with no loss of lives since 1975!
So what is it that China wants to involve itself in this current encounter, to have come to blows resulting in a death toll that is the worst in any clash between the two nations? Where does it see itself going from here? What is the ‘China Dream’ that its leaders and media keep talking about?
To answer these and other similar questions, there is a need to flip pages in history, but not in great details! Suffice it to say that one needs to focus on major events and the long term issues which excite the Chinese mind. China considers much of 19th and early 20th centuries of its history as a period of shame, when it was comparatively weak and dominated by the Western nations, which had already experienced the Industrial Revolution, and had with them superior technology and weapons. Under pressure from the Western nations, China was forced to concede trade and occupation rights, finally culminating in the Opium Wars, and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain.
After four decades of harsh policies for economic reforms resulting in an extremely fast-paced growth, China is, today, the second-largest economy in the world, with a double-digit growth-rate for most of the last two decades. With the rapidly growing economy, China has also become a military power to be reckoned with, especially under the current leadership of Xi Jin Ping, who has made his people think of the China Dream – to make China great again!
The China Dream is nothing else but a desire to exercise domination over the world, replacing the USA as the sole super-power and thus creating a ‘Pax Sinica’ to replace the ‘Pax Americana’. To succeed in its quest, a process already underway, China has its sights on the USA as its main rival, and will brook no opposition, wherever it may come from, least of all from India! India does not fit into China’s world-power jigsaw; for China, with its comprehensive national power (CNP) far exceeding that of India, it is a mere irritant! On the other hand, China is acutely aware of India’s geographical advantage (Malacca Strait), its demographic advantages with a young population, education levels, strengths in science and technology, thus having a potential to challenge it in the future. China is also chary of India’s rise as a democracy, as compared to its own political system of an autocratic rule that has delivered quicker economic results. It, hence, wants to ensure that India’s rise is opposed by it in whatever way possible.
China had opposed India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, putting forward a ridiculous suggestion that Pakistan too should be included; it has used Pakistan to continuously needle India on the Western border and the ‘supply’ of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K); China has also been constantly opposing reforms in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to prevent India getting a permanent seat on the Horseshoe Table. The latest entry into China’s stable is Nepal, which has learnt from its mentor the ‘art of cartographic aggression’ and published a map of an important tri-junction in the Kalapani area, as its own.
After the latest incident in the Galwan valley, should India retaliate? If yes, then, how? If China had Confucius, then India too had Chanakya, who has left behind many advice for the policy makers. What India needs to do is to gather all its wise men and women, and further consolidate its economic, scientific, military and diplomatic strengths, to reduce the power-asymmetry that exists with China. While India will finally have to fight its own battles, it should not back off from exploiting, even with external assistance, China’s vulnerabilities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South China Sea, East Asia (Japan), and most importantly Tibet and Xinjiang.
China’s recent actions against India are linked with its current position that it has placed itself in the handling of the pandemic and is facing a global backlash; that India has emerged as a more credible global actor at such a time of its own distress, is also not palatable to it. Apart from the external issues, Xi Jin Ping and the other senior leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), is facing an internal turmoil too. China’s policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are being questioned at home. To divert the attention of its people and the dissenters, what better method than to raise a sense of nationalism by creating suchlike border issues?
While India will have to bear costs, it is time to develop a strong anti-China orientation, and leave its stance of appeasement behind. China’s actions, over the years, have ensured that India today has the resilience to bear these costs.
Now is the time to act.
Author: Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja (Retd.)
The Author retired as the AOC-in-C of Training Command, IAF. He is a postgraduate in ‘National Security Strategy’ from National War College, USA.