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.)
China has been on the global centre-stage since the beginning of 2020, not that it did not dominate headlines earlier, but that it was for a ‘bilateral’ trade conflict with the USA. Its predominance in all discussions/news is now due to the spread of the coronavirus, the origin of which every nation believes is China, except China itself!
While the other nations are busy tackling various virus-related issues, China has been active on other fronts. Initially on the back-foot, China decided to revert to its assertive and aggressive nature on all fronts, to counter the loss of international support. After the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian Government in August last year, China has thrice, unsuccessfully, raised the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council, in support of its protégé, Pakistan. When India strongly protested against the announcement of elections in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK), and commenced weather reports of Gilgit-Baltistan and Muzaffarabad regions of POK, China was not pleased for it has an investment of $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which originates from POK, as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
With growing global criticism of its actions – or the lack of them – in handling the corona pandemic, China’s retaliation has been confrontational. In the mood to retaliate, it attempted to bully Australia and New Zealand with threats to curb imports and stop sending students to them; its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea (SCS), led to the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by one of its heavy trawlers; the rescue of the Vietnamese fishermen and the show of solidarity by Philippines in a strongly-worded statement, has not been appreciated by China, which has strengthened its presence in the region. During this period, the chairmanship of the WHO assembly transferred to India, a development that China felt would not augur well for it, especially since the assembly was to meet between 17-21 May and there were talks of WHO colluding with China in hiding facts of the pandemic. What better action then, than to trigger a border skirmish with its familiar adversary – India – to keep it on the defensive, and the world’s attention diverted!
Circumstances have, however, changed for China since the last such ‘encounter’ with India in 2017 at Doklam, which lasted for about 73 days. China’s relations with the world were such then that India could be persuaded to sit at the negotiating table. China, today, finds itself isolated in the international community, with not a single country speaking in its favour. It, hence, decided to change tactics and began with a physical brawl in North Sikkim at Nathu La. In Ladakh, China chose its familiar flash point at the Pangong Tso (Pangong Lake) and then moved further North to the Galwan valley, where its troops are engaged in more than an ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’ confrontation with the Indian troops. It is an old Chinese tactic to push-back Indian troops through aggressive patrolling, be it on ground or on the lake, occupy territory, and then lay claim to it. This approach did not work for it in Doklam, and is not likely to work now either!
India has been developing its infrastructure all along the line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, and in the North-Eastern parts of the country, much to China’s discomfort. In the Galwan valley, China is resentful of the construction of a new road connecting Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO), DBO being an advanced landing ground (ALG), just South of Aksai Chin. This road would provide the Indian Army with all-weather access towards Aksai Chin, illegally occupied by China! In the Eastern parts of the country too, India has augmented its capabilities by making as many as seven ALGs operational, some of which are just 25-30 kms from the LAC/border.
China has forever been using Pakistan to needle India in international forums; now with a Left-leaning government in Nepal, it seems to have found a new ally. When a new road connecting Lipulekh was inaugurated by the Raksha Mantri (RM) in May, Nepal registered a protest of violation of its sovereignty, and laid claim to a much larger area, which includes Kalapani and Limpiyadhura. Nepal, obviously under the advice of China, is now practising ‘cartographic aggression’ – laying claim to territory by publishing a new map! Involving Nepal is a new tactic that China seems to be adopting as an indication to India to lay-off and not join any international alliances against it. While being aware of not being able to gain any territorial advantage, China, it seems, wants to push India into a corner to impose penalties, if and when the two nations do sit down for negotiations.
What is it then that China wants from India? It wants India to remain contained within the confines of South Asia and not develop much infrastructure in the border areas. Numerous border agreements between the two nations have largely avoided major standoffs, except the one at Doklam; the supposed bonhomie between the two current leaders as demonstrated at the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits has also contributed towards a peaceful LAC. Would China want to engage India in an all-out war, or a localised skirmish? No, it is improbable that with the world at its throat, India having the support of its international friends, and the internal turmoil in China that China would go in for either.
While China’s actions may be difficult to decipher, especially in the absence of any hard-line policy statements from its government, especially during the recently concluded Communist Party Congress, a probable explanation could be that China is reacting to India’s efforts to add force to its border infrastructure. India has thus far not displayed any signs of backing down, or any escalatory acts. It is China, which is being pushed into a corner, while India’s behaviour behoves that of a responsible global leader.
India took on China at Doklam, it can do so again, with credibility, dignity and eminence!