This is the sixth and concluding part of a series of articles titled ‘A Savage Turn in India – China Relations’ on the India-China stand-off on the Line of Actual Control at Galwan valley by Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko, Sena Medal (Retired).
Reading through statements of the Indian establishment, it becomes clear that China has physically altered the LAC. Through a series of events both countries have worked themselves into positions that make return to April 2020 positions, without loss of face, difficult. India-China relationship, which seemed to be defined by personal chemistry between the two leaders, has hit rock bottom. India has been betrayed yet again. Resumption of military-level talks at the LAC offers a ray of hope for peace to return. India-China relationship will never be same again, at least not for some time.
Military talks not the solution
Military to military talks cannot solve border disputes. It can at best result in holding fire for some time. As of now, it can work out modalities for disengagement, de-escalation and tactical level contact. It can even draw up and adhere to rules of conduct for military engagement at the LAC. But political bosses and bureaucracy must remember that hostilities commence when talks fail, and hostilities stop when talks commence.
Military deployment in and around or at the site of conflict and supporting movement of reserves deliberately made visible strengthens negotiating positions. Though China had seized the initiative at Galwan, India wrested it back by administering an appropriate and decisive counter. Indian Army, by its heroic action, has forced China to the negotiating table. It is now for diplomats to take the dialogue forward and bring it to fruitful conclusion. It would need several rounds of talks between both militaries and simultaneous talks between various layers of diplomatic hierarchy to finally culminate at the political level. Without going through the entire process and concluding a political agreement, the problem cannot be considered solved, even temporarily. Agreements filled with conditions imprisoned in labyrinths of diplomatic language will have to be drawn up to provide face-saving opportunities for both sides.
China cares little for world opinion, human rights or rule of law. Tiananmen Square (04 Jun 1989), history of domestic human right abuses, iron fist handling of Hong Kong protests and highhandedness in South China Sea, to name a few, are glaring examples of its disregard for world opinion and sense of justice. The indisputable Chinese patronage enjoyed by North Korea and Pakistan and the manner in which China utilises its veto power in the United Nations reinforces this fact. China, by its actions, is messaging itself to be an authoritarian, ruthless expansionist regime that can gobble up territory on land, sea and air with deceit, money and military, whenever and wherever possible. But, up against formidable opposition, it beats tactical retreat only to strike back at the next possible opportunity. These attributes must be kept in mind while dealing with China. Pandit Nehru bears testimony to the fact that large-heartedness with China could end up breaking hearts for eternity.
It is fairly clear that the main objective of China is ‘containment’ of India. This is a must for China to become the ultimate superpower. Border conflict is just an alibi and just one prong of the multi-pronged Chinese approach. The short-term outcome China expects, from this incident, is that it can equate India with other nation states in the region and bestow upon itself the mantle of undisputed regional power. China will use its clout with others in the region, now or in the near future, to achieve its aim. India must reckon with the hard reality that its ‘Neighbourhood First policy’ has not yielded desired results.
To aid them in their designs of containment and bring home military advantages over India as the event unfolds, China will call upon their all-weather ally Pakistan to keep India’s western and northern borders hot. Inevitably, there will be heightened military activity at the LoC (Line of Control), AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) and IB. Increase in internal security incidents especially in Jammu and Kashmir will escalate. Increasing incidence of terrorist strikes in the hinterland cannot be ruled out. Pakistan will threateningly reposition its air resources to keep Indian Air Force and air defence engaged so that the decisive superiority of Indian Air Force over their Chinese adversaries is degraded. Pakistan is not the only one!
Nepal has been receiving a huge influx of Chinese investment and these investments cover almost all its socio-economic facets. Nepal like many other countries could soon find itself enmeshed in the Chinese debt trap and end up being Chinese real estate. Repeated attempts to prove existence of autonomy and loud denials about loss of territory are symptomatic of Nepal turning vassal state. China will nudge Nepal to increase the range and scope of border disputes. Nepal has already staked claim on more than one chunk of land. More territorial claims are likely shortly. India should expect severe provocative actions at the Nepal border.
Nepal will also bring to fore other political, cultural and trade disagreements. They have started repealing laws to embarrass India. In the near future we can expect more amendments to Nepali statutes that define India-Nepal relationships. China will do everything necessary to drive a wedge between the two neighbours, traditionally bound for centuries. Indo-Nepal relations could become a case of, ‘Friends turning foes’, a story scripted and directed by China characterising India as a bully, likely to be released soon.
Currently India and Bangladesh enjoy very good relationship. Unless precautions are taken, even that could change. China is likely to increase its financial investments in Bangladesh even more. During the visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to China in July 2019, China inked two deals worth $1.7 billion providing loans to Bangladesh. In addition, $21.5 billion worth deals associated with power and infrastructure projects connected to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were also concluded. According to reports available, Bangladesh is the second biggest recipient of Chinese investment after Pakistan.
‘Loan’ is China’s most potent peace time weapon, a productive investment and an irresistible bait for the recipient. Despite lessons in plenty and words of caution within, Bangladesh has bitten the bait. It will realise the folly only when debt servicing becomes a burden. China, directly or indirectly, will become owners of large real estate in Bangladesh. If existing international border (IB) issues are not immediately and amicably settled between India and Bangladesh, under the burden of Chinese debt, Bangladesh could be different from what we know now.
Heavily dependent on economic, diplomatic and political support from China, Myanmar is undoubtedly a protégé of China. The ruling dispensation of Myanmar receives wherewithal to exercise its authority over its domestic population from China. The world attention on the Rohingya issue pushed Myanmar deep into Chinese lap. China is also the biggest supplier of military hardware to Myanmar. It has an irresistible say in Myanmar’s domestic politics as well as foreign affairs. Myanmar will do anything to please China. China will in due course make its physical presence felt at the Indo-Myanmar border too.
In the next few years, the dragon could threaten the elephant from more places than we can now visualise.
What to Expect from China?
While both countries attempt to keep each other engaged in talks, India hoping to make headway, China will continue with tactical level build-up and movement of its forces to designated areas near LAC. It will also move its strategic assets both to tighten its hold on current positions and message India that it is staying put. Even as talks may seem to make headway, military movements will happen against the very spirit of what has been agreed upon. It fits China’s age-old tactics of confusing the enemy. China will negotiate and agree to relent then deny, it will stake fresh claim on more and will seem to make concessions, only to tie India down for long. Longer the talks go on, better for it.
Unpleasant it may sound and difficult to accept and acknowledge, it will be difficult for India to convince China to retract from the current positions at the LAC. China is likely to press ahead with infrastructural development and troop build-up closer to the border and even attempt to construct structures in the disputed area. It is likely to find new areas on the LAC where troubles can be freshly brewed. China will keep the pot on simmer, turning the heat on and off at its will. While violence of the levels seen at Galwan may not accompany such probing intrusions, the likelihood of flare-up is high. That is what Beijing wants. India should not be seen to be avoiding such a situation. India will come out better in any such tactical combat situations.
Chinese Psychological Warfare can trouble India. With the population already strained under various socio-political and religious issues, it is easy for China to take the war into the minds of the people. India can expect a surge of fake videos, attempting to drive divisions amongst its people. It will activate Pakistan militarily and coerce Nepal to increase pressure on more counts.
India’s fight back
India is no pushover. Rhetoric and hyperbole apart, Indian defence forces are well prepared and are capable of defending the sovereignty of the motherland. Every Indian can rest assured that the territorial integrity of the country will be zealously guarded.
India is likely to build up its troops to maintain the combat edge, catering for eventualities on more than two fronts. India will also have to press ahead with all planned infrastructural developments at the LAC. China will object to and resist any infrastructural upgrades in the border region but that must be ignored and overcome, even if it requires physical means. Stoppage of work by India at the LAC on China’s insistence would mean capitulation, inviting even more intrusions. India would certainly ensure deployment of strategic weapons to maximise impact and deter adventurism.
The inseparably entwined nature of world economies seems to guarantee safety of China’s economic interests in India, at least to a large extent. As a nation, it is not difficult for India to inflict injury to the adversary’s economic interests. It must be done silently and sincerely. Exhibitionism may garner votes but could dent impact.
Socio-political unity, the ultimate strength of a country, cannot be brought about by force or by pitting people against people. The ‘us-versus-they’ nationalism is counterproductive. It is the responsibility of the leaders in power to forge unity amongst various sections of the society. Given the emotional nature of Indians, it is the easiest to achieve as well as to squander away. The Indian government with its avoidable silence and contradictory statements have inadvertently provided fertile grounds for the Chinese to deploy means of psychological operations. In times of crisis, lack of information or even confusing signals can be detrimental to the larger aim. Keeping people adequately informed and taking the polity into confidence is the responsibility of the ruling dispensation.
There will be lot of international material and moral support for India. But it remains our problem alone. No country in the world can be expected to cross the threshold and come in support of India in this conflict. Doing so would change the very nature of this conflict. Indian diplomacy is known for its resoluteness in handling any crisis on its own. It is also known for its ability to deftly manage situations. The current crisis offers Indian diplomacy the finest opportunity to call out China for hegemony and forge a worldwide alliance against the expansionist activities of China. As the military prepares and holds the sacred ground, and seasoned diplomats wrangle in the fine art of diplomacy, political leaders must forge unity. Then even if talks fail, guns wont.
India will emerge better, stronger, abler and triumphant from this crisis.