The fall of Tibet was one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, emboldening China’s still-continuing expansionism. And as China’s hand-metaphor strategy indicates, Tibet remains the key to Chinese land and water grabs.
As the world struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his quest for regional dominance more aggressively than ever. From the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Tibet to the South and East China Seas, Xi seems to be picking up where Mao Zedong left off, with little fear of international retribution.
The parallels between Xi and the despots of the past are obvious. He has overseen a brutal crackdown on dissent, engineered the effective demise of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong, filled concentration camps and detention centers with Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province, and laid the groundwork to remain president for life.
According to US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, “Xi sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” Many others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.” But it is Mao – the People’s Republic’s founding father, and the twentieth century’s most prolific butcher – to whom Xi bears the closest resemblance.
For starters, Xi has cultivated a Mao-style personality cult. In 2017, the Communist Party of China enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The ideology is inspired by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but its inclusion in the CPC’s constitution makes Xi the third Chinese leader – after Mao and the architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping – to be mentioned in the document. Last December, the CPC also conferred upon Xi a new title: renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader” – a label associated with Mao.
Now, Xi is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision. Mao’s China annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth largest by area. Its annexation of resource-rich Tibet, in particular, represented one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not least because it gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northernmost Myanmar.
In fact, Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Nepal, Bhutan, and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh – that China was also meant to “liberate.” Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin region.
This past April and May, Xi had the People’s Liberation Army carry out a series of well-coordinated incursions into Ladakh, with the intruding forces setting up heavily fortified encampments. He then deployed tens of thousands of troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.
This “incredibly aggressive action,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it, led to bloody clashes in Ladakh on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. (US intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India, but whereas India has honored its fallen as martyrs, China has refused to divulge its losses.) Despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces, the specter of further clashes or a war continues to loom.
The CPC has not forgotten about the other two fingers, Bhutan and Nepal. Just as China and India began withdrawing troops from the site of the June 15 clashes, Beijing opened another front in its bid for territorial expansion, asserting a new claim in Bhutan.
In 2017, China occupied the Doklam Plateau – at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and claimed by the latter – following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. Now, China is laying claim to another 11% of the tiny kingdom’s territory, in an area that can be accessed only through Arunachal Pradesh (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus advances Xi’s efforts against two of the five fingers simultaneously.
The fifth “finger,” Nepal, has been drifting away from India and toward China since it came under communist rule two and a half years ago. Indeed, China aided the Nepalese communists’ victory, including by unifying rival factions and funding their election campaign. Since then, China has openly meddled in the country’s fractious politics, in order to keep the ruling party intact, with its ambassador acting as if she were Nepal’s matriarch.
But being in China’s strategic orbit has done nothing to protect Nepal from the CPC’s territorial predation. Last month, a leaked Nepalese agricultural department report warned that China’s massive road-development projects have expanded China’s boundary into northern territories of Nepal and changed the course of rivers.
Of course, altering Asia’s water map is nothing new for China. Tibet is the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems. This has facilitated China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel. Today, Chinese-built mega-dams near the borders of the Tibetan Plateau give the country leverage over downstream countries.
As the hand metaphor indicates, Tibet is the key to China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan region – and not only because of geography. China cannot claim the five fingers on the basis of any Han-Chinese connection. Instead, it points to alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet was part of China only when China itself had been conquered by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Chinese current claims are nothing more than a power (and resource) grab.
In other words, the five-fingers strategy, coupled with Chinese expansionism elsewhere, is all about upholding the world’s longest-running autocracy. As long as the CPC – and especially the revisionist Xi – holds a monopoly on power, none of China’s neighbors will be safe.
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
In this light, the outcome of China’s aggression against India will have an important bearing on Asian security. If the current India-China military disengagement ends up like the 2017 Doklam disengagement in making China the clear winner, an emboldened Xi regime will likely become a greater threat to neighbours.
China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.
China has displayed its art of deception even in its disengagement process with India. The first accord of June 6 to disengage collapsed after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) erected structures on Indian territory and then ambushed and killed Indian Army men on verification patrol. The disengagement process restarted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to let China off the hook with his June 19 speech at the all-party meeting. But the fresh process became a ruse for PLA to encroach on two new Indian areas — the Depsang Y-Junction; and the Galwan Valley site of the ambush killings.
India and China are now in their third disengagement series. But while the previous two abortive rounds followed military-level talks, the latest cycle is being driven politically. We now know that Modi’s July 3 Ladakh visit, and his tough words there, were essentially designed to create domestic political space for his government to seek de-escalation with China. Barely 48 hours after his visit, India and China hammered out a disengagement deal.
Will the latest deal stick? Having encroached on key areas that overlook India’s defences, PLA is sitting pretty. A full return to status quo ante as sought by India seems remote, thanks to India’s own mixed signals. Moreover, by encroaching on additional areas behind the previous disengagement facade, China has armed itself with greater leverage to impose a revised status quo, including by applying the precept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law”.
Disengagement (pullback of rival forces from close proximity), if not de-escalation (ending hostilities through demobilisation of forces), meshes well with China’s interest in presenting India a fait accompli. Removing the threat of an Indian counteroffensive or Indian tit-for-tat land grab will help China win without fighting.
This explains why China has accepted disengagement — but on its terms. This is illustrated in the Galwan Valley, where India has pulled back from its own territory and created a “buffer zone” on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These steps, though temporary, create a new, China-advantageous status quo that PLA could seek to enforce because it keeps India out of China’s newly-claimed zone — the Galwan Valley.
The risk that, like at Doklam, the current disengagement may not end well for India is high. Instead of demonstrating strength and resolve, India has displayed zeal to end the stand-off, despite its armed forces being mobilised for possible war.
At a time when the international environment is beginning to turn against China, India could have prolonged the stand-off until winter to compel restoration of status quo ante. But instead, it has kicked status quo ante down the road and settled merely for disengagement. This allows China to hold on to its core territorial gains and trade the marginal occupied territories for Indian concessions, as part of its well-known “advance 10 miles and retreat six miles” strategy.
Far from imposing military costs, India has shied away even from trade actions against the aggressor, as if to preserve the option of another Modi-Xi summit. India’s steps so far (banning Chinese mobile apps and announcing an intent to restrict Chinese investment in some areas) have been designed to assuage public anger at home, but without imposing substantive costs on Beijing or damaging bilateral relations.
In 1967, a weak India, while recovering from the 1962 and 1965 wars, gave China a bloody nose. But in 2017 and again now, after its soldiers displayed extraordinary bravery in tackling China’s aggression, a nuclear-armed India hastily sought disengagement. Its decision-makers remain loath to fundamentally change the China policy even when faced with aggression.
Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have sought to appease it. When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.
The present path risks locking India in a “no war, no peace” situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down.
If India wants Himalayan peace, it must make China pay for its aggression to help create a deterrent effect. The present aggression — the most serious since the 1960s — resulted from India letting China off the hook too easily in 2017, allowing it to capture Doklam. And if China emerges the winner from the current crisis, its next aggression could be worse. Only a chastened China saddled with high costs and loss of face will rein in its aggressive expansionism.
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES simultaneously — one against Chinese aggression in Ladakh and another against the China-originating coronavirus — India finds itself at a critical juncture in its post-Independence history. How India emerges from the dual crises will not only decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future but, more importantly, have an important bearing on the country’s future trajectory and international standing.
The bare fact is that China’s stealth aggression in the second half of April caught India napping, with the armed forces discovering the intrusions in early May. In a swift operation that must have been planned months ahead, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly changed the status quo by encroaching into disputed and undisputed border areas of Ladakh. This came at a time when a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown.
Since the 1980s, China has been eating away — bite by bite — at India’s Himalayan borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have pursued a policy of appeasement toward Beijing. India is now reaping the bitter fruits of such appeasement.
In comparison to China’s intrusions in the past years, its latest aggression is unprecedented. The well-coordinated encroachments were strategically geared to creating new facts on the ground by grabbing vantage locations, with the intent to secure militarily commanding positions and render Indian defences vulnerable. This was underscored by the PLA’s occupation of the key strategic heights around Lake Pangong, in the area stretching from Fingers 4 to 8, and by its encampments atop Galwan Valley’s ridges that overlook India’s newly built Darbuk-Shyok-DBO highway. That highway is a key supply route to India’s most-forward military base located near the Karakoram Pass.
Although China provoked bloody clashes at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Samdurong Chu, this year has marked the first time that it has opened military pressure points against India in peacetime all along the Himalayan frontier. To mount pressure on India, China not only has amassed forces along the Himalayan frontier but also provoked a series of clashes with Indian troops, even along Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet.
China sees conflict as inevitable
Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed. Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” This has meant exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defence. “All warfare,” Sun Tzu also famously said, “is based on deception.”
Communist China has repeatedly used force since 1950. This happened even under Deng Xiaoping, who sought to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam in 1979, in the style of Mao’s 1962 war on India. Whenever China has used force, it has been in the form of military pre-emption, executed through deception, concealment and surprise. Its latest aggression against India had all these elements.
The Chinese system sees conflict as inherent in China’s efforts to resolutely achieve its rightful place in the world and to assert its territorial claims and broader strategic interests. Beijing is thus ever willing to create or manage conflict. From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on countries that challenge it to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a muscular, conflict-making role. As a Global Timeseditorial on June 22 said in relation to India, “The border dispute has made it clear that China is not afraid of conflicts when it comes to territorial issues.”
Against this background, a China-India agreement to de-escalate tensions will offer Beijing an opportunity to escalate its game of deception, with the aim of buying time and consolidating its hold on the newly encroached areas. China usually takes one step at a time in its relentless push to expand its land and sea frontiers. In the coming years, it could seek to replicate its Pangong territorial grab in other strategic Ladakh areas, such as Depsang, Demchok and Chumar.
In fact,India’s perennially reactive mode has long allowed the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau from Ladakh. Later China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple security layers. China has been gradually subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, its border with India, and even the flows of international rivers — all without firing a single shot.
Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pursued increasingly persistent efforts to intrude into India’s desolate borderlands. Yet India has silently faced China’s bulletless war for territory without a concrete counter-strategy to impose costs for such revisionism. As China’s coercive power grows, it is likely to increasingly employ its capabilities not to wage full-scale military conflict with another country but to alter the territorial status quo in its favour short of overt war and to narrow the other side’s options.
China’s stealth wars have already become a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. India is a principal target of such stealth wars. China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims and constantly expanding its claim lines in the Himalayas. Given that the two countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Indeed, the largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, is almost three times as large as Taiwan.
The Himalayan frontier is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol, giving an advantage to a determined aggressor. Kiren Rijiju, India’s then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament in 2014 that, on average, China was launching at least one stealth border transgression into Indian territory every day. According to Rijiju, PLA troops were intruding into vacant border spaces with the objective of occupying them.
China’s high-altitude territorial incursions gained momentum after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 surrendered India’s Tibet card by formally recognizing Tibet as part of China. Beijing exploited Vajpayee’s yearning for a successful China visit by extracting concessions that presented India as seemingly willing to accept a Sino-centric Asia. For the first time, India used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed by the heads of the two countries — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
Vajpayee’s gratuitous concession on Tibet — a large historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations that the Chinese communists annexed in 1950-51 — acted as a spur to China’s creeping aggression. It was in the period after India’s Tibet cave-in that the Chinese coined the term “South Tibet” for the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh. The cave-in also set in motion stepped-up Chinese incursions and other border transgressions, with such scofflaw actions steadily increasing in the period from 2005 to 2020, as India’s own figures underscore.
In the Himalayas, like in the South China Sea, China has in some instances employed civilian resources as the tip of its intrusion strategy. While China’s naval forces in the South China Sea have followed Chinese fishermen to carve out space for occupying reefs, in the Himalayan region, the PLA has used specially recruited Han Chinese herders and grazers to encroach on some Indian frontier areas. Once such civilians settle on the infiltrated land, PLA troops gain control of the area, thus paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. To be sure, PLA troops have also directly infiltrated and occupied unguarded areas.
Thanks to such PLA tactics, India has over the years lost considerable land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In Ladakh, for example, PLA’s nibbling at Indian territories has resulted in its capture of Chumar’s Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley and an ancient trading centre, Doom Cheley. China has been able to advance its territorial aggrandizement along the Himalayan frontier (and in the South China Sea) without the need for missiles or bullets.
Yet, without realizing it, successive Indian prime ministers have aided or condoned China’s terrestrial aggression. In fact, their naïve statements have encouraged greater Chinese incursions. Take Modi, who prioritized resetting ties with China after becoming prime minister in 2014 without any prior national experience.
In 2017, Modi said that, although China and India are at odds over their borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.” Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his part, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China completed its capture of Tibet in 1951.
India’s accommodating rhetoric has helped China’s designs to such an extent that the phrase Modi coined, “inch toward miles,” as the motto of India-China cooperation actually reflects the PLA strategy of incremental encroachments. While India-China cooperation has yet to inch toward miles, the PLA has been busy translating Modi’s slogan into practice.
Slippery slope of appeasement
When China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962, the humiliation that ensued marked a tectonic moment in India’s post-independence history. Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the Chinese invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” It was Nehru’s persistent appeasement toward China that set in motion the events leading to the 1962 Chinese invasion.
India’s defeat led to profound developments. It hastened the death of Nehru and set in motion fundamental changes in the country’s policy and approach, including the launch of military modernization. Yet, by the late 1980s, appeasement returned as the leitmotif of India’s China policy. Today, nearly 58 years after 1962, Indian appeasement toward China has again resulted in developments inimical to India’s security. War clouds have suddenly appeared. India has largely forgotten the lessons of 1962, including the costs of reposing faith in China’s words.
Appeasement is a slippery, treacherous slope. Once a nation embarks on appeasement, it slips into a self-perpetuating trap. Every prime minister after Indira Gandhi has kowtowed to China. Indian appeasement resumed with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Beijing visit and deepened with Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Modi, for his part, has taken appeasement to a new level.
The paradox is that, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, every time India has stood up to China, it has been followed by New Delhi’s kowtow to Beijing. The Sumdorong Chu confrontation was followed by Rajiv Gandhi’s paying of obeisance to Beijing. In 2017, Indian forces resolutely halted PLA’s effort to build a road to the Indian border through the uninhabited Doklam plateau that India’s ally, Bhutan, regards as its own territory. This action was followed by Modi’s kowtow to China.
It was Modi, as Chinese President Xi Jinping later revealed, that proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit — a proposal that led to the so-called Wuhan process. Xi gladly accepted Modi’s proposal of early 2018 because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India.
Worse still, Modi initiated this process despite China’s seizure of Doklam. After the 73-day troop standoff at the southwestern edge of Doklam ended with an agreement to disengage, China launched frenzied construction of military fortifications and seized control of almost the entire plateau, other than the corner where the faceoff had occurred. By the time Modi decided to travel to Wuhan, the Doklam plateau, which previously had no permanent military structures or permanent force deployments, was teeming with Chinese barracks, helipads, ammunition dumps and other facilities, as satellite images underscored.
The myth of Doklam victory that Modi sold Indians to bolster his image proved costly for India, as China’s 2020 aggression has highlighted. Despite being Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor, India failed to defend that tiny nation’s territorial sovereignty. China’s Doklam capture has shattered Bhutanese faith in India’s security assurances, making Thimphu more eager to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Meanwhile, with his leverage weakened, Modi’s effort at rapprochement with Beijing quickly slid into overt appeasement. In early 2018, his government halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. This compounded Vajpayee’s Tibet cave-in. Officials were directed to stay away even from the March 2018 events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The following month, the Wuhan summit produced little more than Indian government-sponsored media hype. In fact, no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the key understandings reached at Wuhan. For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against the increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached at Wuhan to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that crucial phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences were no surprise. Like all previous India-China summits since 1988, the Wuhan summit was long on political theatre, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the bilateral dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Wuhan was followed in October 2019 by an equally unremarkable Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Yet Modi hailed both summits as harbingers of a new strategic convergence with China. If anything, his “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies — like Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai lullaby — lulled India into a dangerous complacency.
Against this background, is it any surprise that military tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry? There is still no clearly defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. Such a situation has persisted despite regular Chinese-Indian talks since 1981. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history.
China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003. With new each label, India has sought to wipe the slate clean, underscoring its unwillingness to learn from its unpalatable past experiences. For example, India today cites 22 rounds of talks thus far between the special representatives, but without mentioning the earlier border negotiations, as if they didn’t happen.
More significantly, China has made it clear that it has little interest in resolving the boundary question. An unsettled border aids China’s “salami slicing” strategy and also helps it to exert direct military pressure on India whenever it wants. During a 2010 visit to New Delhi, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated bluntly that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” In fact, after Vajpayee’s 2003 Tibet cave-in, China stopped talking about clarification of the LAC.
Since 2008, thanks to Beijing, references to clarification of the LAC finds no mention in official bilateral documents. Yet successive Indian governments have played into China’s hands by carrying on with the useless negotiations.
The same is the story with India’s investment of considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China over the past 27 years. Five border-management agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Each was signed with great fanfare at a summit, and each was hailed in India (but not in China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.” This shows how successive Indian prime ministers have got a free pass from the country’s pliant media and feckless analysts, thus exacerbating India’s China challenge.
The last accord, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), was a textbook example of appeasing an aggressor and whetting the belligerent’s appetite for swallowing territory. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed earlier. With the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yearning to showcase the “success” of the summit, India acceded to the habitual violator’s call for new border rules. And Singh, with the help of the planeload of journalists he usually took on any overseas visit, marketed his China trip as a major success.
BDCA’s provisions were vaguely worded, allowing China — a master at reinterpreting texts — to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. In fact, whereas China has flouted the letter and spirit of every bilateral accord, India has been strictly adhering to the various agreements’ provisions to such an extent that it has even gone beyond their literal meaning, resulting in the preventable deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the PLA on June 15.
The 1996 accord’s provision not to use firearms within two kilometres of the LAC (Article VI) relates to peacetime border-policing situations, including cases where rival border patrols run into each other. It does not relate to aggression by one side against the other. What India has faced since April in eastern Ladakh is China’s pre-emptive military strike. Had Article VI been correctly read earlier as applicable only to border policing, India would not have lost 20 soldiers. The 20 were brutally murdered by PLA troops armed with improvised weapons, before Indian soldiers avenged the killings by inflicting heavy PLA casualties.
Today, thanks to China’s brazen aggression, the vaunted border-management framework lies in tatters. The aggression has highlighted the worthlessness of the Indian investment in such agreements. Yet, after telling his Chinese counterpart that China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” Indian External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in the same telephonic conversation, oddly reposed faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols” for de-escalation! This raises a fundamental question: Will India ever learn?
Since 1988, the more India has sought to appease China, the greater has been the perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward it. This hardening is reflected in developments beyond the bilateral domain, including Chinese strategic projects in other countries that neighbour India and the PLA’s troop presence in the Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). With its troops present near the Pakistan-occupied J&K’s frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh.
More fundamentally, the strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite their fast-rising trade. Trade is the only area in which bilateral relations have thrived, with China managing to more than double its trade surplus with India on Modi’s watch to over $60 billion per year. China’s booming trade surplus, however, has failed to moderate or restrain its behaviour.
Modi’s alternate reality
Since the time Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister, he has tended to view China not as it is but as he would like it to be. After he became prime minister, he went out of his way to befriend China. He postponed a Japan visit by several weeks so that his first meeting with an important world leader was with Xi. By delisting China as a “country of concern,” Modi further opened up the Indian economy to Beijing but ended up facilitating greater Chinese dumping.
Even by his penchant for springing surprises, Modi’s recent televised speech at the end of the June 19 all-party meeting was a stunner. As if underline a surreal alternate reality, Modi declared: “Nobody has intruded into our territory, nor is any intruder present, and nor is any post of ours under someone else’s occupation.” His speech became an instant propaganda coup for China, with its state media saying his words signalled to Beijing that Modi doesn’t want “further conflict with China” because, as the Global Times warned, “India will be more humiliated than” in 1962.
Modi effectively scored a self-goal damaging to India’s diplomatic and strategic interests. If India is unwilling to call China out on its aggression and intrusions, how does it expect any other major power to come to its support by criticizing China’s aggression? More importantly, by obscuring the truth on China’s encroachments, India is playing right into Beijing’s hands. China, the master of propaganda, will use Modi’s own words to tell the world that there was no aggression from its side, while continuing to consolidate its new territorial gains in Ladakh.
The supposed “clarification” issued by Modi’s office on his speech raised more questions than it answered, worsening the confusion. Without denying Modi’s key words, it said: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India.” The official Indian map extends to areas where PLA forces are currently arrayed against India. The Chinese cannot be faulted if they interpret Modi’s words as signalling that India, in reality, no longer considers the Chinese-occupied areas, including Aksai Chin, as its own.
Modi’s speech, in fact, illustrated how India relives history. Nehru kept obscuring China’s encroachments in the 1950s until he was caught in a trap that led to the 1962 humiliation. Now, despite the availability of satellite imagery in the digital era, Modi has likewise sought to cloak Chinese intrusions. Instead of drawing lessons from the Nehru era, including from how China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin, Modi delivered a speech that implicitly absolved China of its intrusions. His words can only embolden the aggressor.
Modi has cast himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from encroachers and terrorists. The fact that India was caught off-guard by the Chinese aggression is embarrassing for him. Modi wants to protect his image as a strong leader. This, unfortunately, has led him to downplay China’s aggression from the time the Indian Army discovered it. Until the PLA’s savage killing of 20 Indian soldiers lifted the lid on the Chinese aggression, Indian authorities sought to minimize the significance of China’s actions and to hide details. How can saving face at home become a bigger priority for the country’s leader than safeguarding long-term national interests?
Had Modi rallied the nation behind him as soon as the Chinese encroachments were discovered and had he ordered the armed forces to take counteraction, the PLA would not have gained time to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas. In the Lake Pangong region, for example, the PLA has transformed the landscape by building dozens of observation posts, bunkers and other concrete fortifications since the first clashes flared between rival troops there on May 5-6.
India has lost valuable time by doing nothing. It has been hoping against hope that China would see reason and withdraw.
Unfortunately, the Indian government even obscured the nature and significance of the clashes that occurred in the first 10 days of May, including near the Naku-la Pass, on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. It also hid the extent of Indian casualties. In fact, the clashes were sought to be passed off as minor until revelations emerged weeks later that both sides had briefly captured each other’s soldiers and that some troops had been so seriously wounded that they required airlifting to hospitals, including in New Delhi.
Worse still, the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, personally downplayed China’s aggression. He issued a bizarre statement on May 14 that gratuitously blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” for the clashes, which he euphemistically called “incidents.” An Army chief blaming his own troops for “aggressive behaviour” while they confront an invading foe is unheard of.
General Naravane’s statement — apparently issued at the government’s behest — actually went to great lengths to cover up China’s aggression, including the ensuing clashes that erupted at several border points. The statement blamed the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” on “differing perceptions” of the LAC’s alignment. In effect, he offered China a justification for its encroachments.
To be sure, the “differing perceptions” argument has long been proffered by successive Indian governments to obscure loss of territory or to rationalize Chinese incursions. This argument has given China, with its ever-shifting claim lines in the Himalayas, carte blanche to keep encroaching on more and more Indian areas by quoting India’s own admission that the LAC is indistinct and hazy.
General Naravane not only expounded the “differing perceptions” theory while the country was faced with its most serious China-frontier crisis in decades, but also his statement claimed that the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” were “neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” Why should the Indian Army chief take it upon himself to explain Chinese actions so as to paint them in better light? The fact is that the Ladakh and Sikkim border developments were indeed co-related, and were part of Xi’s larger aggressive quest for Chinese dominance.
On June 13th, a month after his first statement, General Naravane made another statement that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control,” even as the intruding PLA troops were consolidating their hold on the areas they had infiltrated. Just two days later, the façade of “all is well” on the Himalayan borders collapsed, after the PLA’s ambush-killings triggered bloody clashes. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers, with scores more hospitalized, shocked the nation and brought the government’s handling of the situation under public scrutiny.
China’s stealth intrusions into eastern Ladakh have been followed with frenzied construction activity to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas and fortify its defences. Amid a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas, Xi appointed a favourite general in early June to lead PLA forces arrayed against India. Xu Qiling, a rising PLA star and ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped positions with He Weidong, the ground force commander of the Western Theatre Command. Xu has the experience to lead joint ground and air operations. As if to signal that it could be readying to wage war on India, China evacuated its citizens from India in special flights from late May.
Many analysts in India and abroad have cited the Sino-Indian power asymmetry to argue that India cannot take on China. After all, China’s economic and military power is much greater than India’s. Some analysts have argued that Modi’s “no intrusion” statement reflected this reality.
War is not decided by military and economic capabilities alone. If capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent.
What is critical to any war’s outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy, tactics and troop morale. History is shaped by farsighted and visionary leaders, who can change the destiny of a nation. Great leaders in history turned small island nations into global powers, while short-sighted leaders unravelled empires.
Defence generally has the advantage over offense, because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. Defensive operations in the mountains or on high-altitude plateaus, as in Ladakh, are aimed at resisting and foiling an enemy strike in order to prepare ground for a counter-attack.
India has one of the world’s largest and most-experienced mountain warfare armies. The fearlessness and bravery of its soldiers was highlighted recently by the swift costs they imposed on PLA troops in the Galwan Valley after an Indian patrol was ambushed. They demonstrated the true mark of valour when, in the face of death, they inflicted heavy Chinese casualties in hand-to-hand combat, including killing the PLA unit’s commanding officer. Intercepts of Chinese communications by US intelligence have confirmed that China lost more than twice as many soldiers as India.
The deaths represent China’s first combat troops killed in action, other than in UN peacekeeping operations, since the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979. The combat fatalities are a humiliation for China, which explains why it has hidden information on its casualties. Some on Chinese social media have criticized Xi’s regime by contrasting India’s honouring of its martyrs, including holding large public funerals, with China’s refusal to even recognize its fallen.
The Indian Army today is capable of repulsing a PLA attack and inflicting heavy losses. But there is a bigger question: Does India have the political will to impose costs on China? Despite Modi’s strongman image, India remains essentially a soft state, as his own China speech highlighted.
Shrewdly timing a pre-emptive strike that takes the opponent completely by surprise has been central to Communist China’s repeated use of force. By contrast, India — with its defensive mindset and risk-averseness under successive prime ministers — cannot even think of undertaking a pre-emptive assault. This gives China a major tactical advantage over India. As the Global Times said on June 21, China knows that India will not fire the first shot.
It will be China’s initiative to start a war against India and to end it — just like in 1962. And to achieve its objectives, China will do anything, from breaking binding agreements to employing a range of elaborate deceptions.
India needs to make a fresh start by abandoning its accommodating approach toward China that has made it look like a meek enabler. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must discard the platitudes and retake the narrative. To blunt Xi’s expansionism and to halt further Chinese encroachments, India must bare its own teeth and implement a containment strategy, including by joining hands with likeminded powers.
India must remember that when it has stood up to China, as in 1967, the bully has backed off, thus ensuring peace along the Himalayan frontier. But when India has sought to placate or appease China, the emboldened bully has stepped up its incursions and territorial aggrandizement.
In 1967, while still recovering from the major wars of 1962 and 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in the military clashes along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Those clashes were triggered by a Chinese attack much less grave than the Chinese aggression India now confronts. In 2020, can India pretend to be weaker than it was in 1967, despite building a nuclear arsenal and despite its longstanding status as one of the world’s largest importers of weapons?
President Xi Jinping, seeking to press China’s advantage while its neighbors are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, has lately opened multiple fronts in his campaign to make China the world’s foremost power — from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China Seas to the Himalayan frontier.
The globally paralyzing pandemic has reinforced Xi’s efforts to realize his “Chinese dream” by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. Xi said in a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
This may explain why China has sought to make the most of the pandemic. From breaking Beijing’s binding commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and attempting to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to picking a nasty border fight with India by encroaching on its territory, Xi has pushed the boundaries.
His actions are helping to shift attention from China’s culpability in the global spread of COVID-19 to the threat his authoritarian regime poses to international security. But his expansive vision has also increased the risks of China succumbing to what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” or overextending itself abroad, leading to its decline and fall, like how the Soviet empire imploded.
Xi’s expansionism has sought to remake globalization on China’s terms. The overreach is best illustrated by his marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to refashion the global economic and political order by plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when China has still to fully overcome poverty and underdevelopment at home.
It is an imperial project seeking to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. But instead of the “common prosperity” Xi promised, the BRI has been ensnaring vulnerable countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The pandemic’s mounting economic toll makes it harder for partner countries to repay their loans.
Beijing’s refusal to grant debt relief to partner states facing bankruptcy is only highlighting its predatory lending practices. By engendering anger or resentment, the hard-line approach risks undermining China’s international image and inviting a pushback against its neocolonial policies.
More ominously, Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance has led him to open multiple political or military fronts at the same time. This has raised concern at home about China overextending itself and international alarm over the country’s trajectory. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the world is seeing “continually more aggressive action” by China.
Under Xi, China’s relationship with the superpower that aided its economic rise, the U.S., has given way to hostility, with a cold war on the horizon. With India, Xi seems itching to start the world’s next big conflict. The link between China and India, which make up more than a third of humanity and over a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up efforts to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a political weapon by building cascades of large dams in China’s borderlands. China’s frenzied upstream damming of the Mekong River, however, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern Chinese economy, Xi is determined to make China the central player in international relations. Xi’s ambition, coupled with the cult of personality around him, may be blinding him to the dangers of an approach that has stretched China’s resources when its economy is slowing and working-age population declining.
Today, China remains a friendless power lacking any true seafaring strategic allies or reliable security partners. Indeed, the more powerful China has become, the more difficult it has become for it to gain genuine allies.
Can Xi make China, without any allies, the world’s leading power by relying on an open disregard of international rules and on bullying? Leadership demands more than brute might.
The assumption behind Xi’s muscular approach — that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay — had thus far proved right, with other powers issuing words but shying away from actions. But with the pandemic and the move to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, Tibet-style, Xi is courting an international backlash, underlined by a spate of actions from the U.S., EU, U.K., India and Australia.
Like the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy — a prelude to the Soviet Union’s fall — the pandemic has shown how a communist regime worsens a disaster by seeking to cover up the truth about it. The pandemic, by highlighting the global costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism, has made it more likely that the backlash will act as a spoiler to Xi’s neo-imperial ambitions.
Countries are already reassessing their economic reliance on Beijing and seeking supply chain diversification away from China. One example is Japan’s $2.2 billion fund to help reshore manufacturing. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has opened the path to American sanctions against Chinese officials and companies.
With other powers still wrestling with the pandemic and a protest-scarred U.S. looking weak, Xi may take more aggressive actions to flex China’s muscle. But unless he reverses course, his overreach is likely to saddle China with overwhelming costs while creating an international environment hostile to the realization of his dream.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
India extended the hand of friendship to China but was repaid with stealth aggression in Ladakh. The Chinese incursions into strategic areas presented India with a Kargil-like challenge. The aggression is not just a wake-up call for India; it could prove to be the deciding factor in fundamentally altering the country’s approach to China.
Shrewdly timing a surprise assault has been central to China’s repeated use of force, as several studies underscore. In 1962, China invaded India just as the Cuban missile crisis was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And in April-May, as a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China encroached on Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Hot Springs (both previously undisputed areas) and simultaneously occupied Lake Pangong’s disputed long stretch between Fingers 4 and 8.
Military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” led China to strike when India was vulnerable. India’s draconian lockdown — the world’s strictest — flattened not its coronavirus curve but its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) curve, as one industrialist has noted. India now has the worst of both worlds — spiralling infection rates and a seriously-damaged economy, crimping its military options. China, which signalled a bellicose intent by conducting Himalayan military drills since the beginning of this year, seized the opening from the Indian Army’s lockdown-driven deferment of its annual Ladakh exercise, which creates acclimatised troop reserves before late spring unfreezes ingress routes.
Caught off-guard, India faces difficult options while battling the pandemic. India, however, is unlikely to put up with China’s encroachments, which explains its counterforce build-up in eastern Ladakh, despite the viral risks to troops. This week’s mutual pullback of troops at three of the four confrontation sites reduces the threat of war but doesn’t diminish China’s act of belligerence. The 2017 Doklam disengagement is a reminder that China doesn’t deviate from what it has set out to achieve: No sooner had the standoff ended than China began frenzied construction of permanent military structures and occupied almost the entire Doklam.
Let’s be clear. China’s latest aggression is very different from its Ladakh intrusions in the Depsang Plains (2013) and Chumar (2014) that had narrow tactical objectives. For example, it withdrew from Chumar after making India demolish local defensive fortifications.
The latest well-planned encroachments seem strategically geared to altering the frontier by grabbing vantage locations, whose control will place the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a commanding position. By building bunkers and other concrete structures, such as between Pangong’s Fingers 4 and 8, PLA has signalled its intent to retain key land grabs.
With PLA forces already present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near its frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh. The encroachments raise the spectre of PLA in a war cutting through northern Ladakh and physically linking up with Pakistan to put India under siege.
China’s aggression potentially signifies a geostrategic sea change. China is seeking to buy enough time through negotiations with India to consolidate its hold on key encroached areas. In this light, Beijing is seeking to string India along. If China vacates occupied land after extracting a price, it won’t be vantage points overlooking enemy positions but marginal territory.
As Mao Zedong admitted, China undertakes negotiations to “buttress its position” and “wear down the opponent”. China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before deceptively being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003.
India also invested considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China through five different agreements, each signed with great fanfare at summits between 1993 and 2013. However, by brazenly flouting the accords’ basic principles through its encroachments, China has gravely fractured the framework.
In the way it has profoundly changed the status quo in the South China Sea without firing a shot, China is seeking to complete its thus far bullet-less aggression against India by forestalling through negotiations an Indian counter-offensive or an Indian tit-for-tat grab of Chinese-claimed territory elsewhere. So, it is saying the two sides must ensure “differences do not escalate into disputes”. In plain language, China is asking India to stomach its aggression or else the situation will cease to be, in its words, “stable and controllable”.
With its aggression, however, China has brought its relations with India to a tipping point. By opening several international fronts, including one against India, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be biting off more than he can chew. He will discover India is no pushover. By awakening India to China’s threat, Xi’s aggression eventually will prove costly for China, which is already staring at a cold war with the United States.
Far from submitting to China’s aggression, India will make necessary readjustments in its foreign and defence policies with the aim of imposing costs and thwarting Beijing’s larger hegemonic objectives. After all, how India emerges from its military stand-off with China will have an important bearing on its international standing and on Asian security.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” By starting a conflict with India to advance his larger neo-imperial ambitions, Xi has increased the odds that the tiger under his arm will bite him.
Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The aggression – and the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t see it coming – shows just how miserably his China policy has failed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “not in a good mood,” US President Donald Trump recently declared, as he offered to mediate India’s resurgent border conflict with China. After years of bending over backward to appease China, Modi has received yet another Chinese encroachment on Indian territory. Will this be enough to persuade him to change his approach?
While India was preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis, China was apparently planning its next attempt to change the region’s territorial status quo by force. Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The PLA has now established heavily fortified camps in the areas it infiltrated, in addition to deploying weapons on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), within striking distance of Indian deployments.
China’s “unexpected” maneuver should not have been unexpected at all. Last August, China’s government vigorously condemned India’s establishment of Ladakh – including the Chinese-held Aksai Chin Plateau – as a new federal territory. (China seized Aksai Chin in the 1950s, after gobbling up Tibet, which had previously served as a buffer with India.) And the PLA had been conducting regular combat exercises near the Indian border this year.
Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force, with Chinese leaders repeatedly claiming that military preemption was a defensive measure. Its latest assault on India – which China claims is the actual aggressor – was taken straight from this playbook.
Yet Modi did not see the Chinese incursions coming. His vision seems to have been clouded by the naive hope that, by appeasing China, he could reset the bilateral relationship and weaken China’s ties with Pakistan, another revisionist state that lays claims to sizable swaths of Indian territory.
The China-Pakistan axis has long generated high security costs for India and raised the specter of a two-front war. That is why some Indian leaders have pursued a “defensive wedge strategy,” in which the status quo power seeks to drive a wedge between two allied revisionist states, so that it can focus its capabilities on the more threatening challenger.
In 1999, the first prime minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sought to win over Pakistan by visiting the country on the inaugural trip of a new bus service from Delhi to Lahore. Vajpayee was rewarded for his “bus diplomacy” with a stealth invasion by Pakistan’s powerful military of the Indian border zone of Kargil. This triggered a localized war, in which both sides lost several hundred soldiers before the status quo ante was restored.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi has focused his attention on China – with similarly disastrous results. In fact, soon after becoming prime minister in 2014 – and just hours before hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit meeting – he learned that PLA troops had elbowed their way into southern Ladakh’s Chumar area, which lies along the LAC, and built a temporary road there.
The summit was portrayed as a success, even though the Chinese did not withdraw until weeks later, after India agreed to demolish local defensive fortifications. This was the beginning of a policy not of reconciliation, but of appeasement, the costs of which continue to mount.
On a trip to Beijing the next year, Modi surprised his own administration by announcing a decision to issue electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals upon their arrival in India. He also delisted China as a “country of concern,” in an effort to court Chinese investment. Instead, the move opened India up to even more dumping by Chinese firms. On Modi’s watch, China has more than doubled its trade surplus with India to $60 billion per year – nearly equal to India’s annual defense spending.
Meanwhile, the PLA has continued to encroach on disputed territories. In mid-2017, Indian troops were pushed into another standoff with the PLA – this time, at Doklam, a small and desolate Himalayan plateau where Chinese-ruled Tibet meets the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Indian troops stood up to the Chinese, as the PLA attempted to build a road to the India border through the uninhabited plateau that Bhutan, an Indian ally, regards as its own territory. The standoff lasted 73 days, before China and India agreed to disengage.
India declared the Doklam disengagement a tactical victory. But over the next several months, China steadily expanded its troop deployments by building permanent military structures, thereby gaining control of much of Doklam. Despite being the de facto guarantor of Bhutan’s security, India failed to defend the tiny country’s territorial sovereignty.
Yet Modi maintained India’s appeasement policy. In 2018, his government backed away from official contact with the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile. At the same time, as Xi later revealed, Modi proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit – a proposal Xi gladly accepted, because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India. Two such summits have now been held, as well as 14 other meetings between the two leaders.
And what has Modi gotten for his troubles? China has stepped up its territorial revisionism, while raking in growing profits from the bilateral economic relationship (though, to be sure, India did recently tighten its policy on foreign direct investment, so that any flows from China must be pre-approved).
Modi has himself to blame for this state of affairs. With his excessive personalization of policy and stubborn strategic naiveté, he has shown himself not as the diplomatically deft strongman he purports to be, but as a kind of Indian Neville Chamberlain. Unless he learns from his mistakes and changes his policy toward China, India’s people – and territorial sovereignty – will pay the price.
The global backlash against China over its culpability for the international spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan has gained momentum in recent weeks. And China itself has added fuel to the fire, as exemplified by its recent legal crackdown on Hong Kong. From implicitly seeking a political quid pro quo for supplying other countries with protective medical gear, to rejecting calls for an independent international inquiry into the virus’s origins until a majority of countries backed such a probe, the bullying tactics of President Xi Jinping’s government have damaged and isolated China’s communist regime.
The backlash could take the form of Western sanctions as Xi’s regime seeks to overturn Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework with its proposed new national-security laws for the territory, which has been wracked by widespread pro-democracy protests for over a year. More broadly, Xi’s overreach is inviting increasing hostility among China’s neighbors and around the world.
Had Xi been wise, China would have sought to repair the pandemic-inflicted damage to its image by showing empathy and compassion, such as by granting debt relief to near-bankrupt Belt and Road Initiative partner countries and providing medical aid to poorer countries without seeking their support for its handling of the outbreak. Instead, China has acted in ways that undermine its long-term interests.
Whether through its aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy – named after two Chinese films in which special-operations forces rout US-led mercenaries – or military-backed expansionist moves in China’s neighborhood, Xi’s regime has caused international alarm. In fact, Xi, the self-styled indispensable leader, views the current global crisis as an opportunity to tighten his grip on power and advance his neo-imperialist agenda, recently telling a Chinese university audience that, “The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.”
China has certainly sought to make the most of the pandemic. After buying up much of the world’s available supply of protective medical equipment in January, it has engaged in price-gouging and apparent profiteering. And Chinese exports of substandard or defective medical gear have only added to the international anger.
While the world grapples with COVID-19, the Chinese military has provoked border flare-ups with India and attempted to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China has also recently established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, and stepped up its incursions and other activities in the area. In early April, for example, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, prompting the United States to caution China to “stop exploiting the [pandemic-related] distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Meanwhile, China has made good on its threat of economic reprisals against Australia for initiating the idea of an international coronavirus inquiry. Through trade actions, the Chinese government has effectively cut off imports of Australian barley and blocked more than one-third of Australia’s regular beef exports to China.
Whereas Japan readily allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a full investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster – a probe that helped the country to improve safety governance – China strongly opposed any coronavirus inquiry, as if it had something to hide. In fact, some Chinese commentators denounced calls for an inquiry as racist.
But once a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19 gained the support of more than 100 countries in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, Xi sought to save face by telling the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review.” At the last minute, China co-sponsored the resolution, which was approved without objection.
The resolution, however, leaves it up to the WHO’s controversial director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to launch the review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Tedros, who has been accused of aiding China’s initial COVID-19 cover-up, may decide to wait until the pandemic has come “under control,” as Xi has proposed.
Make no mistake: the world will not be the same after this wartime-like crisis. Future historians will regard the pandemic as a turning point that helped to reshape global politics and restructure vital production networks. Indeed, the crisis has made the world wake up to the potential threats stemming from China’s grip on many global supply chains, and moves are already afoot to loosen that control.
More fundamentally, Xi’s actions highlight how political institutions that bend to the whim of a single, omnipotent individual are prone to costly blunders. China’s diplomatic and information offensive to obscure facts and deflect criticism of its COVID-19 response may be only the latest example of its brazen use of censure and coercion to browbeat other countries. But it represents a watershed moment.
In the past, China’s reliance on persuasion secured its admission to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and helped to power its economic rise. But under Xi, spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and running targeted influence operations have become China’s favorite tools for getting its way. Diplomacy serves as an adjunct of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
Xi’s approach is alienating other countries, in the process jeopardizing their appetite for Chinese-made goods, scaring away investors, and accentuating China’s image problem. Negative views of China and its leadership among Americans have reached a record high. Major economies such as Japan and the US are offering firms relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. And India’s new rule requiring prior government approval of any investment from China is the first of its kind.
China currently faces the most daunting international environment since it began opening up in the late 1970s, and now it risks suffering lasting damage to its image and interests. A boomerang effect from Xi’s overreach seems inevitable. A pandemic that originated in China will likely end up weakening the country’s global position and hamstringing its future growth. In this sense, the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the shadow of COVID-19 could prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back.
The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for a world that has accepted China’s lengthening shadow over global supply chains for far too long. Only by reducing China’s global economic influence – beginning in the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from the country’s political pathologies.
The new COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to more than 100 countries – bringing social disruption, economic damage, sickness, and death – largely because authorities in China, where it emerged, initially suppressed information about it. And yet China is now acting as if its decision not to limit exports of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and medical supplies – of which it is the dominant global supplier – was a principled and generous act worthy of the world’s gratitude.
When the first clinical evidence of a deadly new virus emerged in Wuhan, Chinese authorities failed to warn the public for weeks and harassed, reprimanded, and detained those who did. This approach is no surprise: China has a long history of “killing” the messenger. Its leaders covered up severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus, for over a month after it emerged in 2002, and held the doctor who blew the whistle in military custody for 45 days. SARS ultimately affected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries.
This time around, the Communist Party of China’s proclivity for secrecy was reinforced by President Xi Jinping’s eagerness to be perceived as an in-control strongman, backed by a fortified CPC. But, as with the SARS epidemic, China’s leaders could keep it under wraps for only so long. Once Wuhan-linked COVID-19 cases were detected in Thailand and South Korea, they had little choice but to acknowledge the epidemic.
About two weeks after Xi rejected scientists’ recommendation to declare a state of emergency, the government announced heavy-handed containment measures, including putting millions on lockdown. But it was too late: many thousands of Chinese were already infected with COVID-19, and the virus was rapidly spreading internationally. US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has said that China’s initial cover-up “probably cost the world community two months to respond,” exacerbating the global outbreak.
Beyond the escalating global health emergency, which has already killed thousands, the pandemic has disrupted normal trade and travel, forced many school closures, roiled the international financial system, and sunk global stock markets. With oil prices plunging, a global recession appears imminent.
None of this would have happened had China responded quickly to evidence of the deadly new virus by warning the public and implementing containment measures. Indeed, Taiwan and Vietnam have shown the difference a proactive response can make.
Taiwan, learning from its experience with SARS, instituted preventive measures, including flight inspections, before China’s leaders had even acknowledged the outbreak. Likewise, Vietnam quickly halted flights from China and closed all schools. Both responses recognized the need for transparency, including updates on the number and location of infections and public advisories on how to guard against COVID-19.
Thanks to their governments’ policies, both Taiwan and Vietnam – which normally receive huge numbers of travelers from China daily – have kept total cases under 50. Neighbors that were slower to implement similar measures, such as Japan and South Korea, have been hit much harder.
If any other country had triggered such a far-reaching, deadly, and above all preventable crisis, it would now be a global pariah. But China, with its tremendous economic clout, has largely escaped censure. Nonetheless, it will take considerable effort for Xi’s regime to restore its standing at home and abroad.
Perhaps that is why China’s leaders are publicly congratulating themselves for not limiting exports of medical supplies and APIs used to make medicines, vitamins, and vaccines. If China decided to ban such exports to the United States, the state-run news agency Xinhua recently noted, the US would be “plunged into a mighty sea of coronavirus.” China, the article implies, would be justified in taking such a step. It would simply be retaliating against “unkind” US measures taken after COVID-19’s emergence, such as restricting entry to the US by Chinese and foreigners who had visited China. Isn’t the world lucky that China is not that petty?
Maybe so. But that is no reason to trust that China will not be petty in the future. After all, China’s leaders have a record of halting other strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals) to punish countries that defied them.
Moreover, this is not the first time China has considered weaponizing its dominance in global medical supplies and APIs. Last year, Li Daokui, a prominent Chinese economist, suggested curtailing Chinese API exports to the US as a countermeasure in the trade war. “Once the export is reduced,” Li noted, “the medical systems of some developed countries will not work.”
That is no exaggeration. A US Department of Commerce study found that 97% of all antibiotics sold in the US come from China. “If you’re the Chinese and you want to really just destroy us,” Gary Cohn, former chief economic adviser to US President Donald Trump, observed last year, “just stop sending us antibiotics.”
If the specter of China exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for strategic ends were not enough to make the world rethink its cost-cutting outsourcing decisions, the unintended disruption of global supply chains by COVID-19 should be. In fact, China has had no choice but to fall behind in producing and exporting APIs since the outbreak – a development that has constrained global supply and driven up the prices of vital medicines.
That has already forced India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, to restrict its own exports of some commonly used medicines. Almost 70% of the APIs for medicines made in India come from China. If China’s pharmaceutical plants do not return to full capacity soon, severe global medicine shortages will become likely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism. It should be a wake-up call for political and business leaders who have accepted China’s lengthening shadow over global supply chains for far too long. Only by loosening China’s grip on global supply networks – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from the country’s political pathologies.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was set to become the world’s largest free trade agreement. But India’s withdrawal from it has thrown the negotiated trade bloc into imbalance and has underscored India’s qualms with China’s trade practices.
The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, covering half of the global population. But India’s abrupt withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that goal. The decision came soon after the latest “informal” summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which Xi acknowledged India’s China-related concerns over the RCEP and pledged to address them.
New Delhi’s entry into the RCEP would effectively create a China-India free trade agreement (FTA) via the backdoor, at a time when Chinese exports are already swamping the Indian market and questions are being raised domestically on Modi’s management of the economy.
The China factor was central to India’s pullout from the RCEP. India already has FTAs with 12 of the other 15 participating RCEP countries and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. Therefore, the main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would have been China.
Xi’s two “informal” summits with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress in the trade, border, and political issues dividing the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram in October, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.
When the summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”
At the summit, Modi agreed to starting bilateral talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s uneven trade relationship with China, which is weighted heavily in Beijing’s favor. China’s trade surplus with India has jumped from less than $2.5 billion a month in 2014 when Modi took office to more than $5 billion a month.
The Indian commitment to bilateral trade talks represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at: endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.
However, only three weeks after the Xi-Modi summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.
In November, the other 15 participating RCEP countries concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”
It will not be easy to resolve India’s concerns. At a time of slowing Indian growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s economic problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.
China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.
Modi, in the hope of spurring greater foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, removed it from the official list as a “country of concern” for India. However, instead of greater FDI, the step invited greater Chinese dumping.
China’s cumulative FDI in India remains a fraction of its yearly trade surplus with the country. In fact, in the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America.
China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.
China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Indeed, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.
Against this background, India’s concerns are unlikely to be addressed in time for it to join the other participating countries at the RCEP signing ceremony in Hanoi next year.
Let’s be clear: unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.
The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Make no mistake – India needs to become more competitive in its own right because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.
An RCEP without India could create an imbalance within that trading bloc, just as Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN states have feared. It now seems likely that China will dominate the world’s largest free trade arrangement.
Amid the raging media war between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters and critics, recent developments are helping to disprove one charge — that India is getting isolated internationally. From frustrating China’s latest UN Security Council (UNSC) move on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to forcing Malaysia to start addressing its growing trade surplus with India, including by importing more Indian sugar, Indian diplomacy has rarely been more robust. It was China that was isolated in the UNSC discussion on J&K.
US President Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit promises to raise India’s international salience. Building closer cooperation with the US, while shielding India’s longstanding partnership with Russia, has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. The US and India have never been closer than they are today, despite their differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.
The showmanship, zeal and penchant for surprises that Modi’s diplomacy displayed in his first years in office have gradually given way to a more down-to-earth approach and greater pragmatism, including seeking to more resourcefully advance the country’s core interests. Under Modi, Indian diplomacy has been shedding its conventional methods and shibboleths to help build innovative dynamism. This remains a work in progress.
India is now more willing to act proactively. Consider the imperative to reverse eroding regional clout at a time when China is spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard. In Sri Lanka, no sooner had Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election than Modi sent his foreign minister to personally invite him to New Delhi. And then, to follow up on the discussions during Gotabaya’s visit, Modi’s national security adviser was in Colombo recently.
Another recent example is India’s pullout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to forestall an India-China free trade agreement emerging via the backdoor. The decision not to join RCEP came barely three weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Mamallapuram summit, pleaded with Modi for India’s entry and offered to discuss Indian concerns bilaterally.
The trade deficit with China has more than doubled on Modi’s watch and now accounts for 2.2% of India’s GDP, which is higher than its total defence spending. At a time of slowing Indian economic growth, India’s RCEP entry would seriously exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap goods from China, which keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses.
While Trump has got his phase-one deal to reduce the US trade deficit with China, India’s trade deficit with China continues to climb. In these circumstances, India’s RCEP entry would not only aid Beijing’s India policy of containment with engagement, including aggressively advancing commercial interests. In essence, China’s policy seeks to ensure it wins doubly — reap soaring profits on India trade while simultaneously working to box India in.
Through greater realism, India has progressively evolved a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy vision since it went overtly nuclear. It seeks to revitalize its economic and military security without having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. Given its nuclear-armed status, its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence has assumed a largely rhetorical meaning.
As one US official, Alice Wells, has acknowledged, India’s “broadening strategic horizons” have led to a “shift away from a passive foreign policy”. India, however, remains intrinsically diffident, with a tendency to confound tactics with strategy and unable at times to recognize the difference between being cautious and being meek. Caution helps avert problems, while meekness compounds challenges.
Making matters worse, India today is weighed down not just by a troubled neighbourhood but also by its increasingly murky politics. A dynamic diplomacy needs strong bipartisan support, especially for ambitious or risky undertakings. But given India’s fractious and obstreperous politics, such bipartisanship has been hard to come by. Consider the political nitpicking over the Indian Air Force’s daring strike inside Pakistan at Balakot.
The bitter partisanship at home, by sharpening national divisions, makes it more challenging to meaningfully reinvigorate foreign policy. Indeed, the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from China’s expansionism or the roguish activity of a scofflaw Pakistan but from polarized Indian politics. Given the threat from within, can India effectively deal with complex regional-security challenges, including the growing strategic axis between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of a powerful Leninist autocracy and an Islamist neighbour?
Modi may have become a lightning rod in India’s political churn. But make no mistake: Modi is a symptom of a longer-term trend of rancorous polarization in Indian politics that predates his arrival on the national scene and is likely to persist after he leaves office.
The world’s largest democracy has been in crisis for long. Its systemic problems have an important bearing on national security. Coping with mounting regional-security challenges while managing internal divisions will prove onerous unless India finds ways to control its growing divide.