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EFSAS Commentary

China may well rue pushing India to the crossroads and possibly toward the United States


China’s strategic opportunism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has manifested itself in various arenas, but nowhere is it laden as heavily with combustive potential as it is on China’s ill demarcated and contentious border with India. The characteristic resolve of the present Indian dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has adopted an unwaveringly firm outlook towards national security, has sent the rather unexpected message to China that not only will India not wilt under Chinese bullying and intimidation, it was also prepared to fire its own salvoes targeting Chinese interests.

It is about time, therefore, that the realization dawned upon China that if it persists with trying to forcefully squeeze India into an uncomfortable corner, the present Indian dispensation will have little hesitation in shedding the considerable sensitivity that it has thus far displayed towards Chinese concerns and unreservedly joining the ever growing comity of nations that seek to compel China to adhere to the norms of the international order and abide by the rule of law. While India has, through its words and actions, made it amply clear that it does not wish to walk down this path, it has also unequivocally signaled that it has the will and the resolve to do so unless China reverts to being a more tolerable neighbour. China, on the other hand, is awake to the reality that its largest neighbour, India, formally and openly entrenching itself in the opposite camp would tilt the already unfavourable balance of power further to China’s disadvantage.

Since EFSAS last commented on the India - China border clashes a fortnight ago in its Commentary of 19-06-2020, China has fortified its positions in the Galwan river valley by deputing more troops and equipment there. The most recent satellite imagery from 24 June, a day after India and China had reportedly agreed to start the process of disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, showed that China had constructed additional shelters or accommodation along the rock-face leading up to the LAC near Patrol Point 14 where the clashes of 15 June had occurred, in which both sides had lost troops. Earlier satellite images of 22 May showed the presence of a single tent at the spot where the new structures have now come up. China has also, out of the blue and for the first time, claimed the entire Galwan valley, a contention that India has rejected as being “exaggerated and untenable”.

As brought out in an earlier EFSAS Commentary of 22-05-2020, Chinese intrusions into the Indian side of the LAC had also been reported in the Fingers region on the banks of the Pangong Lake. China has made fresh claims to territory in this Fingers region, and recent satellite images reveal a massive Mandarin symbol and map of China inscribed on the ground that the Chinese troops occupy there.

Senior Indian and Chinese military officials have held three rounds of talks aimed at defusing the tensions at the LAC after the bloody night of 15 June. The progress reported in the first two rounds gave way to a more guarded tone after the third. Officials were quoted as saying after the second round of talks on 22 June that they had been held “in a cordial, positive and constructive atmosphere”, and that, “There was a mutual consensus to disengage.  Modalities for disengagement from all friction areas in Eastern Ladakh were discussed and will be taken forward by both the sides”. On the third round of 30 June, however, statements attributed to government sources referred to the inconclusive nature of the discussions, and added that, “More meetings are expected both at the military and at the diplomatic level, in future, to arrive at mutually agreeable solution and to ensure peace and tranquility along the LAC as per bilateral agreements and protocols.  Both sides have emphasized the need for an expeditious, phased and step wise de-escalation as a priority”.

The spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement on 2 July referred to the third round of the talks and stated that, “The two sides will continue their meetings both at the military and diplomatic level including under the framework of WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination) in the future to resolve the issues to mutual satisfaction. We expect the Chinese side to sincerely follow up and ensure the expeditious restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas as per bilateral agreements and protocols”. In an earlier statement the spokesperson had underlined that the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border was the “basis” of the India-China bilateral relationship, and added that, “A continuation of the current situation would only vitiate the atmosphere for the development of the relationship”. While reminding that the blame for the current tensions lay with China, he averred that, “While there have been occasional departures in the past, the conduct of Chinese forces this year has been in complete disregard of all mutually agreed norms”.

While the talks have been going on, statements from the Chinese government have taken on a stridently confrontational character, while India has steadfastly maintained that it valued peace but would not allow such a valuation to stand in the way of its protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity through all means possible. India’s position was recently articulated by Pralhad Joshi, a minister in PM Modi’s government. In an interview with the CNBC channel Joshi said, “India wants peace. At the same time, as Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) has already said, there is no compromise as far as Indian border is concerned. India will never lose any land and we will never compromise on our strategic interest”. For India, a successful resolution would necessarily involve China’s agreement to move back its troops to the positions that they held prior to the build-up of the current tension in April this year. Vikram Misri, India's Ambassador to China, in an uncharacteristically forthright interview earlier this week said, “We hope that the Chinese side will realize its responsibility in de-escalation and disengagement. That would be a true resolution of this issue”.

China’s intransigence on the border issue has been coupled with the bellicose statements emanating from its officials and its State-controlled media mouthpieces, which have even gone to the extent of threatening the possibility of opening three simultaneous fronts against India, with Pakistan and Nepal being the other two. On the face of it, while Nepal’s involvement in any such Chinese misadventure against India can at best be termed wishful thinking, Pakistan will have no option but to do China’s bidding given that it has become a virtual vassal State of the latter. Reports that appeared this week suggesting that Pakistan had moved an additional 20,000 troops to Gilgit-Baltistan, close to the area of contention in the Ladakh region, could be seen in this light.

Forced into this challenging regional milieu by China, and in spite of the already limited trust of the Indian public in China’s word having been further eroded, the Indian government responded through actions that not only took China by surprise, they also sent out the clear message that India still prefers to work bilaterally to resolve issues with China. The underlying point, however, was that this Indian position could change abruptly and sharply unless China acted to preempt the writing on the wall.

An early warning on what lay ahead was delivered by Ambassador Vikram Misri in the hard hitting interview of 26 June that has been alluded to above. He warned that China’s attempts to alter the status quo on the ground by resorting to force will not just damage the peace that existed in the border areas, but could also have “ripples and repercussions” in the broader bilateral relationship. Asserting that the actions taken by the Chinese forces on the ground have eroded “considerable trust” from the bilateral relationship, Misri added that it was entirely the responsibility of the Chinese side to take a careful view of bilateral relations and to decide which direction the ties should move in.

Obviously unimpressed by the Chinese response and attitude over the next few days, the Indian government decided to lend substance to the Ambassador’s words. It announced on 29 June that it would be blocking 59 Chinese mobile apps with immediate effect as it had received complaints about the misuse and transmission of user data by some mobile apps to servers outside the country. It added, “The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defense of India ... is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures”. Notable among the Chinese apps blocked by India was TikTok, a hugely popular video platform in India that according to analytics firm Sensor Tower has been downloaded onto Indian phones 660 million times since its launch in 2017. India was TikTok’s largest market globally.

Bloomberg opined in an article on 1 July that India’s decision to block the Chinese apps “could have wider geopolitical consequences as the US seeks to rally countries to stop using Huawei Technologies for 5G networks. With China's tech companies poised to become some of the most dominant in emerging industries like artificial intelligence, India's actions may spur countries around the world to weigh the extent to which they let China collect user data –  and potentially economic leverage in future disputes”. The article quoted Alex Capri, a Singapore-based research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation, as saying, “Techno-nationalism will manifest itself increasingly across all aspects of geopolitics: national security, economic competitiveness, even social values. It will be increasingly difficult to separate Chinese tech firms from the CCP and China's geopolitical ambitions. They will find themselves increasingly locked out”. This found reflection a day after the Indian decision when the United States (US) followed suit and designated two Chinese companies – Huawei Technologies Company and ZTE Corporation as “national security threats”.

The Bloomberg article also pointed out that China at present did not have many appropriate options to retaliate against the Indian measure. It referred to a research note of the Eurasia Group that had underlined that, “While Beijing is highly adept at economic coercion, in this case it has somewhat limited options to act in a reciprocal manner. Bilateral trade is heavily weighted toward Chinese exports to India. Attempts to hurt India economically could blowback on Chinese companies”.

India’s choice of the lucrative sphere of technology to convey its message took China by surprise. The fact that the Indian move not only threatened billions of dollars worth of investments by Chinese tech giants in India, but also potentially jeopardized China's ambitions to dominate global tech as India was seen as a major growth market for internet companies such as ByteDance, rattled the Chinese government. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian, therefore, responded to the Indian move by saying that China was “strongly concerned” about India’s actions.

India followed up the blocking of the Chinese apps by announcing on 1 July that it will not allow Chinese companies to participate in highway projects, including through joint ventures, in India. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said, “We will not give permission to joint ventures that have Chinese partners for road construction. We have taken a firm stand that if they (Chinese companies) come via a joint venture in our country, we will not allow it”. He added that Chinese investors would also not be welcome in several other spheres in India, including the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) sector.

These initial responses by the Indian government sent out two critical messages to China. It firstly demonstrated India’s resolve to ensure that China’s excesses at the border come at a sharp cost, and showed that India would not back down in the face of a Chinese offensive. The second and strategically equally important message was that India was choosing, in the larger interest of peace in its neighbourhood and workability of its relationship with China, to still deal with China within the confines of the bilateral relationship. India consciously did not, at least for the moment, wade into the choppier waters of the international arena where myriad calls for a boycott of China and several things Chinese are actively doing the rounds. By keeping itself aloof of such calls and not aligning with them, India reiterated Misri’s assertion that the onus of deciding the direction in which bilateral ties would move in lay with China.

India demonstrated similar intent at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva, where it did not join the 27 countries, including the United Kingdom,  France, Iceland, Germany, Japan, Australia and The Netherlands, among others, that submitted a petition of complaint against China on 30 June. The petition stated concerns on arbitrary detentions, widespread surveillance and restrictions, and atrocities on Uyghurs and other minorities in China. It also raised the recently passed Hong Kong security law citing human rights violations and terming it as going against the ‘one country, two system’ understanding between China and Hong Kong. The petition urged China to allow the UN High Commissioner to access Xinjiang and Hong Kong “in order to safeguard the rights and freedoms which are guaranteed under international law”.

India chose instead to convey its displeasure to Beijing as an independent, separate entity when on the following day, 1 July, Rajiv Kumar Chander, India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, said at the UNHRC that, “Given the large Indian community that makes the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China it’s home, India has been keeping a close watch on the recent developments. We have heard several statements expressing concerns on these developments. We hope the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively”. That India made such a statement at the UNHRC was significant, as it was the first time that it had raised the issue of Hong Kong and referred to the ongoing large scale protests against China internationally.

As security analyst Ajai Shukla has pointed out in a recent article, India’s pain and sense of betrayal over the Chinese expansionist designs at the LAC was exacerbated by the fact that the Indian government, in recent years, has been unusually mindful of China’s sensitivities. India stuck with such a policy even as China repeatedly opposed India’s bids for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and stalled New Delhi's attempts to have Pakistani terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar designated a global terrorist in the United Nations for 10 years before agreeing to the designation last year. China also ignored India's objections to the building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through territory claimed by India. Overlooking all this, India has avoided criticizing China over its heavy-handedness against Taiwan and Hong Kong, brutal crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, its role in the COVID-19 pandemic, or even the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that tramples on India's territorial claims. Shukla added, “Most significantly, Modi has remained non-committal to blandishments from Washington for India to play a major role alongside the US in deterring Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi has consistently rebuffed invitations to carry out joint patrols with the US military, and chosen to project military power only in the Indian Ocean, rather than in the contested South China Sea”.

The US, itself embroiled in an escalating conflict with an aggressive China, has wholeheartedly supported India’s decision to ban the Chinese apps. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 1 July that, “We welcome India's ban on certain mobile apps that serves as an appendage of the CCP's (Chinese Communist Party) surveillance State. India's clean app approach will boost India's sovereignty. It will also boost India's integrity and national security”. On the recent border tensions with India, Pompeo said that China was using “brutal military force” to lay claim to territories across land and sea, and that, “The PLA (People's Liberation Army) has escalated border tensions with India, the world's most populous democracy”.

Even on India’s broader confrontation with China, the US has signaled its readiness to stand alongside India. On at least three occasions since the beginning of May, senior US officials have pledged support to New Delhi. India has not committed to the US though, and has maintained that it is capable of handling the situation. Continued Chinese belligerence at the border could, however, force India to change tack. As Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University opined, “Beijing should certainly worry that the impact of the deadly clash could push India toward the US”. Shukla too believes that such an eventuality could actually come about if Beijing refuses to vacate the territory it has occupied, or makes impossible demands of India. If India were to formally and unreservedly align with a US-led anti-China front, Shukla is convinced that it “would be a tectonic shift in global power dynamics enormously boosting the emerging containment of China… the outcome would be a strategic debacle for China: Its largest neighbour, India, being pushed into the arms of its superpower adversary, America”.

Zhiqun Zhu, professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Bucknell University in the US, concurs with Shukla. He too believes that India's formal participation in the US’ new cold war against China will prove to be a strategic nightmare for China, especially given that, “Global anti-China sentiment has reached its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and China’s assertive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. China already has frosty relations with Australia and Japan, faces challenges in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and is experiencing the lowest point in its relations with the US and Canada”. Zhu’s strong recommendation for China, therefore, was that it, “improve relations with its Asian neighbours instead of heavily concentrating on the US. India should be a priority of this new approach”

India has so far been steadfast in its reluctance to become so closely associated with the US that the relationship threatens China. As much as such an approach fits into India’s own strategic thinking, it also demonstrates the salience that India accords to a healthy, cooperative relationship with China. That salience is increasingly being questioned by the Indian public, which in the aftermath of the 15 June killing of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan valley has begun to view China as an aggressive and untrustworthy entity.

China needs to introspect and acknowledge that it has pushed a reluctant India to the crossroads by disrespecting the sensitivity that India has consistently displayed towards China’s larger concerns. It also must recognize that unless it acts urgently to redeem itself at the LAC, its position in the international arena may well become infinitely more challenging and overwhelming than it already is.