Understanding the Chinese strategy and strategising an effective Indian response
The escalation in tensions between India and China along its borders has acquired alarming proportions. The latest face off in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh has seen the killing of Indian army personnel not in any firing but on account of a physical fight.
Statements on behalf of both India and China have conceded that there have been causalities on both sides. While there have been frequent skirmishes between China and India along the border at regular intervals, death of military personnel on account of a hand to hand combat was last reported four and a half decades ago.
It may be useful to provide a context for the border tensions between China and India. Every few months, the media has been reporting skirmishes across the border.
There clearly is a plan and strategy behind the Chinese efforts - be it the adventurism in Doklam or the present incursion attempts in the Galwan valley or the building up of tensions all along the LAC between India and China. This is clearly part of the larger Chinese geo-political strategy to keep the border tensions alive with India. It serves multiple purposes: first, it aims at constantly focusing public attention both in the region and across the world, on what it would like to project as its dispute with India. Secondly, it helps the Chinese draw attention away from other developments (in this particular instance - the focus on the role of China in causing the spread of COVID-19).
Thirdly, the Chinese hope to take forward their long term battle of containing and restricting India (which started soon after independence and saw an escalation in the war of 1962 and has continued ever since) as an emerging power. It does not also seem to be coincidental that Nepal takes on a stronger anti-India stance even as one sees a more visible Chinese presence and influence in the Himalayan republic.
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Finally, one has noticed that there is invariably an escalation of tensions when there is a rise of strong anti-China sentiments within India. In the most recent case the call to boycott Chinese products in India could well have propelled the Chinese adventurism. It is another story that ever since the border clash, the anti-China sentiment has further intensified both in terms of rhetoric and in the visible public sentiments expressed and practiced across social media platforms.
It may be important to note that the Chinese aggression in 1962, did result in a serious re-look in India of its China policy. There is enough evidence to show that before and during the 1962 war, the then Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had advised Prime Minister Nehru to be wary of the Chinese intentions. Shastri was among the first to suggest to Prime Minister Nehru (soon after the 1962 General elections) to drop Defence Minister Krishna Menon from the Cabinet. While this advice was not followed, Lal Bahadur Shastri was very clear of wanting to thwart the Chinese designs soon after taking over as Prime Minister in 1964.
As the tensions with Pakistan escalated, Shastri constantly had one eye on China and was always alert to any efforts by the Chinese to intervene in the conflict. Right up to the Tashkent agreement, the China factor was constantly on Shastri's mind.
Over the years, even as China carved out an increased role for itself in global affairs and opened up its economy, Indian diplomacy has, in a subdued yet assertive manner, protecting and promoting our national interests. While our diplomats may not have shown the belligerence of Chinese mandarins, they have worked quietly behind the scenes to consistently make the Indian stand point heard at global forums and important world capitals.
This, to a certain extent has drawn international support to the Indian position. The fact that other neighbours of China who have consciously not toed the Chinese line have been treated with similar belligerence is a case in point.
One has seen a clear pattern in the nature and unfolding of confrontation between the two countries. This time around too the same pattern seems patently visible. The violation of the Line of Actual Control is a typical tactic that is followed by the Chinese.
This is accompanied by strong expression of protest and a threat to action from their official channels. This time too their official mouthpiece Global Times warns India not to be arrogant and misread Chinese restraint. As in the past, India seems to have understood the Chinese game-plan and preferred the path of restraint and backroom diplomacy even as our armed forces take necessary action.
The differences in our two political systems are stark. Given the state control over news and media and the selective planting of information that the establishment encourages in China , one notices great bravado and bluster in what they project. On the other hand, India's democratic framework allows for a wider flow of information and ideas. It could be argued that, in the long run, openness and transparency pays richer dividends that control and manipulation.
Prime Minister Modi's comments in his latest Mann Ki Baat that the country had given a befitting reply to those who cast an evil eye on its territory, was clearly an attempt at re-assuring the people of India that in the conflict with China, the national interest was being protected. This also needs to be seen in the backdrop of the multiple interpretations of the statement that the Prime Minister made in Hindi at the all-party meet, following the face-off with China.
The many meetings that have been held between the leaders of the two countries and the speeches made and statements issued on those occasions had left an impression that the tensions between the two countries, was a thing of the past. It is clear that while back-room diplomacy to garner international support must continue with greater intensity, It becomes imperative for India, in this context, to make a strong assertion of its stand. This position needs to have an element of consistency, clarity and couched in the right language.
With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, China increases faces a heightened isolation across the world. Reports from many countries in Africa and Asia which have seen increasing Chinese investments in the last decade indicate the rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiments among local populations. Added to this has been the belief that the delay on the part of the Chinese in alerting the world to the rise of the new virus has further fuelled anti-China sentiments globally.
The Chinese through the adventurism of the recent past may well be trying their favourite tactic of diverting public attention away from their role in allowing a pandemic to assume the global proportions , it now has. As a response, India needs to further strengthen its global diplomacy in this regard even as it takes the necessary steps to build a consensus across the political spectrum back home as also strengthen public confidence in its actions.
(Dr. Sandeep Shastri , the Pro VC of JAIN, is a keen students of Indian politics and this article represents his personal views and not of the organisations he is associated with)