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Domestic Opinion and its impact on Chinese Foreign Policy, Next Steps for India; By Siddharth Sivara

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Article 16/2020

The skirmish that began on 5th May 2020 between the Indian and Chinese troops in the Sino- Indian Border consisting of Pangong Tso Lake, the Galwan Valley and Demchok in Ladakh, has now become a full-blown military standoff with neither party refusing to budge. The trigger from the Chinese seems to be the construction of roads around the Pangong Tso lake to connect key staging areas consisting of Darbuk, Shyok and Daulat beg Oldi in Galwan Valley close to the LAC which has been in the works for some time. “On 2 June, the Indian defence minister, Rajnath Singh confirmed that a significant number of Chinese soldiers have indeed entered into Indian territory of Eastern Ladakh”. Former Senior Generals of the Indian Army having served in the area have sounded alarm that India has already lost territory to the Chinese and that they will have the upper hand, henceforth in any negotiation diplomatic or military. Once again, India appears surprised or so it seems, much like the Kargil episode over two decades ago when the Indian Army vacated its posts in the heights as the winter set in. While China has upped the ante by entering Indian territory, India has not should India reciprocate in kind is a question that can be answered by how far Indian leadership is willing to go? Given the higher level of belligerence and posturing compared with the previous showdown in Doklam in June 2017, it is clear China has been planning this operation for months if not for years at the highest level. While India and China negotiate a mutually acceptable solution through existing bi-lateral agreements, militarily India has responded in equal measure in terms of troops, fortifications and deployment of its front line combat aircraft on tit for tat basis. Why has China taken to brinkmanship? especially when India and the world at large are reeling under the pandemic is a question open to debate. Is it purely a border dispute or a garb used by the Chinese to whip up nationalistic fervour to get a grip on the changing political narrative at home? In the past historical rebellions, Chinese people have essentially played a crucial role in defining political narrative during the course of time. Starting from the Taiping rebellion in (1850-1864), one of the bloodiest civil war in human history, the Boxer rebellion against the imperialist, the May Fourth Movement and the Tiananmen Square Movement in 1989, each time when faced by a rebellion of the commoner, the Chinese government has sought to remind it, citizens of their sacred responsibilities, to their country and its people. “According to the diversionary theory of war, unpopular leaders generate foreign policy crises to both divert the public’s attention away from the discontent with their rule and bolster their political fortunes through a rally around the flag effect”. Sabre rattling, brinkmanship, military standoffs are effective diversionary tactics to subvert the attention of a nation from internal turmoil.

In 1962 China decided to launch an all-out offensive citing Indian transgression on the LAC but in essence, it was a careful and a meticulous plan to deceive India and especially PM Jawahar Lal Nehru who had courted Chinese with the slogan “Hindi – Chini Bhai Bhai” not long ago. As openly as China had been expressing its friendship with India, it had all along been covertly putting together a plan to help itself to sovereign Indian territory. Apart from the deception what Nehru failed to take into account was the changes that were taking place within China where Moa’s Great Leap Forward policy was an abject failure resulting in the death of more than 16 million citizens. China had to do something fast, forcing it towards a winnable war, Casus Belie came in the form of Nehru’s Forward Policy which began in November 1961. As per the Policy, Indian forces were to patrol as far north of the border as possible by establishing patrol posts to dominate the Chinese positions in the areas leading to the eventual domination of the Aksai Chin region. The Chinese took this patrolling by the Indian forces as an intrusion into their sovereign territory and prepared for war.

President Xi Jinping’s recent speech to the PLA  exhorted the Chinese armed forces to “prepare for war” in order to “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty” and “the overall strategic stability of the country”. This statement was a sudden departure from the placatory stance of the “Xi declaration” after his meeting with Manmohan Singh at the BRICS summit in Durban in 2013 when Xi Jinping wanted to settle the Himalayan border dispute not “gradually” but “as early as possible”. Beijing’s failed attempt at covering the spread of the coronavirus during the early weeks of its spread has caused the entire world community to hold China responsible for the massive death toll and economic destruction. With the call for the relocation of manufacturing supply chains gaining momentum, a boycott of Chinese products, It is now evident that the Chinese citizenry is wary of economic uncertainty. Once again there is a crisis brewing in China’s domestic front and yet again the Chinese blame the border situation on India’s actions. China is unhappy with the maps of the new Union Territories of Ladakh and J&K, which show Gilgit-Baltistan, where Beijing has undertaken mega infrastructure projects, as part of Indian territory; India’s take over as the Chairman of the WHO, which the Chinese fear may lead to the in-depth study into the origins of the Wuhan virus; infrastructure activities related to improving connectivity in Lipulekh, Takshing in Arunachal Pradesh or DBO in Ladakh. These are reasons strong enough for the Chinese to blame India for the current standoff. In all likelihood, China has made India the proverbial scapegoat for the second time since 1962 to exercise its might against.

Military strategies are all about timing and the PLA has had a good look at India’s Airpower during its areal engagement with the Pakistani Airforce a little over a year ago. China has observed critical gaps in India’s air capability that are wanting from the lack of beyond visual range air to air missiles (BVR), deployment of obsolete MIG 21’s, limitations of AWACS surveillance capability and an Airforce that is operating well below is minimum squadron strength to maintain effective deterrence. This understanding has perhaps given the Chinese military planners enough confidence that in case of an all-out conflagration, it will be able to suppress the Indian Airforce with its vast array of air superiority fighters, stealth and long-range bombers. In modern warfare, air superiority is usually the difference between victory and defeat. On the Naval front, although the qualitative gap might be narrower, the Chinese Navy is far bigger and better equipped than India’s and is currently giving the US Navy and allied forces nightmares in being able to operate freely inside its Anti Access Area Denial  (A2/ AD) airspace and maritime “bubble” around China’s coastline in the South China sea. What China clearly finds worrisome is the Indian Army which has an outstanding reputation for doing the heavy lifting, given enough time to prepare. The level of preparedness and escalation shown by the PLA in the Galwan Valley clearly indicates that the PLA is ready to take on the Indian Army. A win against a worthy enemy such as India will win back the receding trust of its people.

What should India do to maintain its status quo. Under no circumstances, India should accept a new reality on the ground in which it has to accept even a token loss in the territory. India should maintain a presence in the area and deploy a combination of satellite, unmanned and aircraft-based surveillance assets to achieve persistent surveillance capability which in turn would give it complete situational awareness leading to actionable intelligence. India must force China to provide maps of its perceived version of the LAC to avoid sticky situations where either party does not know if an intrusion has taken place. On the economic front, India must wholeheartedly embrace out going MNC’s that are looking to relocate manufacturing and make India the next manufacturing hub within the decade. On the domestic front, India must act with a maturity not call for the boycott China-made products, it must embrace Chinese investments on favourable terms. India must take cognizance that Chinese foreign policy is heavily influenced by domestic opinion, which keeps memories of past humiliations at the hand of the imperialists alive, triggering jingoistic and nationalistic fervour that makes it all the more difficult to find reasonable and fair solutions to border disputes with neighbours. By keeping its border and maritime disputes in a state of a controlled boil, China generates the leverage needed to escalate or deescalate the situation as and when needed. India must win back the trust it has lost with its neighbours, especially with Nepal with whom both India and China share a border. The Govt of India without foresight has cut the resources for the armed forces a dangerous move which China would have considered as a welcome step. The govt of India should immediately not only restore the budget cuts for the forces but arm the newly-raised mountain corps with modern weapons. Sanctioning it now will bolster the morale of the forces and will enable the latter not only patrol all along the LAC but be sufficient to repel any misadventure by the Chinese. While both India and China have pulled back from multiple locations along the LAC after the recent conclusion of Lt. General level talks, it has to be kept in mind that a pullback of a few KM for the moment is being done to create the right optics for further disengagement and India cannot afford to let its guard down.

(The author Siddharth Sivaraman is a post-graduate in International Relations from Paul Nitze School of International Relations of Johns Hopkins University and holds an MSc in  Finance from Johns Hopkins Business School. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.) 

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