India and China have agreed to disagree on how to disengage from their faceoff in the Hot Springs area, namely Patrolling Point 15 on the Line of Actual Control, with the 13th round of talks between the corps commanders of the two sides ending in a stalemate Sunday.
On the face of it, this is not a deeply disturbing event. The Indian side, led by Lt Gen PGK Menon “stuck to its stand”, pointing out that it was the Chinese who had disturbed the status quo last year and violated several border agreements and understandings with India.
Moreover, India maintained that an improvement in the overall bilateral relationship depends on China going back to its side of the LAC and restoring the status quo. Surprisingly, China has upped the ante by speaking of its resolve to “safeguard national sovereignty”.
Certainly, the Chinese are signalling they are here to stay in Ladakh. Only a fortnight ago, intrusions took place in Barahoti in the Middle Sector in Uttarakhand, even as Indian and Chinese troops faced-off in Tawang area in Arunachal Pradesh.
So, across the entire 3,488 km length of the LAC, the Chinese are sending the message that, as the stronger military power, they won’t be checkmated by a country that isn’t just one-fifth its economic size, but is allying with other powers such as the US, Australia and Japan – the Quad – to back its game.
Perhaps the Chinese believe their time has come. President Xi Jinping has virtually coerced US President Joe Biden to agree to a summit meeting before the end of the year – albeit a virtual one, unlike the physical meeting between Biden and Vladimir Putin last year – and Biden realises he has no option.
For the time being, Biden is holding on. There is the Trump-era determination to apply higher tariffs on Chinese goods so as to protect the domestic economy. Chinese researchers with PLA links have been charged with visa fraud while many students have had their visa applications rejected owing to alleged military links. And in July, the US rallied the European Union and all its NATO allies in accusing the Chinese government of hacking into Microsoft.
US and China happening, but not how Obama hoped
India needn’t really fear a repeat of a “G-2” type situation, a bilateral proposal floated in 2011, two years after then US President Barack Obama had famously said, “The relationship between the US and China will shape the 21st century…”
Twelve years later, that prophecy may be coming true, but not in the direction that Obama had hoped. The Chinese are a much stronger power today – running diktat in the South China Sea, then in Ladakh, then sending warplanes into Taiwan’s defence zone or warning Germany against indulging in any human rights talk because that would be detrimental to a trade relationship in which China is a key end-user of German cars.
And yet, note that India is not giving way in Ladakh, despite the fact that the odds are stacked against the Indian Army. Consider the big picture perspective: China’s GDP in nominal terms is $14.9 trillion today, while India’s is $2.6 trillion – in PPP terms, that amounts to China at $24.2 trillion and India at $8.7 trillion. While India sees China’s military as its biggest threat, Beijing views “with some concern” India’s relationship with its direct competitor, the US. Otherwise, China doesn’t see India as a “major security challenge.”
The power balance, says former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon, has shifted against India since the 1986 Sumdorong Chu/Wangdung faceoff.
According to a report by former ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale and noted economist Ajit Ranade, India needs to focus on its “domestic policy flaws which have held (it) back, and in finding the energy and intellectual capacity to address them” – such as, by igniting private investment. The sale of Air India to the Tatas could be a start.
The authors point out that it may take 20 years for “India to catch up with China”, but add that latecomers, along with a decidedly younger population as well as a more robust financial system, have the leapfrog advantage, especially with the help of technology.
China must get the message
Articles in the Chinese state media, meanwhile, make the following assumptions on India’s defence and strategic posture:
First, India considers itself a major power and while it has sped up its alliance with the US, it is buying American arms mainly to upgrade its own weapons systems and “buy support.” Second, despite India signing on to four foundational defence agreements with the US, which guarantee the sale of sensitive technology, there’s been little action since – it’s mostly talk. Third, it is the US, not India, which is pushing arms cooperation, notably to constrain India’s Russian purchases. And fourth, India won’t allow itself to be manipulated, which is why it continues to buy Russian arms.
The Chinese media also tends to ridicule India’s dependence on foreign arms purchases, seeing it as a sign of weakness as well as a continuous reliance on its non-aligned posture. Moreover, it believes PM Narendra Modi and India’s interest in seeking “absolute control” in the Indian Ocean is limited to 500 nautical miles, “medium control” up to 1,000 nautical miles and “mild control” thereafter.
But there’s something else that China may still have not come to terms with, and that is the string of relationships India is building with key powers – with the Quad, Russia as well as the European Union. If, with a little help from these friends, India is able to show to China’s friends and partners that bullies cannot be given any respectability, then New Delhi would have taken the first step.
For sure, in the short-term, these friends aren’t going to help India fight Chinese intrusions in Ladakh; but India can do its bit to change the global perspective on China by standing firm and demonstrating it’s no pushover. It can also show the world it’s willing to employ all the arrows in its arsenal, both diplomatic and otherwise, to pursue any number of talks with China, but Beijing must know it won’t be business-as-usual if Chinese troops use force at the border.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)