SEEMA MUSTAFA | 26 JUNE, 2020
The Triggers That Got China Into the Galwan Valley
India and China Since the Days of Manmohan Singh
China and the United States, despite the current acrimony, do have one thing in common. Both tend to treat other nations as pliant, seeking to establish a structure in bilateral relations where their supremacy remains unchallenged. Of course China does this with far more finesse, and has kept out of the military war games altogether. For now.
This is one of the primary reasons why scholars, diplomats, strategic experts with common sense and not a raging thirst for war, advise Prime Ministers past and present not to swerve from one lap to the other, but follow a policy of non-alignment. Seeking to strengthen regional forums like SAARC while joining and participating in the larger global platforms as well has been always recommended by old time diplomats as the best course. In brief, not to place all the valuable eggs key to the rise of India as a power in the region in either the US or the Chinese basket exclusively.
The caution viz Delhi has always been more about the United States, with alarm bells ringing in Beijing when Manmohan Singh decided to shift from non-alignment to a tight partnership with the United States. It was a deliberate decision with the then Prime Minister setting up a team of pro-US bureaucrats ---the current Foreign Minister Jaishankar being quite a favourite at the time-- to move the pendulum of foreign policy away from relative non-alignment to the US. To a point that New Delhi was initially reluctant to accept an invitation from Russia to join the new Shanghai Corporation Organisation as an equal partner with China. By the time it changed its mind, the power equations within SCO had subtly altered.
China for India has always been the overwhelming competitor, in the economic and geo-political space. Its ‘threat’ ( a term against which Beijing had protested vociferously under the last Congress government) has been recognised by the strategic establishment, and so also has the fact that China is not particularly interested at this stage of its global rise, in stirring the war cauldron. It also suited the powers in Delhi to keep the focus on Pakistan, with China supposedly contained in the shadows.
Every now and again India turned its attention to China, border and Tibet being the two primary issues that strained relations at different points in time. Significantly the National Security Advisor under late PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra who had actually set up this office, had the strategic ability to understand the need to keep the dragon under check. Special Representative level talks on border disputes were started, and again effort was made to ensure that tensions were managed and the pin-pricks at the Line of Actual Control were controlled. Manmohan Singh’s government continued the talks with NSA J.N.Dixit bringing infinite wisdom and diplomacy to the table. His sudden death brought M.K.Narayanan into the office, and given his Intelligence Bureau past he kept missing the shadows for the trees. And despite trying to was unable to take the talks to any breakthrough levels as his political masters were shifting the goalposts towards the US.
Singh moved diplomacy closer to Washington, and this turned talks with China from a necessity to a formality. A difference noticed in Beijing at the time, that often turned to what some politicians at the time saw as nitpicking, but was, and is, China’s way of voicing its disapproval by raising the ‘China threat’, Tibet and border issues fairly regularly. However, Singh surrounded by competent bureaucrats was able to overcome tensions each and every time with vigorous talks and sufficient effort to keep relations on a fairly even keel.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after a fairly good start, relations seem to have dipped to what many strategists now claim could well be a point of no return. Several opportunities were missed, either deliberately or because of New Delhi’s preoccupation with the US and Pakistan. In a strategic policy that moved to quickly sign pending agreements with the US, and elicit its support and silence whatever the case might be at a given point in time, New Delhi made it clear to the world that it had a big ally in not the US so much as in the personality of its President Donald Trump. The Howdy Trump show in Houston was a shout out in this direction with the Democrats watching as India pushed the eggs into the far smaller and rather cramped Trump basket.
Pakistan of course remained the whipping boy for rousing sufficient sentiments at home, and terrorism that had been placed as top of the agenda by the Congress government remained so under PM Modi, in all the conversations across the world. However, this focus allowed little attention to be paid to China in real terms except for the highly publicised meetings of PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping taking walks in the Wuhan woods or swinging in Gujarat.
That there was little substance in the photo-op seems to be clear in the hindsight of Galwan Valley. Border talks continued, top level conversations took place, but the two sides were unable to build on trust and confidence that became imperative in a nebulous and tricky relationship such as India and China. Although Modi’s initial reason for the sought after coziness with Trump was to consolidate constituencies at home and globally, he was pushed more and more by the US President to take positions against China. From a good ‘we love China and all our neighbours’ beginning, PM Modi was dragged ---and perhaps not unwillingly-- into an unmitigated anti-China stance that became visible at almost every turn of the strategic corner.
The use of the domestic machinery, media and the social media in particular, against China marked a major departure from the more diplomatic stance taken by previous governments and even by the Modi government in its initial months. The viciousness visible on the media, calling for war and for boycott of China at every conceivable juncture carried its own message that Beijing, always sensitive to propaganda, picked up almost immediately.
The revocation of Article 370 converting Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh into two distinct Union territories had alarm bells ringing not just in Pakistan but in China that protested strongly at the time. The signals of what has now come to pass in the heights of Ladakh were very visible, had the Indian establishment chosen to recognise it instead of dismissing it altogether. Shortly before New Delhi’s decision on J&K. China had issued a statement on July 26, 2019 expressing concern about the relations between India and Pakistan and urging both to resolve the Kashmir issue amicably. This was after Trump had offered to mediate if both neighbours so wanted, on Kashmir.
After the revocation of Article 370 that left Ladakh as a separate UT, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, “China always opposes India's inclusion of Chinese territory in the western section of the China-India boundary under its administrative jurisdiction.This position is firm and consistent and has never changed. The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China's territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable and will not have any effect.”
She asked India "to be cautious in its words and actions on the boundary issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides and avoid any move that further complicates the boundary issue."
However, instead of opening a dialogue and addressing concerns so as to ensure that peace held and clashes such as the one that has left 20 Indian soldiers dead did not take place, New Delhi threatened to “take back” Aksai Chin. No less than the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, the next most powerful man to the PM in government, said this in Parliament. As a former diplomat pointed out, this served as a big red rag to the Chinese bull.
These threats, the troll abuse, and the visible coziness between Modi and Trump has clearly led to a change in China policy in that it has moved into Indian territory with the clear objective of staying put until New Delhi registers a decisive change of path. It has been making it clear through its official media, and government spokesperson, that it does not want war. As a first it wants an end to trolling and threats; as a second that is kept for the consultation tables it wants India to restore the status of Jammu and Kashmir; as a third that it has referred to repeatedly through its media it wants India to climb out of the US lap for a more equitable relationship with other countries.
As a former military veteran said, the close relationship between Modi and Trump had sparked deep concerns in Beijing as the relationship seemed to be clearly anti-China. Modi’s political rallies in America, wherein he urged the Indian diaspora to support Trump did not go unnoticed. Articles that the two countries were together to check China were published freely in the Chinese media, with New Delhi giving legitimacy to these by joining the anti-China axis of nations set up by Washington.
The Global Times, China’s mouthpiece, has carried an article today under the headline.”India knows the US won't help it achieve its goals.” And stated categorically, “Border disputes between China and India did not appear overnight. There was a time when tensions posed a greater danger between the two. India did not become dependent on any other country then, and would be far-fetched to argue that New Delhi would be forced to choose sides amid the latest border clash this time.”
And referring to PM Modi’s statement that was ‘clarified’ after criticism at home, it states, “China has no intention to spark a border conflict which could lead to war. The clash in the Galwan Valley was triggered by provocations from the Indian side. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi admitted that "nobody has intruded into our border." It is clear from all the statements and articles emanating from Beijing that China has no intention of moving back from the areas it has occupied in the Galwan Valley.
It is clear that for Beijing this was the time to settle the issues that could come in its way of emerging as a decisive global power ---economically and through it militarily. Time because of India’s domestic preoccupation with the pandemic and Trump rendered a ‘lame duck
President’ in the run up to the presidential elections. India that was always ‘managed’ moved from the status of ‘irritant’ to ‘threat’ largely because of the nexus between Trump and Modi. Containment of China was Trump’s goal, and emaciation of Pakistan India’s. Both were making concessions on their relationships with the respective countries to accommodate each other for their larger objectives. While this may or may not have happened, it has certainly drawn China and Pakistan together in what could become a declared alliance against India.
Meanwhile, for now US Secretary Mike Pompeo has said that the administration is reviewing deployment of forces in Europe, "We're going to make sure we're postured appropriately to counter the PLA. We think that the challenge of our times, and we're going to make sure we have resources in place to do that…..In certain places there will be fewer American resources. There'll be other places - I just talked about the threat from the Chinese Communist Party, so now threats to India, threats to Vietnam, threats to Malaysia, Indonesia, South China Sea challenges, the Philippines.”
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