How To Read China's Increasing Aggression With India

The Defence Ministry has  revealed that  it thwarted a fresh attempt by Chinese troops (PLA) to alter the status quo at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh on the south bank  of the Pangong Tso or Lake on the night of August 29. The Chinese military angrily asserted that India had "violated the previous consensus". A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry claimed that Chinese forces had never crossed the LAC and India had made "illegal incursions".

The new developments are not surprising as Indian frustration was mounting with the PLA using dialogue to stall any further disengagement while they expand - or try to expand - their intrusions.  Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had cautioned on August 24 that the military option is available to India if dialogue fails. India reacted quickly and proactively to protect its interest in this latest incident. However, the reason for the flare-up needs study.

Both countries have domestic and international factors influencing their strategic calculus; the Covid pandemic has globally distorted markets, economies and China's relations with major nations. China, instead of being defensive about its role in pandemic's spread, has re-started its economic juggernaut and ratcheted up its territorial ambitions on land and in seas along its periphery. It has moved to exercise complete control over  Hong Kong in violation of its treaty obligations towards the United Kingdom.  After opposing the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir  a year ago, which changed the status and boundaries of Jammu and Kashmir, it caught India unawares when it started multiple intrusions into India, the first of which took place in May.

President Xi Jinping's accumulation of more power than anyone since Mao Zedong, and China's military and economic strength,  are shaping Its international conduct. It has chosen belligerence to consolidate maritime and continental territorial claims, while unfurling a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create a Sino-centric spoke-and-hub system, linking its  factories to large new markets and sources of raw material. This neo-colonial framework with the potential for building debt bubbles and Chinese control in exchange for debt write-offs was resisted mainly by the US and India. European nations (EU) appear to have  treated China as a benign trading power with a huge market and surplus capital, while China merrily poached advanced technology from companies in EU and Israel.

US President Donald Trump had been warning about this since assuming power in 2017. However, his unreliability  made the EU and others wonder if  his China-baiting was merely a negotiating tactic to obtain trade concessions. Phase 1 of the Sino-US trade agreement in January merely confirmed that in an election year for the US, China could buy a truce by continuing to import agricultural products which will see the farmers' vote rallying around Trump.  It was the global  Covid pandemic, more lethal across developed nations and US, that has created new suspicion of  China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yei flitted across Europe last week, starting with Italy, a supporter of China's BRI. He found scepticism and resistance. The Dutch statement revealed they focussed on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and the move to grab power in Hong Kong. The Norwegians gave no assurance on denying the Nobel Prize to Hong Kong dissidents. As he met French President Emmanuel Macron, France cleared another representative office of Taiwan. Only the Germans  were reticent, dithering over the possible loss of a major market in China.

In the US, Trump, having mishandled the Covid pandemic, has only two themes left: China-bashing and seeking to deflect blame for the massive public outrage to racially-motivated police killings. The six-monthly review of its trade deal with China saw the US reiterating its demand for tangible Chinese steps to deal with intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and the lifting of impediments to US financial services companies and agricultural products.

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Internally, President Xi in October faces an  annual review by  the Central Committee of Communist Party of the government's forthcoming programmes. The gathering last year had eliminated the two-term limit on Xi as President. The Chinese industrial machine may be whirring again but job losses, territorial and trade quarrels with almost all major powers on China's periphery (other than Russia or Central Asian nations) augurs a dangerous future. Exercising military strength can signal a hold on power and strength at a crucial time for the man in charge.

In handling  India, President Xi did stun the Modi Government with the  intrusions in Ladakh. The government first acted as if it were in denial.  The standoff began at a time when the extended lockdown had stalled the economy and eliminated jobs.  Having benefited  in the 2019 parliamentary election with the jingoistic Balakot narrative of measured retribution, the government now will not want to dither indefinitely over Chinese aggression. 

PM Modi's political persona means India will resist militarily at the LAC, use counter-intrusions for negotiating disengagement, block Chinese access to the  Indian market, and fatigue China into reasonableness. The danger  is that two nationalist populist leaders have domestic constituencies to handle. In that lies the risk of a sudden escalation. 

(The writer is a former ambassador to Iran.)

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