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Understanding China’s Attitude On The Ladakh Stand-Off

Given the vast di erences in the perceptions of the two sides and ongoing tensions, it is likely that the border skirmishes will continue for the time being


Speculation has been rife about the unduly aggressive posture of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in asserting China’s claims on the disputed territories with India, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and others. A study of Chinese aggressive behaviour in recent years by Aaron Friedberg, professor at Princeton University, indicates that such behaviour is palpable whenever Beijing feels that it is stronger and can act more decisively. Chinese strategic writings suggest that “long unresolved disputes with foreign countries can be resolved by provoking crises” to settle disputes in China’s favour.

In the present case, President Xi Jinping felt that China was presented with a strategic opportunity wherein it had largely controlled the Covid-19 pandemic and its economy had bounced back while the rest of the world was still struggling. Its main strategic rival, the USA had grown weaker, withdrawn from global a airs and was engrossed in fighting Covid-19.

Two factors, primarily, contributed to China’s decision to despatch its military on its borders with India in April. First, India’s ties with the USA, after the Doklam standoff in 2017, had grown rapidly fomenting China’s distrust of India. Yun Sun, director of the China program at Stimson Centre, USA, noted in March 2020 that the “assistance, alignment and power status” that USA had given to India in context of its Indo-Pacific (IP) strategy worried Beijing that it could hurt China’s power projection in South and East Asia, including threatening its energy supply from the Middle East.

China’s concerns about Indo-US ties

China has been alarmed at the growing strategic nexus between India and the USA as evident from the acceptance of India as USA’s major defence partner, conclusion of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), institution of 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, including Ministers of External Affairs and Defence, and the upgradation of the Quad (USA, India, Japan and Australia) Dialogue from official to ministerial level. Unfortunately, India’s e orts to address Beijing’s concerns that its ties with the USA are not aimed at China or that it favours an open IP has not alleviated China’s worries.

China’s strategic goal has always been to avoid a two-front war with the United States and India. Against the backdrop of cementing ties between India and the United States, President Xi thought of upgrading China’s ties with India to summit level in the hope that India would pursue its stated “strategic autonomy”, not align with the USA against China and not agree to the IP strategy directed against Beijing. Thus, the elevation of Sino-Indian ties from China’s view was based on exogenous factors. India, of course, viewed it differently as a means to reduce built-up tensions, reset its relations with China and manage its differences with that country.

Had the USA not adopted the IP strategy and pursued close relations with India, the trajectory of China’s policy towards India would have been very different. In China’s vision of Asia, while Beijing is at the top, India is several rungs down the ladder, given its smaller economy, defence and technological capabilities. China’s relationship with India always had had a high adversarial component as China viewed India as a potential rival and tried to contain its growth and rising influence by supporting contending Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and others, deny India a place in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and by other measures. Once the Chinese leadership came to believe that India had accepted a de facto alliance with the USA (though India has refuted such a suggestion), they started altering their policy in favour of accelerated pressure on India to dissuade her from pursuing that course.

Factors within India

Second, India’s reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir including the grant of status of union territory to Ladakh on August 5, 2019, and its improvement of several border roads connecting several strategic points in Ladakh with the Line of Actual Control (LAC) further deepened China’s suspicions that India’s actions could adversely impact its security interests in the restive Xinjiang and Tibet regions where a large number of Uighurs and Tibetans are up in arms against Beijing.

Some analysts believe that the amassing troops at the borders in Ladakh in April 2020 was a pre-emptive move by China to stymie any potential misadventure by India in Aksai Chin. China has been surprised at the stout response of the Indian military in the scuffle at Galwan Valley on June 15 and their quick manoeuvre in occupying mountainous heights like Helmet, Black Top, Mupari, Rezang La and Reqin La in South Pangong Tso on August 29 and 30.

While India has been asking China to move back its forces to April 20 positions, China is insisting that India must vacate the heights it has captured which pose a threat to China. Despite an agreement between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries on September 10, there has been no disengagement of troops and both sides are arranging logistics to tide over the winter.

Given the vast differences in the perceptions of the two sides, uneasy peace and tensions, border skirmishes will continue for the time being. A major conflagration is unlikely as the Chinese leaders are very cautious and do not undertake any military venture until they are absolutely certain of their victory. Also, China’s concentration of forces on the borders does not yet indicate that it is planning a major offensive operation (which requires about 10 times more troops than the adversary in mountainous regions).

So long as China deals with India on the basis of its ‘Middle Kingdom’ mindset, real peace will elude India. Given the huge power asymmetry between India and China, it is important that the former shed diffidence and avail all opportunities to forge deeper political, economic and strategic ties with the USA, UK, France, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and others who are also at the receiving end of China’s policies of aggression and expansionism.

08 Oct 20/Thursday                                                                                         Source: deccanherald

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