China policy and strategic challenge

The ongoing standoff between India and China over the strategic “tri-junction” near Sikkim has resulted in a flurry of articles in online as well as traditional media. Most of the press in China itself (at least the English language versions which have been quoted extensively in Indian media) has been jingoistic, threatening and ominous. This is matched by equally solemn and grave messages from official Chinese circles only watered down as little as usual courtesies of diplomacy demands. There has not been even one article or Op-ed that says “Why don’t we figure out what the Indians really want and see if we can accommodate if that is reasonable?”

On the contrary India media has its share of leftists that advocate caution and even recommend acceptance of Chinese “demands” and overall suzerainty.

At the outset we have to be clear on what this crisis is NOT about – the so-called tri-junction in Doklam where, depending on who you believe, India has occupied some Chinese territory in a 1962 style blunder of aggression or the other way around. As if logical “proof” and convincing arguments matter in such cases, several analysts have gone about dissecting historical documents, treatises and correspondences to prove one or the other point of view right.

You may choose to believe in such fantasies if you choose to believe that China supports LeT / JeM terrorists because “it is not convinced over evidence” or vetoes support at NSG because “it is worried over selective exemptions”. China (or for that matter any superpower) treats treaties, conventions and past assurances as valid only as far as they serve its own interests. Even the agreement with Britain over Hong Kong as has been trashed as irrelevant, although it’s text or content, semantics etc. are no way in dispute.

Talking of flights of fantasies you have to read this article by Prem Shankar Jha for Wire. It seems we have misunderstood the Chinese who are building roads because Chinese companies are running low on order books! I suppose our comrades in media will say China is firing bullets because they have surplus steel.

John Garver seems to have his pulse on the real source of trouble in this excellent article from South China Morning Post. The simple fact is, China is pissed off because India has not accepted it as the regional “dada” or “Don” and wants to run its own fiefdom. The Narendra Modi government has gone further down this blasphemous track by engaging Japan, Vietnam, USA etc in ways China sees as a clear threat to its rise as unquestioned Asian superpower, a necessary step for global domination. So it wants to turn the screws. As simple as that.

Now the situation can be analysed as:

  1. The alleged misdemeanors on India’s part simply a matter of misunderstanding or deliberate? Unlikely it is high school playground type misunderstanding or it would have been cleared off long ago.
  2. If deliberate, were they a reaction to similar Chinese perfidies which may or may not be deliberate? Again we are constrained to assume that this question has been posed to PRC and replies unsatisfactory or unconvincing.
  3. In other words, we are left with the assumption that Indian actions that offend China are the result of deliberate policy caused by factor over which China has done little or wants to do little to assuage Indian anxieties for its own good reasons.
  4. Which leads us to the natural next question – has India, like any good chess player, thought through the possible reactions from China, including the Doklam type standoffs and worse? Or has it simply muddled along and poked China perhaps under estimating the ferocity of China’s reaction? Our leftist media has lobbed precisely this charge at the Modi administration.
  5. Even if the “muddled along” assumption is true, one can safely assume that having seen the ferocity of the bite-back, India would pull back, once given some “face” and try some other trick to get back into the game after a cool off period. Particularly if the messages coming from Tokyo and Washington through private diplomatic channels is “You are on your own, son!”. One has to credit that much intelligence, patriotism and common sense to Narendra Modi and his Government.
  6. What if India predicted this sort of rabid reaction from across the Himalayas, and its strategy had always factored it in? What if help has been offered by powers that be? We will never know until it is too late. It means that India will not buckle so easily even if China escalates along other vulnerable sectors. What the result of such a confrontation would be is not for us to predict. Too many variables are at play, including timing, location, preparedness, security of supply lines, Tibet situation, international outcry, etc etc.
  7. It is of course, entirely possible that India has miscalculated its strengths and may get a bloody nose, as in 1962 or perhaps worse. But will this help China in any way? Chances are low. Capturing or holding territory in the North East (best case scenario for China) could make things worse. It would have only earned another century or more of unrelenting hostility. India would officially bid goodbye to ambivalent “strategic independence” and sign up lock stock and barrel with Uncle Sam’s camp.  Trump unlike diamonds, is not forever.
  8. We are assuming here that the scenario doesn’t descend into all out nuclear war in which case, oddly enough, things are easier to predict – India will probably cease to exist as a nation state, even as China suffers unacceptable damage. Precisely the sort of predictions that are offered regarding India Pakistan conflict descending into nuclear exchange.

What next?

The sensible course for China would be to stay focused on its primary mission – challenge USA as the global supercop & WBC champion. If it thinks India is a speed bump in that path better to sit down and discuss what is it that it can do to remove that irritant. If it means watering down the “sweeter than honey” relation with Pakistani terrorists, it should have the maturity to say “So be it”. This is because India is not trying to replace China as Asia’s No. 1, it is simply asking for a place in the sun for its own ambitions which need not threaten China’s.

And the sensible thing for India to do, even if it has thought through the scenarios and feels it can play this tough game, is to do exactly the same – sit with China and find out how much “kowtowing” is expected of it and can safely be done without sacrificing core interests and if that will keep China happy.

The logic of this argument is quite simple: We are no superpower and not going to be there anytime soon. Regardless of who we sign up with, some amount of strategic kowtowing is going to be necessary. After all, the only other game in town, Uncle Sam, is not offering any free passes. Why not sign up with our nearest neighbour? They are Asian, shared culture and can probably help tame Pakistan and let us focus on growth, something USA has not managed to do. If China does well and manages to trump US in the great game, we can heave a sigh of relief that we are in its good books and if it comes worse off, we can always resume the mini-great game. Sounds enticing?

But we are not too enthusiastic about signing up for pax-Beijing as an also-ran and probably a deputy sheriff for South Asia (Pakistan excepted). Others that have gone down the slavery route – Srilanka’s Rajapakse, Philippines’ Duterte among others, have very little to show for it.

It should also think carefully about the timing of any limited or unlimited conflict with China and the state of its own readiness in economic, military and other ways. The present standoff doesn’t appear to be initiated by India.

Of course, as Nitin Pai puts it if China has made up its mind to “teach India a lesson” and India has determined it can meet that challenge head on and give the Chinese some Hindi lessons of its own, nothing much can be done by us ordinary folks other than pray that the damage is not too high and that we emerge victorious.

 

 

 

Peace after Pathankot

It had to happen. It was a question of when and never if. The biggest question, of course, is, “What next?”.  Let’s us look at that question

What next?

The options are quite simple to list out even if they are quite complicated to choose from. After all, logically there can be only these

  1. Carry on with talks as if nothing happened
  2. Carry on with talks but restrict topic to incident and terror in general.
  3. Call off talks

Did I miss any? Of course, any of the above options can be pursued with or without mounting a retaliatory strike, either covertly or overtly or both. That is an entirely different matter altogether.

Good Pakistan’s response is the key

What is the underlying logic behind the resumption of talks in the first place? It goes along following lines: “Not all Pakis are terrorists, there is a strong constituency for peace and coexistence, if not brotherhood, that should be engaged“. Then there are more altruistic drivers such as “the civilian regime has to be strengthened to weaken military’s hold on the country” etc.

The hope here is that over time, the peace lobby will gain strength, the anti-peace ones (aka mullah/military cabal) weaken and we all happily live ever after.

If this indeed was the logic it makes absolutely no sense to call off talks after one incident, however, major.

But the key would be the response of the “good Pakistan” to this incident. If the good boys pretend as if it is not their problem or present a long list of demands to even consider some action on the terror front, then calling off talks would be logical.

That looks like Option (2) doesn’t it? Yes. Initially at least, talks have to be around the incident itself in order to gauge good Pakistan’s response. If some sort of assistance is offered, and followed through, it makes eminent sense to upgrade talks to Option (1). Such assistance or reassurance could range from covert action against some of the JeM players (overt may be too damaging to Pakistan’s own internal stability even if accepted), to even oral assurances from military to rein them in, if this has not been offered as yet.

If the response is that “look, we are not in control of these loonies, what can we do?“, India has to present a list of things they CAN do, to offset. For example, handing over Dawood could be one. Transit concessions, MFN etc., could be others. They can even be asked to warn us in advance and share intelligence, instead of simply opening a pack of popcorn to watch the show.

In other words, there has to be some quid pro quo. It cannot be that Pakistan insists on the entire Kashmir issue (and all else) to be solved to its satisfaction, simply to move an inch on any other front.  We cannot be taken for a two year fool’s ride, like Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani, bending over backwards and yet getting nothing in return.

Covert or overt retaliation

No government can take this option off the table. Question is what will be the trigger level of provocation for each set of response. It also is a question on capabilities. Do we have the means to inflict damage to “bad Pakistan” without hitting the good boys? As Mohammed Taqi points out in his interesting column, (The Wire) Pakistani generals have chosen a calibrated provocation. It requires a nuanced response.

Regardless of what we do or don’t do, silly macho comments by responsible members of government and the ruling party should cease. That serves no purpose and in fact ends up increasing pressure on PM Modi. There are no ‘training camps’ to raid. The entire country is one.

Here the best option appears to be to work with alone as well as with Afghan, Iranian and other intelligence in the short term to inflict some sort of pain. In the medium term, capacity building for stronger action should be pursued.  This has been seriously damaged by IK Gujral and the UPA regimes.

Given the deep distrust of the whiskey sipping Generals and the Pakistani establishment among the purer green cadre, it should be easy to find factions or groups more than happy to take a kufr’s aid to bring more purity to Pakistan, the land of pure. Balochi groups may be even more happy to help out, given their desperation for outside help in fighting an asymmetric war with the brutal Pakistani state.

But any such action has to be proportionate and carefully targeted to avoid needless escalation. The sole objective should be to send a message.

Prognosis

Chances are, India’s experience will be no different from Afghanistan’s. In other words, even as we keep talking, Pakistan would continue to mount covert attacks and pretend that they don’t control the show as much as they are thought to.

That’s when a serious call will have to be made on the entire matter. Unpalatable options may have to be given fresh look.

But until then, talks should go on. At least we can turn around to the international community and say, “look, we tried”.