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 As if logical “proof” and convincing arguments matter in such cases, several analysts have gone about dissecting historical documents, treatises and correspondences to prove one or the other point of view right.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.