The recent scuffles between Indian and Chinese troops in north Sikkim and Ladakh comes at a curious time when Corona Virus has put attention, blame and accountability on China. The global community has put the ball in China’s court and is demanding accountability – a norm communist governments in Beijing have neither understood nor bothered.
Historically, the Chinese response to defending itself against allegations has been to rake up existing contentious issues, thereby intending to achieve two objectives: one, to deploy force to assert its oversized ambitions and two, to flip the blame and obtain a mileage out of a crisis. In the 1960s, when Mao Zedong was facing a crisis at home, he launched into a war with India, and in 1967 while facing heat over cultural revolution, the PLA waded into battles against India in Sikkim. On both occasions, China wanted to assert its regional dominance through diversion from domestic crises. The international pressure on China’s role in Corona 2020 has now put the heat on Xi Jinping. How does he respond?
Dissection of the current imbroglio between the Indian and Chinese forces in north Sikkim therefore warrants a look at China’s actions in the last 3-4 weeks. A pattern emerges from these events. In recent weeks, post Covid, Beijing has increased its deployment of warships and flexed its influence in the South China sea. Four Chinese coastguard vessels occupied waters near Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands that have been disputed by these two countries. China’s aim was to put Japan under pressure by reopening a dispute at a local level. Philippines protested the inclusion of its territories in Chinese waters recently. It is no different with Vietnam, who have objected to China forcibly establishing its presence on islands in the South China Sea.
How does India fit in? India recently upped the ante against Pakistan by challenging the Pakistani supreme court’s decision to hold elections inside POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and also by including it in India’s weather updates. China responded to India’s growing assertiveness by turning aggressive at the Sikkim border and in Ladakh. Why Sikkim? In 1967, India defeated China’s ambitions of controlling the watershed ridge at the border, which would have enabled China to dominate the Siliguri corridor in India. India’s victory in 1967 ensured that China was kept away from the Siliguri Corridor and it thus could never interfere in the 1971 India-Pakistan war which led to the creation of Bangladesh. China has, however, remained the biggest supporter and sponsor of Pakistan. It has also benefited by having its CPEC corridor run through POK.
The recent scuffles between Indian and Chinese troops in Eastern Ladakh and North Sikkim are a manifestation of China’s response to India’s signal of intent on POK. India and China have a 3,448-km border that straddles the Himalayan ridgeline in an east-west alignment. A clash, not involving weapons, erupted between the two armies on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso (lake) in eastern Ladakh injuring a number of soldiers. More significantly, in the east, local PLA commanders along the border in north Sikkim have been given green signals to launch into actions, just like the last time the two countries tussled without weapons in Doklam in 2017. It is a manifestation of aggressive nationalism that China has historically resorted to, to counter an issue or crisis. This time, the fallout of Covid and Pakistan puts India in a driver’s seat as a regional influencer and a possible alternative to China.
What does all this mean? For all of its aggressive intent, it might seem that the Chinese military strategy lacks creative nous. It is because one might think it is trying to bulldoze its way at the border despite having been upstaged by India on previous occasions. However, China’s strategy is one of incremental slicing. The approach is three pronged in the case of implications arising from Corona.
The first prong is in asserting strategic regional dominance and gaining psychological ascendancy. At the moment, Vietnam and India are potential substitute markets for many western corporations while Shinzo Abe has announced a move to take Japanese firms out of China. The recent Chinese posturing towards Vietnam, Japan and now India are all in keeping with the collective enemy that intends to topple Chinese global plans post Covid. The recent case of the Chinese media claiming Mt Everest as part of China- which evoked consternation amongst Indians and Nepalis – is in keeping with the goal of letting India know that China is the bigger regional power that has the muscle to metaphorically move the greatest mountain on earth. Let us also dismiss any notion that this might be an accidental claim: such accidents don’t happen with Beijing.
The second aspect is to build a line of comfort with allies and maintain global interests. In the current scenario, a politically vulnerable Pakistan remains one of China’s few allies in a shrinking boat of supporters at a time when the CPEC runs through an essential ground in POK. India’s recent statements about including POK in its ambit could have been a trigger for this sudden Chinese bravado. The third prong is an ironical cliché. The more China changes, the more it remains despotic, which means that like Mao Zedong in the communist 60s, Xi Jinping in the digital 2020s believes that the best way to divert domestic opposition to the government’s handling of Corona is to turn its guns towards an external enemy with that one clarion call: hypernationalism.
China is trying to push India psychologically on the backfoot – post Covid. The Ladakh brawl, which took place near one of the places where bloody battles were fought during India’s disastrous 1962 war, is a symbol of that attempt by China to assert itself psychologically and remind India of its past setbacks. However, the issue in north Sikkim is part of a larger, more sinister game. With an eye on reviving its threat on India’s Achilles heel, which is the Siliguri corridor, China wants to increase the pressure around the area. In Doklam in Bhutan, China has been furtively working to recommence its crawl into Bhutanese territory. They are aware Doklam in 2017 didn’t work. Therefore, the aim would be to increase the number of conflict points over a targeted, vulnerable area: like thrusting many needles along the border, so that it bleeds badly someday. Sikkim 2020 could be a part of a rejigged Chinese plan that India needs to be wary and well prepared for.
(Probal Dasgupta, a former Indian Major, is Author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China)