At a time when the latest conflict between Indian and Chinese troops on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in Ladakh has raised concerns over escalation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a perspective on how the Chinese strategic community has been analysing the situation is rather enlightening.
The development has created quite a buzz among Chinese strategic circles. While discussing the development, the key argument among Chinese strategists is that the recent border incident is India’s bid to add bargaining chip at the negotiation table.
Qian Feng, director of the research department of the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has been quoted in the Chinese media, saying that the Indian side is unhappy about the progress in negotiations and believes that China has not accepted its conditions. Therefore, to put pressure on China at the next round of negotiation, it has made an attempt to open up new confrontation points. Not just that, the Chinese side also noted with concern the news about India sending warships to the South China Sea.
In troubled waters
A Chinese military expert Li Jie argued in Huanqiushibao (the Chinese version of the Global Times) that by such actions the Indian side is sending a strong signal that if an uncontrollable conflict occurs on the land between China and India on the border, it may resort to retaliation against China at sea by targeting China’s oil and gas transport vessels, “thereby, urging the Chinese government to take proper countermeasures to deal with the disturbances at the sea.”
The second key argument is that India is working at the behest of the United States. Some Chinese strategists have been warning of late of a possible military showdown between Beijing and Washington before the upcoming US elections in November, and many see the present China-India tension as an extension to the worsening of ties between China and the United States.
“Judging from India’s troop enhancement and hardened stance at the LAC, India seems to have reached some behind-the-scenes deals with the Americans and while the latter builds up pressure on China’s eastern and southern fronts, India takes the initiative to activate the western front, so as to force China to take action, and to make it plunge into an unfavourable situation of fighting on both sides,” mentions an article in Xilu.com, an online publication on China’s military affairs.
‘India stands with the US’
Lin Minwang, a prominent South Asia watcher from Fudan University, concurs that “American political support” is crucial to India’s hardened stance against China. He further notes that since the outbreak of the epidemic, India and the United States have always maintained close communication — leaders’ calls, vice-foreign minister-level calls, and online meetings have been uninterrupted, which has encouraged India to be leading the global anti-China front. India is now more anti-China than many of the other US allies. “From the foreign policy of the Indian government it is now very clear that India has decided to stand with the United States in the great power competition,” he added.
The third argument is that the recent conflict is meant to distract Indian public opinion, given the worsening Covid situation in the country and the tanking economy and rally the public around the flag against “an imaginary enemy” China. Also, in an interesting twist, some Chinese analysts have been speculating that “this is India’s last fight before withdrawal.”
In the past few weeks, a case was being built in China that India is “softening its stance”, “seeking peace with China” and that “an early resolution of the border standoff is much in sight”, particularly referring to Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar’s recent speeches and the news about the possibility of the leaders of China-India-Russia meeting at the SCO Summit, at the BRICS leaders’ meets and the G-20 Riyadh summit.
In the same vein it is now being argued that by publicly stating that “India has successfully prevented China’s intention to unilaterally change the local status quo,” and highlighting “Indian army’s victory in this conflict”, an already “stretched-out India” (due to epidemic, sluggish economy and other reasons) has been clearing its way for a face-saving exit.
But, what has left many in China fuming is India’s “audacity” to carry out a “pre-emptive” strike against China, and that the Indian army personnel waved the Tibetan “Snow Mountain Lion Flag” at the confrontation site, the video of which went viral in the Chinese social media. Chinese social media space has been buzzing with calls for an “appropriate counterattack”.
Certain Chinese hardliners argue that if China does not respond forcefully to India’s “misadventures”, it may even seek to occupy the entire Aksai Chin, while on the other hand, the United States, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries will further up the ante against China. Therefore, a counterattack by force against India at this point is necessary, as it will not only be a counterattack, but also a way of proving the world of China’s great power credentials, mentions an article in the Utopia, a Chinese internet forum with strong Maoist and Communist ideological affiliation.
China should exercise restraint
However, not all are convinced that “impulsively investing too much attention and resources in a strategic direction that is not currently China’s primary strategic direction” is in China’s interest. Instead, they argue that starting a military conflict with India at this juncture is like walking into a trap that will drain China’s national strength and will only make its key adversary that is the US happy. Therefore, they suggest that while staying prepared for a large-scale military conflict against India, China should rather strive to control the present situation as much as possible, “without losing territory.”
“China has already occupied the strategic location of Aksai Chin, and there is no need to regain more territory for the time being. Therefore, with regard to border frictions and conflicts, the situation should be controlled as much as possible and not escalatedOnce China forces the United States to retreat from East Asia in 30 to 40 years, it can concentrate on dealing with this problematic relationship,” read another article in Maoflag.net, another Chinese website with staunch Maoist lineage.
Grand strategy is need of the hour
These strategists suggest that instead of knee-jerk reactions, it is time to devise a grand strategy against India’s “multi-pronged (political-economic-military) attacks”, focusing on three key objectives (i) Ensuring that India does not regard China as its principle strategic opponent, in place of Pakistan; (ii) Even if it does, ensuring India is not able to use all of its power in strategic competition with China, that is, exhausting its energy and resources, causing negative impact on its economic development by worsening the security situation in Kashmir, and in overall South Asia; thereby forcing India to be back at the negotiating table with a more flexible attitude; (iii) Ensuring India does not openly stand in line with the United States while competing with China, because if India openly aligns with the US that would mean “a great collapse of China’s strategic situation in the southwest and the Indian Ocean.”
For the domestic Chinese populace their message is “not to be perturbed” by the recurrent news of tension with India and have complete faith that the government and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will never compromise on China’s interest.
Therefore, going by the Chinese narrative, one can conclude that China-India relations indeed stand on knife-edge, where escalation and de-escalation seem to have equal chances.
(Antara Ghosal Singh is a researcher at the Delhi Policy Group. She is a graduate from Tsinghua University, China, and has been a Chinese language fellow at the National Central University, Taiwan)