China-India Face-off & Miscalculations

China’s actions in the past weeks achieved precisely the opposite of what it wanted – it has pushed India into much closer partnerships with the west

By TP Saran

After a violent skirmish between Chinese and Indian troops at an altitude of 16000 feet in the Himalayas, in the Galwan valley on Tuesday last, that left 20 Indian army personnel (a number that may go up) and at least 43 on the Chinese side dead, there has been a calming down after intense diplomatic and higher level efforts.

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans as they protest against the killing of three Indian soldiers by Chinese troops, in Ahmedabad, India on June 16, 2020. Photo – cdn.cnn.com


Following the 1962 war in which India suffered a humiliating defeat by the Chinese army, the latter had to beat a retreat five years later when, in 1967, they lost 400 soldiers after they launched an attack on Indian territory at Noku La. After a last major confrontation in 1975 there was no incursion until two years ago in Doklam in the north eastern border, and that was also resolved with India maintaining its stand as regards its territorial limits.

In his first mandate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed President Xi Jinping with open arms in India and they inked a number of collaborative ventures. Unfortunately, this latest confrontation with loss of lives has now come to change all the parameters of the positive engagements that were under way between these two Asian powers. By all accounts, it is China that stands to lose more than to gain from this misadventure on its part.

There is no doubt that China has made tremendous strides after Deng Xiao Ping took the determining step in 1979 to open up the Chinese economy. While maintaining the communist regime, he changed gears to the market model, enabling China to emerge as a technological giant and a superpower rivalling the USA and USSR. With the advances it made in the technological fields, such as telecoms and AI, it was not surprising that China should expand its military capacity to try and bring it to the level of the two other superpowers. It still falls short but nevertheless has achieved considerable armed strength on the ground, in the air and at sea.

Pursuing its ambition to become a global power to reckon with, it started to impose itself in the South China seas, irking neighbouring countries such as Japan, Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Cambodia and other countries with an interest in the region such as Australia and the USA. China has made no secret of its expansionist plans on all fronts: military, technology, and economy – the latter with its One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) whereby it has envisaged a ‘reopening’ of the old Silk Route. Awash with money, China has pledged trillions of dollars into this project, and this money goes into building infrastructure in the countries that have signed in, in Asia and Africa.

However, of late, this ‘dollar diplomacy’, as it has been called, is being increasingly questioned as countries have realized they may land up with enormous debts that they will be unable to reimburse. ‘Repayment’ will be in the shape of a takeover by China of whatever infrastructure was built, e.g. the Hambakota port in Sri Lanka. Already there is a backlash building up, and the initial enchantment with OBOR is fading.

But what kicked off Chinese ire was US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Chinese goods and to force companies to return manufacturing to the US. Naturally, there was Chinese riposte, and this has soured relations between these two countries. Matters have worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic, with the US accusing China of hiding information about the outbreak that originated in Wuhan and WHO of succumbing to Beijing’s diktat.

And then came the violent demonstrations in Hong Kong, and the spat with Taiwan which absolutely refuses to bend to Chinese claims about its sovereignty. Besides these, Covid-19 has thrown up a new reality faced by the US and EU: the unsustainable dependency on China on supply chains. In fact, in its issue of February 29 2020, The Economist, an English newspaper, had an article on this topic, ‘Globalisation under quarantine’ wherein we read that ‘…the world is growing warier of China’ and the EU’s head of the Chamber of Commerce in China ‘expects the epidemic to intensify European discussions about industrial policy. The globalization of putting everything where production is the most efficient, that is over’.

Given these developments, where does this leave the India-China relationship? India’s Economic Times has perhaps captured the realistic atmospherics in its observation that ‘on a larger scale, China lost to India on Tuesday.’ Speculating about ‘why China undertook these intrusions into Indian territory’ the paper avers that that ‘the best guess scenario involves punishing India for its greater involvement with “anti-China” allies like the Quad. It could be a consequence of Xi Jinping needing to divert attention away from a series of troubles like Hong Kong, economic slump and a slow decoupling with the US. It could also be a way to send a message to the US and other countries that China believes is ranged against it…’

It goes on to say that ‘China may have seriously miscalculated. For one, India is now almost politically bound to take action, if the Modi government isn’t to be seen as a global walkover. Second, China’s actions in the past weeks achieved precisely the opposite of what it wanted – it has pushed India into much closer partnerships with the west. Third, much more than a military retaliation, India is likely to take more economic steps against China’.

If China had chosen to continue on the path of cooperation rather than belligerence, both countries would have had much more to gain. As matters stand, it looks as if China will be the greater loser.


* Published in print edition on 19 June 2020

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