Strategic stalemate

Young Bites. Dated: 6/2/2020 10:51:31 AM

VIVEK MISHRA After some intense physical showdown between the Indian and Chinese soldiers at the Line of Control (LAC), attempts are now being made by Beijing to dial down the conflict. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said recently that the situation at the border with India is “overall stable and controllable” and that both countries have “proper mechanisms and communication channels” to resolve the issues through “dialogue” and “consultation.” China’s apparent attempt to de-escalate tensions at the border is as quintessential a leaf from its strategic playbook as its attempt to escalate it in the first place. A few familiar patterns apropos earlier such endeavours cannot be missed. The timing of the flare-up is, perhaps, the most predictable one. A pandemic-stricken world has been brought down to its knees and India has surpassed China’s Coronavirus tally. It has now climbed into the top 10 countries worst-hit by the pandemic. To recall, in 2014, when Chinese troops intruded deep into the Indian territory even as Premier Xi Jinping was on a State visit to India, it baffled many. Why would Beijing do that? If anything, it only harmed the purpose of the ongoing bilateral talks. By now, China’s strategic charade of mixing wrong signals with publiclyperceptible good intentions is all too known. Physical assertion with an intention to send a political message that points south, deliberate obfuscation to prevent perception build-up, international grandstanding and the choice of an opportune time — all of this collectively constitute the Middle Kingdom’s new approach to heighten tensions. But there is a marked similarity that runs across modern China’s strategic behaviour. In its strategic playbook, it avoids “strength” and attacks “weakness.” As the world reels under the Corona pandemic, China seems to have controlled the spread of the virus and has now resorted to practising aggressive behaviour, thus rattling other countries. It has waged conflicts on multiple fronts. Border tension with India along the LAC has escalated; two new municipal districts to control the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands has been declared; military confrontation with Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea, too, has been launched. Besides, China has approved a controversial legislation in Hong Kong to undermine its autonomy. This, in clear violation of the initial terms of agreement between Britain and China that the former’s autonomy shall be preserved until at least 50 years. Furthermore, there’s an obvious cold war 2.0 on with the US. Wolf warrior diplomacy has been launched world over as a pre-emptive effort to counter criticism and questions of accountability. It is also resisting a global call for an unbiased probe into the origin of the Coronavirus. Above all, Xi has called upon the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “prepare for war.” All such instances have come to test China’s strategic transition into a “great power.” As countries look inward to deal with their economic, political and strategic problems arising due to the spread of the virus, China considers this as its moment to test the limits of “power transition hypothesis.” But in many ways, how China acts during the pandemic will define its future course as a “great power.” In the ongoing standoff with India, too, traits clearly point to the aforementioned test-of-its-power transition. China has opened multiple fronts of conflict along the LAC; at least one of them is a hitherto uncontested region, the Naku La Pass in north Sikkim. There are a few other peculiarities that set the ongoing border flare-up apart from earlier skirmishes. The number of PLA troops camped near the LAC is estimated to be somewhere in between 5,000 and 10,000. Although India has matched Chinese encampments and numbers, this is perhaps a new high of troop build-up by the latter in the absence of any unilateral aggression by the former. The military build-up and China’s refusal to recede is geared towards “political signalling” than to “protect” an apparent incursion into India. This subtle packaging comes at a time when India is scrambling to improve border infrastructure and connectivity in border areas. In the current context, the strategic importance of the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road, that brings India within an eight kilometre range of the strategically important Karakoram Pass, cannot be overstated. Chinese behaviour along the LAC points to a familiar pattern vis-a-vis India. Just like its traditional medical practice acupuncture, it is pressing certain points. Its assertions may often be intended to solve a deeper or a different issue. In the present case, unprovoked assertions along the LAC can be linked to a few decisions taken by India in recent times, which may have perturbed China. Among them is the Indian Government’s decision to implement three important recommendations relating to border infrastructure that was made by the Shekatkar Committee in 2016. Specifically, the work on the Sela tunnel (connecting Tezpur in Assam to Tawang) is in full swing. Once completed, it will provide all-weather connectivity to an important frontier with China in the Kameng sector.

 

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