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China’s muscle-flexing in Ladakh doesn’t mean there’s a war coming, says former NSA

Former NSA M.K. Narayanan said the key problem with the India-China border is that it is un-demarcated and undefined.

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New Delhi: Chinese foreign policy is set to become more assertive in the future, but it might still be premature to see the current muscle flexing by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Himalayas as an indication of China’s new assertive policy, said M.K. Narayanan, former national security advisor of India.

“The most important thing is not to view every skirmish as the beginning of a new war,” he said.

Former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale also argued that the two informal summits between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a communication line between the two leaders, and talking often will help prevent mishaps.

“China doesn’t want to overthrow the US-led global order, it just wants to capture the existing one and rule over it,” said Gokhale.

The two were speaking at an online seminar Friday on ‘COVID-19 & India-China Global Dynamics’, organised by the Chennai International Centre, and were joined by Tanvi Madan of Brookings Institution, James Crabtree of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Ashwani Mahajan of Delhi University and national co-convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch.

Other than the India-China stand-off, the discussion covered the change in US’ global role in a post-Covid era, the underlying currents of Indo-Chinese relations, and the possible opportunities and challenges for India going ahead.

Talking about the ongoing stand-off, Crabtree remarked that it is a good metaphor for the general India-China relationship.

“If you look at the past few years, you have two sides building infrastructure next to each other. They are testing each other’s boundaries. And such stand-offs are becoming a pattern in their relations now,” said Crabtree.

Also read: China believes India wants Aksai Chin back. PLA has likely secured 40-60 sq km in Ladakh

On the Himalayan stand-off

Narayanan urged caution when looking at the current Indo-Chinese stand-off. “What I say is a reflection of past history … the most important thing is not to view every skirmish as the beginning of a new war,” he said.

“I was there in 1959, 60, 61, 62 — the two sides try to play chess at the border … but to use the term ‘military stand-off’ is too much. As someone who has seen this situation developing over the past 50-60 years, we should see issue firmly and coolly,” said Narayanan, who had also served as the chief of the Intelligence Bureau and Joint Intelligence Committee.

According to the former national security adviser (NSA) — the key problem with the India-China border is that it is un-demarcated and undefined. “It happens that we have our perception and China has their own. Every dynasty in China has drawn their own version of the maps,” he said.

He also said that during his discussions with his Chinese counterparts, Narayanan did not sense that the “Chinese are anxious about their border conflict with India”. According to the former NSA, what makes China really anxious is India’s soft power.

“China is worried that India has many civilisational advantages over them. They are unable to comprehend Indian soft power. China wants to dominate the Asian order but not through firing guns across the border,” said Narayanan.

Also read: Chinese aggression in Ladakh also a message for domestic and external audience: Experts

On ‘Wuhan spirit’

Prime Minister Modi had come under sharp criticism for promoting a “China reset” following his informal summits with the Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan and Mamallapuram. Critics note that China has continued with its border aggression despite those summits.

Crabtree said this clearly indicates a breakdown of the “Wuhan consensus”.

Former foreign secretary Gokhale, however, did not agree with the criticism, who argued that the informal summits created an important channel of communication between the two leaders.

“The two summits might prevent a mishap from happening. They can’t really resolve all long-standing problems, but they have helped manage them,” said Gokhale.

Also read: Doklam to Galwan: Have Modi-Xi informal summits been more about optics than border peace?

US, China’s role in a post-pandemic world

Commenting on how the US might conceptualise its global role in the post-Covid era, Madan said “a lot will depend on when and how US emerges from the pandemic”.

It would take a while before we can see pandemic’s political and geopolitical impact on the US, according to Madan. “The speed on recovery would have an effect on US’ economic choices … also the resources it would have available for its foreign policy. This would determine what kind of regional or global role it wants to play,” she added.

Most of the speakers agreed that China stands to gain in the post-Covid era.

“The Chinese economy has a lot of structural problems, but as a place to do manufacturing in, China is still very hard to beat,” said Crabtree.

Given that China has been able to recover from the pandemic faster than others, it will likely gain from its inclusion in Asian travel bubbles and increased trade, he added. Moreover, the backlash against China as we see in the West, “doesn’t really exist in the West”, he said.

When talking about China’s long-term ambitions, Gokhale dismissed the notion of China wanting to build a new world order — what they refer to as the “community of shared future of the mankind”.

“It has no central point, no theory, it’s a wooly idea,” remarked Gokhale. “We need to move away from the idea of Chinese wanting a new world order. They just want to take over the existing one and rule over it. That’s why they want their initiatives such as Belt and Road to be approved by the United Nations.”

Also read: Why India won’t take sides on US-China spat over Covid, despite skirmishes in Sikkim-Ladakh

India’s challenges and opportunities

Similar to the US, how India is able to leverage the opportunities in the post-Covid era will depend on what its recovery from the pandemic looks like, said Madan. And in terms of global supply chains moving to India, the speakers felt that a lot would depend on India’s ability to conduct a series of domestic reforms.

“If they were a part of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), they could have taken relatively more advantage of the current situation,” said Crabtree. “Closing yourself doesn’t help. Nobody thought that joining RCEP would be cost free for India, but neither was joining WTO for China.”

Also read: India’s bargaining power with China and US will grow in post-Covid world


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  1. It’s not useless desert land it’s Indian territory you are pussilanimous in your approach Mao tse Tung said power comes the barrel of the gun learn to apply your mind And strength when the enemy is at the gates

  2. Why do I say, sitting in Delhi, that China will force on India a war sooner than any time in future.

    War defines a nation’s international friends and enemies. India was already caught off-guard by China who befriended all neighbours of India with its IBOR (or One Belt One Road project) that has sucked into it most of India’s neighbours. In a war with China, these neighbours will not sympathise with India in their own interests of development which OBOR brings them. All these neighbours are financially indebted to China for hugely financing OBOR.

    Russia is ever China’s ally, but will play neutral role in a war between India and China.

    The present Burmese Counsellor (it’s Chief executive) is no friend of India for India having bailed out Burma’s military for over 40 years untill she got power in Burma. Burma is also an OBOR beneficiary.

    Nepal, another OBOR beneficiary, perceives India as a regional bully allegedly for armtwisting that erstwhile Hindu kingdom which is now a genuinely secular nation which no more shares India’s current Hindutva leanings. Nepal fears that a resurgent Hindu India will fan bullying against it through Madhesis who are a financially powerful north Indian Hindu conglomerate, who are demanding in Nepal political power share more than what Nepal is willing to accommodate. Madhesis control strategic routes of essential supply from India to Nepal. OBOR helps Nepal to bypass this route to transport non-Indian essential supplies to otherwise landlocked Nepal.

    Current Sri Lankan regime is strongly pro-China.

    With implementation of NRC sure to force out efflux of tens of Lakhs of Bangladeshi muslim migrants back to that nation, Bangladesh has more to fear from a strong Hindu India than be happy about it.

    Thius, barring Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, China, and Maldives, India’s true friend is the tiny Bhutan. India will have at least a 1000 Indians who are capable of buying the whole of Bhutan with their personal wealth.

    To crown all above odds against India, stands the global pandemic- corona virus. As its result, US unemployment rate is about 15% (a 12 points increments from virus). India’s GDP has slumped to 3%, and one knows not next. Brexit has crippled British economy. Virus has forced slump in economies of all EU nations. All of them can at best offer moral support and lip service to India in China’s war with India.

    In a scenario as above, not even friendly Trump will leave aside US emergency to play partisan against China or to support India, rhetorics apart.

    Besides, the only leader of global standing who can cobble an international moral alliance against China in its potential war with India, is German Chancellor, Margaret Merkel. She has pledged to stand down as Chancellor in months from now. It will take years for Germany to elect a new political leadership to replace her, given squabbling within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and outside it.

    Hence, China has challenged India to grab a once-a-century opportunity to settle scores with almost three times greater military might on its side than what India has. While China claims to have stabilized corona impact, India stares at the uncertain.

    Added to all that, with Trump in white house, US has lost its credibility as global leader to lead a coalition against China, and thus to support India.

    Hence the current talk of western nations is to form Non-US-bocs to financially cripple China. But none of them has a leader like Merkel, Obama, Bush or the like.

    China has its compulsions to attack India too. In 2017, India forced China’s retreat from another India-China bone of contention – Doklam. Chinese retreat at that point of time appears to have been more strategic than real. That retreat disgraced president Xi-Ping, soon after he assumed 2nd term presidency for an infinite term of office. For his good image in China and in the world, and for the Communist Party of China, now after publicly calling upon his armed forces to be war-ready, he cannot retreat this time around without winning tangible results in China’s favour. China’s good result will mean India ceding ground to it, howsoever small, and in a way China not having to face public disgrace again. Hence a war appears to be looming in the air, and India has to be war-ready.

    • The only problem in the entire analysis is that we are not talking about traditional conflicts now. If push will come to shove what’s the point having a nuclear arsinal.
      Maybe all we can do is learn from North Korea. Put a few nuclear batteries combined with super aggressive approach. If you have the gun then brandish it even if you do not want to use it but let the enemy know its there if they push more.
      Use the power of deterence that both the US and Soviets used to keep each other in check for almost 70 years.

  3. The current situation in Ladakh is disturbing, and the Chinese policy of land grabbing by being overly aggressive in expanding influence is nothing new and a part of overall dirty Chinese games. At the same time, this move has been initiated by Beijing with multiple objectives.
    1. With COVID -19 outbreak, the Chinese are already in back foot as the world has started blaming the Chinese government and their institution of hiding the facts on the virus from the world community and not doing enough at the initial stage resulting immense loss to humanity and world economy.
    2. The Chinese are expecting a backlash from the world community in terms of closing /restricting of Chinese goods and services in their respective countries.
    3. In every like hood, there will be significant migration of the Chinese manufacturing sector to the emerging markets, including India.
    4. In this case ( both 2 & 3), there would be a severe negative effect on the Chinese economy.
    5. The political situation in Tibet, Hong Kong, is a significant headache for the leadership in Beijing. Besides they are not comfortable with a confidant Taiwan challenging Beijing’s ego and hegemonistic designs.
    6. The trade war with the USA is at its peak, and in case they lose, the collapse of the Chinese economy will commence.
    To divert attention from these core issues ( both to the world community and its own voiceless and helpless people , China has to show its superpower status somewhere. The latest adventure of the Chinese border guards in Ladakh and Sikkim had a clear objective in that direction and also to testing India’s resolve and preparedness to fight back the Dragon. It also may have a subtle aim of providing their all-weather friend cum proxy Pakistan in the Kashmir front.
    The Chinese leadership should understand that this kind of exhibitionism would not work out and bring about any drastic change in their current situation and status. Pragmatically they should resolve the problems with their neighbours instead of taking the illegal routes and means. If the current situation in the border goes out of control with firework, the loss of China would be much more significant than India in the current context.

  4. What a humble posture………….even a quarter of such humility with Pakistan may resolve Kashmir in 07 days !!!

    • We have humbly asked Pakistan to give back POK, they don’t agree, so I don’t know what you are talking about

    No they will not be a war, but India has started a dangerous the Race of building infrastructure in barren mountain desert. EXAMPLE hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent upgrading the road to DBO but to what avail?
    By building this road India has broken through the mountain wall to Akshai Chin.
    Why have we done this, we can never have the resources to defeat China and take back Akshai Chin.
    China has is building infrastructure in the Gulwan river as a direct response to the DBO road, these PLA troops at Gulwan will be stationed there permanently in order to dominate the new Indian road to DBO, and India in response has put a Brigade in the area.

    • Your comment means accepting China’s domination. India correctly built road which help one day to capture our territory, Aksai Chin from treacherous grabbers

    • Why should not those roads be built over there?
      Is it because those were not built in previous year so those can’t be built in the present days?
      How do you think India can’t match with Chinese might( at military level, diplomatic level, foreign & external affairs level)?
      Social security is one perspective and should not be mixed up with Defence security. No nation can trade off it’s security concern at the expense of it’s social security.

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