Politically, Sharad Pawar often gives mixed signals. He has clarity when he goes beyond domestic power games. For example, when he said that China was trying to encircle India.
The only problem with this, however, is that it isn’t the full truth. Because China isn’t trying to encircle India. At this point, China is succeeding in encircling India. The choke-hold is getting tighter.
As we end this festive week, the Chinese propaganda machine is churning out a series of videos from the Galwan clash of June 2020. These display Indian soldiers they had taken captive for three days, and other provocative images and threats.
This is topped by war-like commentary on Global Times or other Chinese weapons of psychological mass destruction. The reaction from Beijing to Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh wasn’t an unfamiliar one. Just that the intensity, and the words used, were.
All this is manoeuvring, but not yet encirclement. That’s happening elsewhere. With Pakistan obviously, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and now Afghanistan. There is an intensifying Chinese relationship with Iran, Turkey and some Central Asian republics.
The latest, in fact as we write this column, is the breathless releases from Chinese state media claiming a border agreement with Bhutan. It doesn’t say so in as many words, but suggests that this has happened or is happening in spite of India. For effect, it also counsels Bhutan how it let its interests suffer by letting India insert itself in its dealings with China over Doklam.
Within the region and beyond, the Chinese are trying to tell every country who’s the boss in this neighbourhood, or the dada of the mohalla. In Eastern Ladakh, the Chinese came prepared with much hardened positions for the 13th Corps Commander-level talks, and issued offensive ‘take-it-or-you-won’t-even-have-it’ statements.
As psychological warfare goes, they are being quite transparent. Why, and what is it that they want to achieve, is the question. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was right in his Vijayadashami speech, talking about a China-Pakistan-Taliban-Turkey nexus. It is just that while his diagnosis was right, the treatment he suggested wasn’t. We will conclude with why.
Given India’s complex relationship and continued military dependence on Russia, at least for another decade, New Delhi tends not to talk very much about the concerns emerging from there. But Vladimir Putin is now talking far too often like a Xi Jinping/China fanboy. Note his statement earlier this week that China doesn’t even need to use force to take Taiwan; its peaceful absorption is an inevitability given how strong China is.
All of this makes the strategic picture dire for India and the Modi government in its eighth year. The big opening gambit in 2014, to make a grand deal of some sort with Xi Jinping, has failed entirely. Simply because China never accepted India as an equal. It is now acting as if to remind India that the power gap has only increased.
On the surface, the strategic balance sheet looks heavily loaded in favour of China. It may or may not have taken some territory in Ladakh, but it is most certainly denying India access to sizeable areas its patrols visited.
It has brought the other dormant border regions, the Barahoti plains in the central sector and Tawang in the east, to life. In Ladakh, China’s deployments have grown, and begun to look permanent.
Despite all this, the Chinese continue to earn even more from trade with India by way of surpluses. As a report by Pia Krishnankutty in ThePrint showed, they’ve already run up a surplus of about $47 billion, not only topping the entire 2020-21 surplus in just nine months of 2021, but seeming poised to break the record of $63.05 billion.
At which point we should also take a closer look at the other column, costs and losses. First of all, whatever the Chinese may have achieved in eastern Ladakh, their ability to repeat the first-mover advantage in any other place is grossly limited now. As that PLA patrol in the Tawang region found out. It costs money and much stress to Indian armed forces, but they are ready.
Every rude nudge from the Chinese pushes India closer to the US, and gradually, away from Russia. It’s the Chinese who finally gave the Modi government the impetus to sign the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) and other strategic sharing agreements with the US, which had been in deep freeze for almost 15 years.
Within the Indian strategic establishment, political universe and the commentariat, China’s behaviour is achieving what we might have seen as an impossibility: Scraping away the anti-Americanism ossified in our collective heads over seven decades. C. Raja Mohan, who I respect as the finest and the most innovative mind in Indian strategic debate for decades now, points out to me that once the LEMOA with the US was done, India signed a similar deal with the French as well. It had begun to look so routine by now that most of India’s defence press corps didn’t bother taking notice of it. So, thank you Xi Jinping for opening our eyes.
The figures on trade I just listed look ugly for India. This advantage may, however, be short-lived. We might still be sceptical on the Atmanirbharta push. But China is now fully out of India’s telecom and high-tech sector. Most of the Western world, led by the US, has blackballed its 5G technology. For any territory the Chinese may have taken or denied India in Ladakh, they are paying a price. It isn’t visible in terms of military casualties or territorial losses, but one of their biggest markets will eventually be lost.
How does the picture look for Xi Jinping? His economy has hit several bumps, the debt overhang being one. To consolidate his own totalitarian power, he has gone after his tech sector, social media, edutech sector, top entrepreneurs, and increasingly now, Western investors are wary of dealing with China.
Within our immediate neighbourhood, his most critical ally, Pakistan, is probably is in its worst state in three decades. Its GDP now smaller than Tamil Nadu’s GSDP. The joke of a Taliban victory is an albatross around its neck, the forthright language used by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman last week reminded the Pakistanis they could no longer count on the Americans bailing them out with the IMF, World Bank and other such.
Their economy is broken, the rupee has collapsed, there are shortages and rampant inflation, and the Chinese never give any money for love or loyalty. You can guess how much the Turks can help besides selling some drones if Pakistan can afford to pay for them. Can they afford to start trouble with India? At this point, they can’t even appoint their new ISI chief.
The Chinese encirclement is getting tighter. The RSS chief was right in identifying the threat. But his solution, strengthening the security at the borders, is flawed. He should know from the history he might have read, and which he believes in, that for more than a thousand years in India, the defenders always lost, no matter how high and formidable their citadels, how brave their fighters.
Nobody won a war by dying fighting. Defenders facing unequal threats need to build alliances. That takes time. It needs peace and stability at home. You don’t buy yourself that time by re-lighting old fires within your own walled city, like the National Register of Citizens (NRC). You can’t call Hindus and Muslims of India the same people one day and start worrying the next day whose numbers are rising faster, if at all.
We understand the electoral compulsions, the desperate need for the BJP to have at least 50 per cent of the Hindus vote for them in Uttar Pradesh in a few months. For that, you need polarisation, put your own Muslim compatriots on the “other” side. This is how your domestic politics runs contrary to your national, strategic interest. India can fight China, despite its five-times GDP. But not with a divided house.
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