Chinese president Xi Jinping | Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
File photo | Chinese President Xi Jinping | Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
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In the past few days, attention has been riveted on the India-China border where a series of stand-offs have taken place between the armed forces of the two countries. In one instance, at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, China has violated the status quo intruding into territory that is clearly on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, or LAC. The stand-off there continues even while bilateral mechanisms set up to handle such incidents have been activated.

The eruption of multiple incidents across both the eastern and western sectors of the border within a short time span of a couple of weeks points to higher-level coordination and command. The political intent behind them needs to be understood as also the overall context in which they are taking place.

The political intent is quite simply to put India on the defensive, convey China’s ability to create trouble at the border at will and persuade New Delhi to stay clear of actions by its adversaries, in particular, the US to confront China whether on the coronavirus investigations, the resumption of Taiwan’s observer status at the WHO, and now the extension of China’s national security law to Hong Kong in violation of its commitment to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years under the ‘one country two systems’ pledge made in 1997.

This aggressive behaviour is part of a pattern which we are witnessing in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, where similar incidents have been taking place. This is accompanied by what has come to be known as ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ referring to a very popular thriller movie Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), in which Chinese commandos rescue Chinese citizens caught in a violent war in an unnamed African country. The message is — no one messes around with China.


Also read: More ‘Ladakh clashes’ emerge as India-China tension turns into social media battle


Hubris and insecurity

Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter and other social media to counter-attack any criticism of its handling of the pandemic, or on any other issue. The language used is often crude and offensive. This kind of overt and even brazen assertiveness is new and appears to have been sanctioned by the Chinese leadership. There is an odd mixture of hubris and acute insecurity behind this posture.

Hubris comes from the perception that China’s only rival, the US, is in terminal decline and retreating from its expansive global role. This is leaving behind a power vacuum that only China, as the world’s second-largest economy and military power is capable of filling. The Covid-19 pandemic may have hit China badly, but it is also the first major economy to begin recovery. This gives it a first-mover advantage while others are still deep in a health-cum-economic crisis. There is an influential section of the leadership that believes China must move quickly to expand its power before other major powers recover. This explains the hardening of position on Hong Kong and Taiwan. The ‘one country two systems’ in Hong Kong is dead and with it, the pretence that the same could be applied for the peaceful unification of Taiwan. The prospect of a forceful takeover of the island is suddenly no longer distant.

Parallel to this overweening ambition is deep insecurity that comes from a sense of siege on the pandemic question. Despite its heavy duty propaganda, China has been unable to dispel the widespread global perception that it had covered up the spread of the virus in the initial stages and allowed it to become a pandemic, causing immense suffering and economic disruption across the world. It has had to acquiesce in a consensus decision at the recent World Health Assembly on the conduct of an independent investigation into the origin and the spread of the virus. Its conclusions may be politically inconvenient.


Also read: Senior Indian, Chinese military commanders set to meet to defuse Ladakh tensions


Stability of the regime

On the economic front, the trade war with the US is bound to intensify, and there is a sense of caution on expanding economic ties with China among European countries and Japan. China has shown its willingness to retaliate with economic measures if it is crossed. We have seen this most recently with Australia, a major trade partner. It may have to live up to this reputation with respect to Canada, where a recent judgment has upheld the US request for the handing over of Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei, in a case involving violation of US sanctions on Iran. This comes at a time when Hong Kong’s special status as an autonomous economic entity, entitled to American trade preferences and less restrictive technology controls, may be lost as the US reacts to the extension of China’s security law to the former British colony.

Hong Kong has played a very significant role as China’s interface to the capitalist world and as a global financial centre. There will be a major setback to China if that status is lost. China has a massive debt overhang of about 300 per cent of its GDP. These economic vulnerabilities lie at the heart of the sense of insecurity because they may undermine regime stability. This is why we also see commentaries counselling restraint and even a return to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “taoguang yanghui” or keeping a low key and not seeking leadership.


Also read: Chinese troops blacktopping track in disputed ‘finger’ area in Ladakh amid border tensions


No place for hegemony

There are tensions within the Chinese leadership on these issues and how they are resolved will also impact the course of India-China relations. One thing is certain. Even if there is a US retreat from its global role, itself a debatable proposition, China is not yet capable of stepping into its shoes. There is a cluster of major powers that are also expanding their profile in their own regions. Asia itself is a crowded and contested geopolitical space and India is a major player.

China will have to learn to live with a multipolar Asia and a multipolar world rather than seek singular hegemony.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary and is Senior Fellow. CPR. Views are personal.

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. In a general sense CCP diplomacy verges from crass condescension to those viewed as its inferiors to crude belligerence to those viewed as pretenders, such as India, to bare-fanged threats to her perceived equal, the US. The author is right, the CCP operates not from a position of confidence but from the realm of insecurity. For the ruling CCP knows that it has no legitimacy to rule. Hence to hold on to power it has to be the guardian of Han dignity , pride and a dispensary of a fat wallet. There is no regime in the world today more fearful of the free flow of information than the CCP. If the Covid infection does result in the weakening of the CCP’s ambition to fashion China as the world’s factory then rest assured that it will lash out to rouse Chinese pride and dignity. What better way than to tell the Chinese people that countries such as the US and India constitute a threat to the “growth and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, whatever that means. And that spells trouble for India as the CCP will not take on the US militarily; instead, like a wounded predator, it will be looking for a secondary kill.

  2. China is trying to frighten India into toeing China’s line Internationally on COVID 19, WHO, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
    So these can be taken as “nudges”.
    However, China has been vulnerable for some time now as it is over extended and has antagonized the World.
    In this situation, India has an opportunity to leverage China’s vulnerabilities for obtaining material advantage in terms of a favorable border demarcation or even militarily shoving China in on itself by taking an aggressive initiative.
    But India must be cautious as if it engages China militarily it will take the brunt while other powers may step in as the US did in WW2 or Mao in China after the contenders (in this case India and China) have ground each other down.
    The best way for India to proceed now is to seek an international coalition which choreographs a feather plucking of China with India pushing from the South by land, the US pushing over sea from the Pacific and Russia pushing over land from the North.
    In the mean time, thrash any Ching Chong China man who messes with the Army at the border as China is fully aware that it is vulnerable at this point of time and cannot push too much.
    Most importantly, India must NOT toe China’s line and MUST rather castigate China over COVID 19, Hong Kong, Tibet, in international forums and impose sanctions on imports from China as India has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
    If India resorts to its default “strategy” of Nehruvian-Gandhist Modiform appeasement, China will thrust itself further into India as Islam (Indian and Pakistani) did in 1947, and has been doing ever since, encouraged, rightly, by Indian (British made “Hindu”) appeasement as a sign of willing weakness.
    Right now, India has succumbed at the WHO by pushing a resolution on COVID 119 that is as bland and sans analysis or objective as India’s Education Policy.

  3. With due respect to the author, the title of his article suggests something very unlikely. Countering words by words is so much easier, and oranges for oranges kind of a thing, and more becoming of the serious and mature men who occupy seats of power. Countering words with BLOWS is something we boys used to do on the kerb outside our school gate.
    Simple and straightforward explanation according to my uncluttered mind is that by talking hegemonically about POK etc right after the abrogation of 370, Narendra Modi has given legitimacy to China’s perennial hegemonic obsessions. If any territorial harm comes to our beloved India as a result of the present situation, the blame will lie at the doors of our own fake-bravado, disconnected, dimwits of the BJP

  4. Yes this is on point. Many in the world are insisting that china will step in the US shoes of the superpower. It’s just not going to happen. Geographically China is in a very tough spot relative to the US. It’s neighbours area all hostile towards the Chinese hegemonic intentions. Economically it’s model is not one where it can allow it’s allies to grow. Demographically it’s picture seems not very encouraging either owing to the one child policy. Technologically China is still very much behind the us and Europe. Militarily their hardware although commendable, is still having issues.
    AlSo the US became the superpower because of the specific conditions that arose post ww2. Those conditions don’t exist today. It is nearly impossible to create the same results as the us did post ww2 today even for the US with all its might.
    Thus it’s important for china to realize this and not live in a fantasy of a china ruled world.

  5. What a sad way of seeing life. The Chinese Government are coming from a wrong space and a completely wrong perspective about Life. They are to be pitied in their poor interpretation of what life actually is. They literally killed off their Inteligensia and this is the result of those murderous actions under Maoist Directions. They now have lower-order minds as a consequence. Heaven help the World from what their dulled, retrograded, senses will manifest in future years.

  6. India should make every effort, covertly and overtly, to stifle Chinese growth further.
    This country is much more dangerous as compared to US.
    Once, China realizes that it is not possible to bully whole world, which should now be united to ake on this bully.

    • Yes, you`re very correct in what you say, Pankaj. They are determined to be a threat to the rest of the World in their egotistical ambitions to be at the top.

    • Chinese growth is already down. The numbers out of Beijing are not reliable and don’t present the reality. It’s a consensus that China is growing at less that half the rate it is claiming.

  7. Notwithstanding Mr.Shyam Saran’s psychoanalysis, now China sits on the top of the heap of ruined world, not to speak of grabbing land and sea space from the neighbours. China’s sense of seige be damned! Now, this is interesting. What is this debt overhand of 300% of GDP of China? Tell us more about it and cheer us up!

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