The Chinese leadership has two problems. Staving off an international scientific investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic because it could trigger enormous demands for reparations, and concurrently repair the global damage to its standing.
A democracy would have dealt with it differently. It would have welcomed and cooperated with an inquiry and acknowledged or differed with its findings. It would have leveraged its soft power patiently to slowly undo the image deficit caused. However, China is an authoritarian capitalist oligarchy whose leadership is punch-drunk on hubris.
Creating flash points
The Chinese leadership, therefore, has started lashing out on all sides trying to create strategic and tactical flash points to somehow make the – ‘China is responsible for the contagion’ – headline go away.
It has stoked tensions in the South China Sea by unilaterally announcing on 18 April 2020 the establishment of two new administrative structures, prompting the US Navy to launch its fifth freedom of navigation operation in the past five months.
It has belligerently taken on US President Donald Trump and other world leaders who are publicly calling for an ‘origin’ investigation into the Covid-19 epidemic. It has drastically altered its relationship with Hong Kong by partially enacting a new security law that fundamentally transforms the ‘one nation two systems’ paradigm.
It has encroached into Indian territory and, according to an estimate by the former Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag, illegally occupied between 40-60 sq km of Indian territory in the Galwan River area and on the Indian side of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh. It has also encroached into Indian territory in Naku La in north Sikkim.
Thus, in a short span of one month, China has created a maritime, land-based and a sovereignty flash point, each with short-term eyeball grabbing potential and longer-term strategic and tactical advantages.
China’s established pattern
This behaviour is not surprising. The Chinese leadership, from 1947 onwards, has always resorted to obfuscation and deception to deflect from its failures and internal crises.
A classical and often un-analysed aspect is the correlation between the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the 1962 War with India. The Great Leap Forward was a five-year plan of forced agricultural collectivisation and rural industrialisation that was instituted by the Chinese Communist Party in 1958 and abandoned in 1961. It occasioned a drastic shrinking of the Chinese economy and was responsible for 30 to 55 million deaths due to starvation, execution, torture, forced labour, and suicide out of harassment. It was the biggest distinct, non-wartime pogrom of mass killing in human history.
It is another matter that the Chinese were able to get the erstwhile Soviet Union on board for the 1962 aggression against India as a quid pro quo for keeping quiet on the Cuban missile crisis initiated by the Soviet leadership. Similarly, the Sino-Vietnam conflict had as much to do with the evolving leadership dynamic within the Chinese Communist Party post the death of Mao Tse Tsung as it did with the situation in Cambodia. Deng Xiaoping assumed the leadership in December 1978 and Chinese troops entered Vietnam in March 1979.
Thus, there is a clearly established pattern to the Chinese behaviour. Create a new crisis to push the previous one out of sight.
Stare China down
Should the Chinese leadership be allowed to get away with it this time around again? The answer is no.
The world needs to stare the Chinese squarely in the eye. There are five things that must be done.
First, the call for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 must be taken to a logical conclusion. Second, Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO) must be reinstated. Third, China’s disproportionate influence in the institutions of global governance must be substantively diminished through collective action beginning with a summer cleaning of the WHO.
Fourth, the quad between the US, India, Japan and Australia must be formalised to keep the Indo-Pacific free of malefic Chinese influence. Fifth, the international community must unite to, if necessary, sanction China to keep democracy and liberty alive in Hong Kong.
Modi govt’s border conundrum
That leaves the question of dealing with the border encroachment carried out by China in Ladakh and north Sikkim. There, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government will have to carry the cross alone, keeping the possibility of a China-Pakistan link-up in Sub Sector North in mind.
For starters, the Narendra Modi government must tell India what is really going on. Are Generals Panag and Prakash Menon correct that a ‘Lakshman rekha’ has indeed been breached? If so, what is the extent of the transgression and what does the government intend to do about it?
Unlike the maritime domain, where shared interests are at play, here, India is virtually on its own. However, it holds some cards, for example the Chair of the WHO’s Executive Board, 5G trials for Huawei, activating the Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor. If the Modi government uses these skilfully, coupled with a patient, sustained but a determined force posture in Ladakh and north Sikkim, India should be just fine.
How Prime Minister Modi must be regretting shelving the 90,000-strong 17th Mountain Strike Corps or the Brahmastra Corps cleared for raising by the Congress-led UPA government in July 2013 especially keeping the Sino-Indian situation in mind. It would have been fully operational by now.
The author is a lawyer, MP and former Union information and broadcasting minister. Views are personal.
This article has been updated. The earlier version incorrectly referenced to the Bay of Pigs misadventure. It should have been the Cuban missile crisis. The error is regretted.