The Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 100th anniversary later this July, a hugely significant achievement for a nation that has, by sheer willpower and hard work, cut through the poverty of decades to reach the top of the global pyramid. Harrison Salisbury’s ‘The New Emperors’ begins with a memorable account of bedraggled but wonderstruck Chinese soldiers, having overcome Chiang Kai-Shek and other internal challenges, finally arriving Beijing in 1949; no doubt, they are anticipating the rising fortunes of the Communist Party they have forfeited their lives to.
Cut to the present as Indian and Chinese soldiers undertake a trust-and-verify disengagement in the high Himalayas in Ladakh, beginning with the Pangong Tso north and south banks. Withdrawal is also taking place from the Kailash Range, which Indian soldiers climbed in late August, taking the Chinese by surprise. That key manoeuvre is widely believed to have helped turn the direction of the ongoing face-off in India’s favour.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s measured statement in Parliament on the step-by-step disengagement is, rightly, not a declaration of victory – it’s too soon for that. No, it gives voice to the determination that India is ready to talk to the Chinese till the cows come home, but not under forced aggression.
Moreover, while Singh did not use the phrase “status quo ante” in his statement, he made it clear that both sides will return to the positions they occupied before the aggression in April 2020.
Imagine the headlines, including in the Communist Party-run Global Times, which loves to taunt India for the smallest trifle — interestingly, though, since the announcement of the disengagement, there has been very little of that.
Its celebrated editor, Hu Xijin, has taken time to be dismissive of an India-US partnership based on democratic values — “It’s hypocritical and empty,” is what he called it — but hasn’t said a word about either the objectives of the border aggression or why the soldiers are now withdrawing from Ladakh.
Political-military complementing each other
So, who made the first call offering an olive branch? Some say it was the Indian side that repeated one simple message to the Chinese over nine months: You are ruining the relationship with a fellow Asian nation. You may be the stronger, economic power but India will not back off. Let’s return to the principles that you signed off on, on not disturbing peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who was ambassador in China for five years before he became foreign secretary and then joined politics, has remarked how China’s aggression across the LAC in Ladakh has “profoundly disturbed” the relationship and proposed “8 consults and 3 mutuals” to resolve it.
Behind the foreign minister’s stated determination was, of course, the political will articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh. But a fourth player, who has stayed out of the limelight so far, is Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane, who is believed to have backed the political vision by insisting that the Army had the will and the wherewithal to block the Chinese.
Remember that Gen. Naravane is a China hand, has been a defence attache in Myanmar and has substantial experience in counter-insurgency both in the NorthEast and in Kashmir. (He is, no doubt, watching closely the changing dynamics of the coup in Myanmar these days.) A thinking soldier, Naravane recently gave voice to India’s troubling “delivery deficit” to promises of regional connectivity in a speech at the defence think-tank, United Services Institute, and pointed to an unsettled regional security environment characterised by Chinese belligerence.
“The rising footprints of China in India’s neighbourhood and its attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo along our disputed borders have created an environment of confrontation and mutual distrust,” Naravane said.
So when the Chinese upped the ante by mobilising just across the LAC soon after the Galwan valley clash on 15-16 June in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives – and according to Russian news agency Tass, 45 Chinese soldiers were killed – Gen. Naravane’s Army responded right back. From Ladakh in the western sector to Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector, the Indian Army was mobilised to prevent any further aggression.
What is less known is that Indian soldiers are far more battle-hardened than the Chinese – they have held the Siachen heights against Pakistan since 1984 in terrible conditions; the Commander of the 14 Corps in Leh deals with both Siachen and Ladakh. While Chinese soldiers have trained in Tibet’s Qinghai plateau to get acclimatised to bitter cold conditions — in Ladakh they have had “hotpot” delivered to them by drones and had access to extra oxygen from bedside generators – they are believed to be rotated faster than Indian soldiers.
The Indian Army’s willingness to stand up to the Chinese gave the political leadership the space to hold firm. While the rest of the world watched, India, with one-fifth the economy of China, faced off against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh.
Imagine the impact on China’s reputation when President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Central Committee meet in July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding — with Indian troops still eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese?
What China must ask of itself
On 24-25 December, President Xi gathered the Politburo for a “Democratic Life Meeting” session, in which all 25 members were supposed to indulge in self-criticism in order to strengthen the CCP and the nation, slated to take over as the world’s largest economy in 2028, five years before it was expected to do so.
The theme of this session was to “earnestly learn the thought of unique socialism in China in the new age of Xi Jinping.” Meaning, the CCP leader was telling his comrades they better follow the path he has laid out for them – dissent, of course, would be met with the Chinese version of the Gulag.
It is not known if the Ladakh aggression was discussed at the Politburo session or whether President Xi indulged in some self-criticism and rectification. Meanwhile, two pieces from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), an influential think-tank directly controlled by China’s external intelligence and security ministry, the Ministry of State Security, give some idea of Chinese thinking on the subject.
The first piece, datelined August 2020, says “de-coupling the border issue from the overall relationship is the fundamental principle to be adhered to”. The Indian side did exactly the opposite – telling the Chinese that the border aggression would be hostage to the entire relationship if they didn’t back down.
A more recent piece by Hu Shisheng in CICIR, written after Indian soldiers climbed the Kailash Range, is more revealing. It refers to “India’s tough foreign policy featuring “high risk, high yield” pursued by the Modi administration towards China. The subsequent measures of India’s tough diplomacy towards China have become more frequent, reflecting both a desire to seek revenge and a deep level of India’s logic….As a result, the moment has arrived for China and India to restructure their relations, otherwise their relationship can hardly be continued.”
Hu Shisheng is no ordinary Chinese strategist. He is the director of CICIR’s South Asia institute, with a BA in Hindi and an MA in Sanskrit and Pali from Peking University. What he says is certainly a reflection of the CCP’s thinking – it has been vetted by the authorities, for sure.
It seems as if the penny has finally dropped in Beijing that the Modi government isn’t giving in to China’s aggression.
In 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to Beijing, a Special Representative mechanism was set up to discuss the boundary, mutually give and take, and settle the problem left over by history. But 18 years have passed and there has been no movement. China’s attempt at trying to change the shape of the boundary has not worked either.
So what does China want? Does it want to live in genuine peace with its neighbours or enforce an uneasy truce, just because it is the economically and militarily stronger nation? As the CCP celebrates its 100th anniversary, Xi Jinping and the party must ask that question.
Views are personal.