The Chinese have just sent us another “dare”. We can’t afford to ignore it. After engaging in fruitless discussions over the Ladakh border incursions, some of the major Chinese brands – OnePlus, Vivo, MG Rover – have started advertising big in Indian media.
This could not have happened so soon after many Indian consumers called for a boycott of Chinese products unless this is just another way for the Communist Party leadership to check how far India will go with its economic counter-measures in retaliation for Chinese aggression on our borders. If we blink once more, we will lose the battle.
We blinked once when we even agreed to negotiate a de-escalation, but several rounds of talks between military commanders and conversations at the level of the External Affairs Minister and the National Security Adviser have produced zilch.
Despite some cosmetic pullbacks, the Chinese have not vacated the strategic points in Pangong Lake and Hot Springs-Gogra area. The Indian Army now knows that it has to prepare to dig in for the long haul, including a painful winter in these ice-cold heights.
Samir Saran, president of the Observer Research Foundation, says there are five takeaways from China’s recent moves on India: One, for Xi Jinping global opinion does not matter. He sees India as an enemy and “the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective”.
This implies that there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that China will ever allow India to obtain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, or enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group. China will block all measures against Pakistan’s terror groups. The UN and the World Trade Organization will be in permanent deadlock, this time with China replacing the Soviet Union as the rogue power.
The other points Saran makes are the following: a) China is comfortable with waging war on one front and continuing trade on the other; b) the Chinese know how to use democratic regimes to create their own internal enemies so that they can’t take decisive action against China.
We can see this in how Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party, not to speak of the Community Party of India (Marxist), are holding India more accountable than China for the border standoff.
The fourth and fifth points relate to Huawei, which can’t be allowed an entry into India’s 5G mobile services, and China’s reassessment of its military responses after the 16 Bihar Regiment gave Chinese soldiers a bloody nose in Galwan Valley in the mid-June clashes.
If Saran is correct, and there is no reason to doubt his assessment, Narendra Modi’s China policy is in tatters. He can go to Ladakh and talk about the end of the era of “vistaarvaad” (expansionism), but the Chinese don’t care for words. They came with a plan when they entered and occupied territory where previously both armies were only sending unarmed patrols; they are unlikely to go back any time soon.
If Modi is to rescue his image and China policy, there are five imperatives.
One, of course, is a willingness to accept economic damage as India extends its China ban from 59 Chinese apps to Huawei and other Chinese imports. India-China trade has to whittle down, and Chinese involvement in Indian infrastructure limited and ultimately excluded. This has to be done even at significant cost to the Indian economy. You don’t trade to strengthen the enemy, never mind what trade theorists say.
Two, the trade war will take some time to prosecute, but the immediate need is to send a clear message that India is not going to cave in on trade counter-measures or Chinese military intimidation. There is no question of compromise unless status quo ante as in early May is restored on the borders.
This messaging need not be verbal. It must involve action: one action would be to ask Indian nationals and managers working in China to return in order to avoid being held hostage if things deteriorate on the border. This will send the message that India is preparing to dig in its heels.
The other action should be to call off military level talks. There is actually no need to talk if the Chinese position is that the status quo cannot be restored. Talks make sense only after status quo is restored. We should tell the Chinese there will be no talks till the border position is restored to what it was on 1 May.
Three, the Prime Minister has to formally acknowledge to the nation that the Chinese have encroached on areas where earlier both countries patrolled. Maintaining the fiction that nothing much has changed no longer works, and will, in fact, impede any government decision to extend the economic counter-measures.
Most Indians will see no need for making any economic sacrifices on cheap Chinese products if they are not aware of the dangers looming on the border. Accepting that the Chinese have backstabbed us may, for a bit, make Modi look weak, but the key to winning both the domestic battle for public opinion and the eyeball-to-eyeball with China depends on honest disclosure.
Four, India now needs to up its economic and military diplomacy in order to build a consensus for lesser trade with China, and increasing sanctions on Chinese companies.
Currently, it is only the US and Britain that have acted against Huawei; but the action needs to encompass more countries in the European Union, Australia, and India. All countries must prepare to sanction China more, despite the economic costs.
The Uighur situation needs to be tom-tommed in West Asia, so that they can consider restricting energy supplies to China. But US foreign policy has actually ended up giving China an opening. By sanctioning Iran, the US has allowed China to seal a deal with that country.
Fifth, and this is most important, India has to up its propaganda in Europe, the US, Australia, Africa and West Asia, so that the Chinese bid to confuse issues involving India are not only addressed, but also denuded of credibility.
The media war, of course, needs to be played intelligently and not be as crudely as China does. India has more credibility than China, but one also has to reckon with the Western media’s general unsympathetic tone on India ever since Modi came to power in 2014.
Modi does not have time on his hands, as the war against four C’s – Covid, China and Corporate and Consumer diffidence – has to be fought simultaneously. The China counter-measures can be announced together with a stimulus plan for Indian consumers and companies.
The author is Editorial Director, Swarajya. Views are personal.
The article was first published on Swarajya.