Hopeful headlines have now given way to a realisation that all is not ok at the heights in Ladakh, where India and China are eyeball to eyeball. Well, retinas are not really visible since some Chinese trucks have pulled away, but the ground forces of the People’s Liberation Army remain in areas they weren’t before April 2020. The Narendra Modi government in New Delhi can try hard to keep a lid on it, or sweep it under the carpet, but the sad truth is out now.
While ‘un-named’ military sources are prone to be discounted by those who don’t want to believe the incursion in Ladakh, a local BJP councillor confirms Chinese intrusions at unprecedented levels. Konchok Stanzin, representing Chushul in the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council, is on record to authenticate Chinese intrusions.
Something has changed in 2020, and the tone and tenor of the official Chinese media has been in stark contrast to what happened during the last border crisis at Doklam in 2017. In September that year, Maj. Gen. Qiao Liang wrote a remarkably conciliatory opinion piece as the Doklam crisis tapered off. Nothing unusual for a military man to write a pacificatory article, but Maj Gen Liang had also co-authored a path-breaking monograph in the mid-1990s, setting off alarm bells in democratic militaries. His Unrestricted Warfare has become essential reading for an insight into the PLA. So for him to write, “China and India are both neighbors and competitors, but not all competitors must be treated in the toughest way”; and, “Many people would say that the road construction in China’s territory was none of India’s business. Is this belief right? It is reasonable to some extent because road construction in this area is not a matter of right and wrong… Only doing the right thing at the right time is correct” — is something worth noting.
India’s permanent mystery
So, is Summer 2020 ‘the right thing at the right time’ moment for China? Indian observers, both military and diplomatic, have struggled to answer, ‘why now?’ It is a mystery that remains unanswered for two simple reasons.
Beijing has never been particularly transparent about its military postures and policies; and, more importantly, India has never demonstrated an insight into how China works. Despite centuries of interaction, India’s awareness and knowledge of China’s functioning is still woefully inadequate.
Unlike other surviving civilisational states, China has largely retained its ‘court’-inspired governance culture, and a firm belief in its centrality to human existence. As in all such courts, there are factions, and in China there is an increasingly influential military-bureaucratic grouping called Ying Pai, hawks or eagles.
“Many of these ying pai are generals and admiral and government hard liners… They are the Chinese officials and authors I know the best because since 1973 the US government has instructed me to work with them… To me, they represent the real voice of China,” wrote Michael Pillsbury in The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (2015).
Activating Ying Pai generals
These, ‘real voice of China’, are on a mission to expand the national footprint. And any opportunity is grabbed, with planning, foresight, and an identifiable aim. India provided just such an opening when in August 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah vowed to shed blood for Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin, occupied by China. Soon after that, in August-September 2019, that something was amiss along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) became apparent when Indian patrolling began to be blocked by the PLA.
After that, all it took was for the coronavirus to expose the inadequacies of the Indian State, its bizarre decision-making, and the limits of its capabilities. Thus, India became the only country with resources to block its citizens out of its borders, the only country that compelled its poorest to walk home thousands of kilometres, as also the only one where trains lost their way.
Economic constraints also compelled the Modi government to contemplate pruning defence expenditure, thus convincing Ying Pai generals that conditions were ripe for exposing Home Minister Amit Shah’s bravado, who had given greater importance to political posturing over policy formulation, even as the Covid-19 pandemic spread.
Silence of the duo
But when the two armies exchanged blows and pelted each other with stones at the LAC, there was deafening silence from Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah. The Prime Minister, who has visited China more than all his predecessors combined, the only one who has shared a swing with its Central Military Commission chairman, and the only to have hosted a Chinese President on the Bay of Bengal, found it worthwhile to share figures from the latest Asiatic Lion census, but not a word about the PLA in Indian territory.
His Home Minister, who was “ready to give” his life for Aksai Chin, has not reiterated any pledge for Pangong Tso, thus confirming to the Chinese that India’s ruling party’s national mission is the next election, solely. While Beijing is in the 70th year of its 100-year marathon to dominate the world, Ying Pai have clearly caught the thermals above eastern Ladakh.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.