Dragon is presumably a large, serpentine creature that appears in the legends and folklore of many cultures worldwide. Traditionally, dragons in the western cultures are mostly depicted as winged, horned, four-legged and capable of breathing fire, while they are shown wingless, four-legged, and serpentine with above-average intelligence in eastern cultures often linked with rains and good omen. While the Western dragons were traditionally considered evil, the Chinese dragons symbolized potent and auspicious powers but attributes have changed with time. The modern Chinese dragon is now known more for its ferocity and spitting fire; so naturally, anything in close proximity is liable to high heat and risk of getting burnt out. This is precisely what is happening with countries located in the neighbourhood of China, which are sharing land borders and/or common economic interests in East and South China Sea.
There is yet another common perception and saying that “Chinese eat almost everything that moves!” Many Chinese dishes make us feel weird or queasy, such as dog, cat, variety insects, scorpions, snakes, rats, bats, all parts of pig and boiled blood, and so on. In the past, the close contacts between humans and food animals in the Chinese wet markets have led to transmission of many microbes from animals to humans. The two most notable infectious diseases globally in last two decades were severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza. Now recent Covid-19 pandemic has not only created unprecedented health crisis but also ruined the world economy with millions rendered jobless in every country. As if all this was not sufficed in corona times, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also triggered a serious military flashpoint at several points across the Sino-Indian border.
Areas of Conflict
India and China share nearly 3500 km border of which nearly 2152 km is in the Western sector and the remaining in the eastern region. During the April-May 2020, incursion and transgression of the Chinese troops into the Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) was reported at several points upto 2-3 km deep inside. Consequently, they were challenged by the Indian counterparts that led to face-offs, scuffles and skirmishes at multiple locations across the border. More serious skirmishes have been reported near the Pangong Lake in East Ladakh and Nathu La pass in Sikkim, while face-offs have occurred at multiple points in eastern Ladakh along the LAC, more significantly in the Galwan River valley, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) objected to the construction of road within Indian Territory. The notable point is that the PLA has already created enormous infrastructure, including an airbase in Tibet just about 200 km from the LAC but they have objection to similar defensive measures on the Indian side.
In the recent years, Chinese have ramified their territorial dispute by transgressing Indian territories even in areas that never hosted any controversy in the past. For illustration, the Chinese soldiers breached deep into the Indian territory in Uttarakhand’s Barahoti region in July 2017 and went back only after sustained face-off with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). In the same year, the Indian troops had foiled another Chinese incursion along the banks of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh in August 2017; the incident led to jostling, exchange of blows and stone-pelting between soldiers of the two armies. Thus China appears to have revived its pre-1962 tactics against India across the Himalayan border with recurrence of such violations in various sectors. A dangerous face-off took place at Doklam bringing the two countries almost at the brink of war in July-August 2017; the issue, however, subsided after the Chinese side abandoned illegal road construction and troops retreated.
For centuries, independent and peaceful Tibet served as a buffer state between India and China without any border dispute or territorial ambitions on either side but the problems started after China forcefully annexed Tibet in October 1950 and India accepted this fiasco without any viable resistance under Jawaharlal Nehru Congress regime. The territorial claims of the PRC and consequent violations culminated into Sino-Indian war of 1962 that led to humiliation of India which till then had considered China a trustworthy friend so much so that it never cared for the military preparations and proper deployment at the Tibetan border. The Communist China claims entire Aksai Chin area (already in occupation) in Ladakh in Western sector and Arunachal Pradesh in Eastern sector; in addition, it has raised dispute at about twenty other locations, where minor conflicts occur every off and on between the petrol parties of the two countries but usually remain unnoticed in media coverage.
Reportedly, the current spate of border tension between India and China began when the PLA men intruded into the Muguthang Valley in the Eastern sector and started shouting at the Indian troops – "This (Sikkim) is not your land, this is not Indian Territory... so just go back". The Indian side protested affirming their rights on the territory that led to physical contact and scuffle between the two sides. Retaliating to verbal insult to his immediate senior, an Indian Army lieutenant punched the PLA major on his face that sent blood oozing out from his nose. Though the young officer was quickly pulled back and later sent to a location away from the front, the incident left about a dozen soldiers injured on either side. According to reports originated from the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, the matter was resolved after due 'dialogue and interaction' at the local commanders’ level. However, China neither shared any details of the incident nor confirmed the happening of the incident either.
Another clash was reported in early May 2020 between the Chinese and Indian troops at the lake Pangong Tso in Ladakh, where the last similar incident occurred in August 2017. After this conflict, several Chinese military helicopters were spotted flying in the lake area that prompted the Indian side to alert the Air Force to deploy its aircrafts in defensive position to deal with any hostile activity. In yet another incident, the Chinese troops entered the Indian territory in the Galwan River valley raising objections to the road construction by the Indian side within own (undisputed) territory. Reports say that the PLA has made heavy deployment of troops in this area with nearly 100 tents, heavy vehicles and monitoring equipment; this development has also been confirmed by an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute based on the analysis of satellite imageries.
Later reports suggest that the PLA made incursions into the Indian territories at three different points up to 2-3 km and each place has about 800 to 1000 soldiers. The Indian side too has responded with the commensurate deployment of troops and necessary equipment in the area merely at a distance of 300 to 500 metres. Emerging reports suggest that the Chinese men are engaged in a huge build-up including military-style bunkers, new permanent structures, military trucks, and road-building equipment. Needless to mention, the situation on ground is increasingly turning dangerous with Indian side firmly unwilling to accept any change in the status quo. While Indian side is developing its territory with road and communication infrastructure, the Chinese propaganda machinery is engaged in misinformation that India is illegally constructing defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region.
As to the development across the LAC, particularly dangerous stand-off in Ladakh region, the Indian response under the current political regime has been calculated and determined as in 2017 during the Doklam crisis i.e. to avoid any incendiary statements against the adversary but at the same time not to concede any unreasonable development at the frontier or react to provocations with undue haste. Though the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s annual press conference on 23 May on the sidelines of the Communist Party Congress meet lacked any reference to India on tension between the armies of two countries at LAC, the Chinese President Xi Jinping asked the PLA on 26 May "to think about worst-case scenarios" and "scale up battle preparedness". He, however, did not directly mention India; instead, linked it to the COVID-19 pandemic which according to him had profound impact on the global landscape and China's own security and development.
What Chinese Official Media Holds on Stand-off
It is well known that there is nothing like an independent news media or press in China and few electronic and print media there basically reflect the official position of the Central Communist Party and Government. In a news item published under the title “India should eschew Western views of China for border peace” on 25 May 2020, The Global Times, a daily tabloid newspaper under the ultimate control of the Chinese Communist Party, published a rather scandalous and sensational report with the following chief observations:
- That India has illegally constructed defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, leaving Chinese border defense troops no other options but making necessary moves in response, and mounting the risk of escalating standoffs and conflicts between the two sides;
- That unlike previous standoffs, the latest border friction was not caused by accident, but was a planned move of New Delhi. Indian troops have deliberately crossed boundary line in Galwan Valley to enter Chinese territory and instigated conflicts with Chinese counterparts;
- That some Indians are under impression of slowed Chinese economy growth and some Western countries' blame game on China provide them a great opportunity where the border issue will fall to their advantage amid the COVID-19 pandemic;
- That China has effectively curbed the coronavirus epidemic with life returned to normal while India already has more corona positive cases than China and the inflection point is yet to come, hence Indian priority must be to handle epidemic and restore economy;
- That India must remember that in the World Health Assembly held on 18-19 May it was US, and not China, that was isolated by the international community. Media reports saying China is facing global isolation is an illusion and India should not count on US support;
- That India must realize the national strength of China, they were comparable in 1962 when the latter gave crushing defeat to the former. Today by stark contrast, China's GDP is about five times that of India.
Needless to mention, China is back to its old trick of intimidation of neighbours through usual misinformation and inflammatory remarks which are so often devoid of even minimum political maturity and diplomatic finesse. Also the Chinese conduct in more bellicose and intimidating, and one wonders if it is their recalibrated reaction after Doklam imbroglio of 2017, where they had to eat humble pie and retreat unconditionally at the end. Clearly, what China is doing in Ladakh or Sikkim now has not much relevance to infrastructure development alone, definite reasons lie elsewhere why China is making the border red hot.
Reasons for Current Chinese Military Provocation
There are not one but multiple reasons indeed for the current Chinese incursions, provocations by incendiary remarks made in media, and military buildup and threatening gestures at the stand-off points across the LAC. The Chinese global ambitions are no more hidden and fairly well known across the world fraternity. The most part of the Indian frontier in the Western and Eastern Sectors runs along the Tibet in the Trans-Himalayan region, erstwhile an independent nation and now an autonomous Chinese region. China has assiduously worked for the decades to construct roads and military infrastructure along the Indo-Chinese border which is almost complete in both sectors. On the other hand, the consecutive Congress led or supported governments in India accorded low priority to defence needs and infrastructure development along the border. Hence since Narendra Modi government started these developments, China has opposed it at every occasion lest India might gain strength to deal with traditional hegemony of the communist neighbour.
Experts may have their independent comprehensive or isolated views on Chinese action but for this author and his long association with the Indian Defence sector, it is not at all difficult to decipher crucial reasons for the Chinese coercive actions. The Chinese transgression at the LAC in Galwan river valley can be easily observed in relevant satellite image. On face it would appear that China is responding to Indian efforts to improve upon the border-area infrastructure in Ladakh including the Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road. Hence by escalating conflict in the region, it desires to pre-empt any further Indian effort to improve its logistics and communication links in the area. Here the point is why China is doing this now, after all the work on entire 255 km all-weather road in eastern Ladakh was going on for years and completed in April 2019. Besides, whatever infrastructure and communication network India has created, it is on the undisputed land of own side.
It may be recalled immediately after Doklam crisis two informal summit meetings were held between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China (April 2018) and Mamallapuram, India (October 2019), respectively, which inter alia covered economic development, multilateral trading system and strategic issues of boundary disputes between two countries to be solved peacefully within a mutually-agreed framework. Disregarding this peace initiative in such a short span, Chinese troops have stormed into Galwan river valley in large numbers to trigger a new dispute, erecting hundreds of tents and digging bunkers. Similar incursions at multiple locations are characterized with more assertive and aggressive conduct of PLA. This suggests that the current incursions and coercive tactics of PLA are not without complicity of the Chinese apex leadership. These developments also remind the Chinese betrayal of 1962 although then the Indian leadership too was no less responsible for the nemesis for their negligence of defence needs and serious policy failures.
The current border skirmishes and growing Chinese aggression has certainly something to do with coronavirus pandemic. While China is sermonizing India to focus on curbing Covid-19 disease instead of developing infrastructure at the frontier, the counter question could be if it is right time for China to open border disputes with India! Whatever arrogant China say or maintain in self-adulation, the fact is it is now facing global resentment and anger following its failure in timely informing other countries about the virus and then attempting to convert the pandemic into an opportunity by supplying large scale defective or unreliable equipment and PPE kits to other countries and prompting own banks and companies to engage in buying spree of shares or vulnerable companies in other countries. The pandemic on account of the Wuhan virus has already caused tremendous loss of lives and economy of other countries including India where the coronavirus positive cases are still counting.
The current Chinese FOREX reserves of more than 3 trillion dollars and the government keen to provide billions of dollars as stimulus to its companies, the pandemic has provided an ideal environment for them to buy foreign assets. Consequently, the Central Bank of China acquired stake in India’s top lender, the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) by buying as many as 10.75 million shares during the quarter ended March 2020, while the company’s shares were going down due to recession in economy triggered by the Covid-19 disease. This episode prompted India to revise its foreign investment policy to tighten investment rules for companies sharing a land border with India. Incidentally, several European countries too have amended their FDI rules to protect their companies from the Chinese invasion with the slowing down of economy. The immediate Chinese reaction on FDI was that they might retaliate by stopping the supply of raw material for the Indian pharmaceutical industry.
Yet another development too has a commercial angle with possible future impact on Chinese companies. Many foreign companies with a manufacture base in China, particularly Japanese and American, are seriously exploring feasibility of shifting their manufacturing base to other countries, including India. Japan has already offered a handsome financial package to its companies coming out of China and USA has recently passed a bill in senate to empower the government to delist Chinese companies from American stock exchanges. Due to unfair and unethical trade practices of China, the idea of the exodus of foreign companies is gaining momentum and strength for the last few years and the current pandemic has only strengthened this resolve. Then possibly there is yet another reason for the Chinese worry; during the World Health meet on 18-19 May, over a hundred nations including India had forced a resolution for investigation of Covid-19 disease under the aegis WHO despite Chinese reluctance and reservations and now India is Chairman, WHO.
It is true that at least about a dozen global companies have evinced interest to shift base from China to India in view of the revised competitive tax rate and other favourable factors like cheap labour and broad consumer base. Some reports have also appeared in the Indian media early this month that the country is developing a land pool of twice the size of Luxembourg to host the companies keen to come to India for business. The issue of land is important because it has been perhaps the biggest impediment for the companies keen to invest in Indian in the past. It’s obvious the prospects of India becoming a commercial rival at any time is something the Chinese central leadership cannot easily digest. In such situation, military harassment comes as a handy option which might compel any neighbour to rethink and revise its economic and commercial considerations. At the same, one is compelled to wonder if these events are precursors of a full fledged war between two Asian giants.
Locus Standi of Chinese Action in Border Dispute
Lying between China and India, the extensive yet relatively low mountain ranges to the east of the Tibetan Plateau mark the border with China, and the towering Himalayas towards Nepal and India form the west border and barrier between Tibet and India. Although Tibet was relatively poor and isolated but the proud Tibetans always considered themselves independent and free people. Culturally too, the Chinese and Tibetan people are very different. During the course of thousand years of history, except for two short stints of direct Chinese conquest and rule, Tibet had been independent most of the years despite nominal suzerainty claims initially by Mongols and later Chinese over the peaceful Tibetan nation. However, Tibet with Dalai Lama as its spiritual head proclaimed full independence in 1913 and this position continued till September 1950. The International Commission of Jurists too had concluded that Tibet in practice was an independent state from 1913 to 1950 fully demonstrating conditions of statehood as generally accepted under the international law.
After a prolonged Chinese civil war, the Communist Party of China and its Chairman Mao Zedong defeated the Chinese nationalist government and established communist rule in China with effect from 1 October 1949. When Mao Zedong ordered PLA to invade Tibet in October 1950, Tibet appealed for help but India under the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remained shaky and unwilling; instead India advised the Tibetans to negotiate a peaceful settlement with China. Another important reason for this evasive action was Nehru’s personal political and ideological leanings whereby he was committed to support China in Korean War, United Nations and other forums. Tibet had historically and traditionally played a buffer between the China and India with no conflict or boundary issues. The sudden removal of this buffer not only led to geo-political change in the region but the presence of the PLA and expansionist communist regime on the other side also carried the burden of managing a long, and largely undefined and undemarcated border.
As a matter of fact, Tibet was never a part of China and it lost its independence to China only due to being weak and vulnerable, and also due to reluctance of then Indian leadership to support it. Based on ambiguous considerations, China staked claim over the Indian territories of Aksai Chin area in Ladakh region and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast region, which is South Tibetan according to Chinese claim. During 1962 war, it had occupied considerable part of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh; however, after war it retained Aksai Chin but withdrew to LAC in the northeast region. Notwithstanding the Chinese claim in not limited to these two territories, it keeps on raking up new land disputes taking the advantage of largely undemarcated border. To put it bluntly, China has no locus standi in any of the border disputes raised with India simply because Tibet is not a Chinese territory; instead, it is only under forceful occupation of China since October 1950 on the precept of “might is right”.
As mentioned earlier, initially in Sikkim and then across other locations on India’s frontier with Tibet, the Chinese troops have purportedly crossed into the Indian side in the union territory of Ladakh and engaged in violent scuffle and clashes. The balance of power between China and India, when considered and compared in toto, is indeed numerically tilted in favour of the former; economically too, China is far ahead of India. However, if we consider the world opinion, be it in neighbourhood of China or distant Europe and America, the global opinion is heavily tilted against China with hardly any sympathy for the country and its arrogant and authoritarian ways. China is certainly a global economic power with enormous military strength but India too is no more a pushover country and is certainly capable to defend its land, sea and the air. In fact, many in the Indian defence establishment would perhaps look at it an opportunity to avenge 1962. Hence it will be foolhardy on the part of the Communist regime to imagine that India will capitulate on its Himalayan frontier in 2020.
Continued Chinese Intimidation and Harassment of Neighbours
While the world is seized with the impact of rampaging coronavirus on the human health, economy and employment, China has concentrated converting it into an opportunity to nurture its economic and commercial interests as also intimidating and harassing neighbours commensurate with its expansionist agenda. It is not India alone; in fact, it has simultaneously revived conflicts with almost half-a-dozen countries at land border, and East and South China Sea. The recent flexing of its muscles in Taiwan Strait, establishment of administrative districts in some disputed islands, giving a new name to Mount Everest, sinking of a Vietnamese fish trawler, intrusion in Japanese waters near Senkaku Islands and border transgressions along Sino-Indian Borders are few classical examples of Chinese arrogance and expansionist agenda. Its recent aggressive posturing and intrusions in South and East China Sea has caused a lot of concern to regional and global powers, prompting US to send its military warships in South China Sea to assert navigation rights in international waters.
Some recent instances of unjustified and unpalatable actions of the PRC vis-a-vis neighbours and other countries (sans India) are briefly enumerated:
- In response to Australia’s call for investigation of the coronavirus pandemic to fix responsibility, China had imposed trade restriction in recent past and now has warned Australia to ruin its economy if it takes sides with the United States in an article published in the Chinese tabloid Global Times.
- Reportedly, Chinese J-11 fighters violated middle line of Taiwan Strait in March leading to the latter scrambling its fighters to intercept them. Consequently, Beijing warned Taiwan to toe its line else China will do what Israel did to Lebanon by bombing.
- On 3 April, a Chinese coast guard ship sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands and then redeployed a controversial geological survey ship on 13 April in an oil drilling area, which falls under Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Such disputes occur because China unilaterally claims ownership over the South China Sea.
- After spotting nearly 275 Chinese boats and ships active around Philippine's Thitu Island in the Spratly Island chain for weeks, recently in April 2020 the Philippine President threatened to send his troops on a "suicide mission" if China doesn't lay off a Manila-occupied island in the South China Sea.
- In East China Sea, the Chinese ships intruded in waters near the Japanese-controlled islets of Senkaku Islands several times this year, and most recently in April four Chinese coast guard vessels remained in these waters for nearly 90 minutes before leaving.
- During the pandemic times, China has chosen to bring a sedition law on Hong Kong basically to suppress pro-democracy voices which invited widespread protests during May 2020.
- Several countries have opposed the Chinese major Huawei which is facing allegations of corporate espionage to steal competitors' intellectual property. For instance, US banned Huawei for semiconductor chips, UK banned 'core' parts of its 5G network, Australia and Japan have blocked Huawei gear, and Canada may follow suit. China has recently warned Britain of retaliatory responses if the UK government bans the Chinese telecommunications company from its 5G network.
Vietnam had lodged bilateral complaint and also escalated it to the United Nations with no viable solution or help so far. Philippines filed two diplomatic protests with China over violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. Japanese Foreign Minister too lodged a protest against China sending its government ships into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. US have threatened to revoke special treatment for Hong Kong If China goes ahead with the proposed legislation. While the stand-off at the border with India continues but China appears to have softens its approach with the Chinese foreign ministry and ambassador to India now stressing that the two countries posed no threat to each other and needed to consolidate the bilateral relationship. The top brass in Indian army, however, feels that the Chinese soldiers will have to unconditionally withdraw from the Indian Territory in East Ladakh for the “conciliatory” messages now emanating to have any real meaning.
The paradoxical part of the entire saga is that China is more than three times bigger to India, which itself is big enough only next to Russia and China in Asia and seventh biggest in the world; also, China is the most populous and militarily strong only next to US and Russia yet it always plays a victim’s card in disputes with neighbours through its propaganda machinations. These days a meme is viral on the internet and social media that goes like: Tibet belongs to China; Arunachal belongs to China; Sikkim belongs to China; Mt. Everest belongs to China; Hong Kong belongs to China; Taiwan belongs to China; South China Sea belongs to China; in essence, everything belongs to China except Corona, which actually belongs to China. It may create some humour but the Chinese action to unleash a health calamity and economic crisis on the world, wittingly or unwittingly, and now it’s unethical and ugly muscle flexing over the neighbours though the pandemic times is certainly a bad omen for the world peace and prosperity.
President Donald Trump often amuses world with his moves and declarations and he has now proposed to be a mediator in ongoing Sino-Indian hostilities. But his track records of dealing with own domestic problems do not generate enough solace and confidence. In the international arena too, rather than confronting and dealing with issues, US under his leadership has followed run away tactics which is apparent from its resolve to quit the Paris Climate Agreement and now World Health Organization. Perhaps his administration does not appreciate that such escapist moves will only pave way for the Chinese hegemony and coercive practices at global forums. Both China and India have ruled out the possibility of any third party mediation in the ongoing border conflict. Both the US and India are great democracies; the former is the longest while the latter the biggest. While goodwill of a good friend is appreciated, India will have to fight its own battle of survival with the belligerent neighbour.