The military standoff at Ladakh is challenging for political and security establishment in India. It is food for thought to theorists of international relations who have been cooking different formulations to explain the rise of, and conflict between, two Asian powers.
My understanding is that China finds Delhi as a revanchist power and this sense has sharpened in Beijing since 2014 with the rise of Hindu nationalists in India. The description of August 5, 2019 by China as “unacceptable and violation of its sovereignty” needs to be understood in this context. Some experts argue that changes in Jammu and Kashmir have broken the strategic balance in South Asia and hence the intensification of strategic rivalry. There are multiple issues that have gone into changing the behavior of two Asian states.
De-Finlandisation of India: Chinese have a sense of India moving out of Finlandisation. Finland chose the policy of not standing up to erstwhile Soviet Union militarily or economically. It is a pejorative term where you only see the bleak future. There are many events and issues to support growing assertion of power by Indian state. On Tibet, for decades, India followed certain formulaic policy. The departure came when Prime Minister Modi decided to invite Lobsang Sangay (head of Tibetan govt-in-exile) to his oath-taking ceremony in 2014 (although the same was avoided in 2019). The Indian government also gave Dalai Lama’s visit to Twang an official status. The Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister referred to his State’s boundary with Tibet not China. On November 2, 2019 the Surveyor General of India published a new map. It expresses and records a statement namely that it no longer considers itself bound by the Shimla Agreement of July, 2, 1972. China and Pakistan raised objections. Home minister Amit Shah observed in the parliament that “POK and Aksai Chin are part of India”. The RSS mouth piece Organizer on November15, 2019 commented that “retaking POK is vital to India’s geo-strategy”. This was followed by unusual declaration by Indian army chief General Nirvana’s on January 11, 2020 that “as far as POK there is a parliament resolution and if parliament wants and we get orders, definitely we will take it”. Thereafter China and Pakistan started carefully reading the tea leaves. The Chinese security and strategic elite have always held the position that India is expansionist. It annexed Sikkim, dismembered Pakistan, controlled Bhutan, trampled Nepalese sovereignty, and abrogated Art 370. But all said and done these are not the only requirements for a state to be a great power. For great power a state must have capacity to set the agenda and deploy more soft and smart power for attaining foreign policy goals. The fact is that China has intruded into Ladakh at a time when Indian economy is in trouble, society more divisive, neighborhood policy a failure and in Afghanistan Indian state has virtually been defeated. On the contrary for Indian state Chinese expansionism is written on the wall.
Akhand China: Chinese strategic elite have the concept of their country as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, where it has the superior position and all others are inferior. In fact, the China ‘dictum’ is that there cannot be two suns in the sky. The Chinese strategy of five fingers of Tibetan palm clearly sketches out the plan of expansionism. The strategy is attributed to Mao, and Tibet being china’s right palm the five fingers are – Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. There is an article in Chinese constitution to take back Taiwan. In 1997 the British returned Hong Kong under one country two system framework. After Mahabalipuram Xi Jinping flew to Nepal in September, 2019 and very clearly told Prime Minister KP Oli that “if anybody attempts to split China he will have crushed bodies and shattered bones”. Jawaharlal Nehru very early had a sense of China’s great power ambition. On June 18, 1954 Nehru sent a note on Tibet and China to Secretary General, Foreign Secretary and the Joint Secretary. It reads: as: “both Soviet Union and China are expansive. They are expansive for evils other than communism, although communism may be the tone. Chinese expansion is there in various periods of Asian history for a thousand years. We are perhaps facing a new period of such expansionism “. Nine days before his death Nehru in an interview said, “Chinese acted the way they did principally as they wanted the Asian world to realize that they are the top dog in Asia and that any country in Asia should remember it”. India and China deeply suspect each other. The former foreign secretary Shivshanker Menon would brief opposition leaders about ‘Border peace and Tranquility Agreement’ of 1992 on the directions of the then PM Narasima Rao.The opposition leaders would always ask, ‘How can you trust the Chinese?’ Jawaharlal Nehru, who witnessed India’s defeat in 1962 war once told his ambassador, “it is difficult to know what is in their mind .They smile while saying the most callous and ruthless things. Mao told me with a smile that he was not afraid of an atomic war”.
The Indian strategic/security success or failure will be determined by its course correction in three critical domains – Strategic, Neighborhood, and Kashmir.
First, Indian ‘national security state’ has shown definite cracks. Ladakh standoff has sufficiently evidenced the weakness of Indian strategic/security apparatus. A former Indian NSA recently pointed out that there is lack of China experts in RAW and MEA. Majoritarian politics at home has clouded the regional and world view of Indian state. Chinese strategic thinking stands on solid intellectual basis. Today China no longer talks about ‘China model’ or ‘Beijing consensus’. It talks about ‘China solution’. The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu gave China the idea of “deception and political expediency”. All warfare he wrote is “based on deception. Therefore when capable feign incapacity, when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away, when far away that you are near. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him, feign disorder and strike him. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong avoid him. Anger his general and confuse him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. Keep him under strain and wear him down. When he is united, divide him. Attack when he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you. These are the strategist’s keys to victory”.
Second, the Neighborhood Policy of Indian state is in complete disarray. Great power status can be obtained within the neighborhood, not outside it. India may ignore SAARC as a regional forum but it cannot ignore Pakistan. Real isolation of Pakistan can take place only if India can isolate it from China. In 2007 Pak commanders raided Lal Masjid and killed fourteen Uighur militants only when China revealed it to Pak state. China delayed recognition of Bangladesh even after 1971. Recently the Global Times quoted Chinese foreign minister advising ‘India to wake up from its geopolitical fantasy and view China pragmatically’. The fact of the matter is that India needs a new template for neighborhood policy and not quarrel with its geography.
Third, the August 5, 2019 has had an impact on all three fronts – China, Pakistan and Kashmir. Pakistan considers it as violation of Simla Agreement of 1972. There is growing violence in Kashmir and it is quite insulting for representatives of Indian state that silent celebration of Chinese advancement in Ladakh has taken place in Kashmir. The British scholar Andrew Small in his celebrated book ” The China-Pak Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics” argues that it was China that kindled Pak interest in use of proxies against India. “In a meeting between Chou En-lai and Ayub Khan the guerrilla warfare in Kashmir against India was discussed”. It is tragic that for the first time in Independent India that Kashmiris have become extra-systemic others having no support from any political or civil society formation in India. I have heard members of middle class intelligentsia regretting for having lost the space both in Indian constitution and politics for preservation of their identity. Carl Von Clausewitz, Prussian military theorist, in his advice to monarch had stressed that while war must be waged to secure a state’s ends, the ultimate purpose of war is peace not victory.
The author, a political scientist, teaches Political Science at Kashmir University.