Few actions of any government escape, in some measure or form, the law of unintended consequences. This is because no one can anticipate all possible effects of an action. This is especially so for the decisions of governments in the foreign policy domain. Despite all the scenario painting that governments may undertake prior to taking important foreign and security related steps they cannot completely predict the counter-measures that countries whose interests get affected may take. Situations evolve through the interplay of steps and counter-steps of the countries involved and outcomes may be entirely different from what were visualised at the beginning of an enterprise.
These thoughts are relevant today in the context of China’s decision to open a wide front along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Whatever may have been its motivations did it anticipate that India will work for the restoration of the status quo along the LAC? Did it factor in that an incident like the June 15 Galwan valley, one which led to 20 fatalities of the Indian army, could take place? More importantly, if it did, did it think through the kind of reaction it would evoke in the Indian people? If its purpose was to warn India from going completely with the Americans in the emerging global configuration then is it serving that purpose? And, if the action was taken on the understanding that India is already more or less completely aligned with America and its aim was to show to the world’s most powerful country that it cannot rely on a country that is inherently weak then has it done so?
These are important questions that should concern Chinese decision makers at this juncture when India is showing a commitment to defend its interests. It is unlikely though that they will introspect for that would reveal that the entire approach on which these actions were based was flawed. Once governments get invested in a policy, they seldom show the wisdom to change course quickly for that opens them to criticism of being inept. Only the wisest and most confident of leaders are willing to acknowledge mistakes early and shift gears to avoid greater pain. It is unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping would come in this category for he obviously considers himself to be a strong man, a man of destiny, the one who will make China if not the world’s pre-eminent power replacing America at least in the same bracket as America.
Xi Jinping’s chosen mode to achieve China’s destiny is not through patient diplomacy but a disdain for international rules and a disregard for the concerns of other states. Consequently, China has become assertive and aggressive. It has displayed such an approach in pushing its claims in the South China Sea and more recently in its dealings with Australia which had raised issues relating to the way China dealt with COVID-19 after it emerged in Wuhan. Specifically, Australia wanted a focus on Chinese actions soon after the virus emerged there. Did Chinese authorities warn the international community in time of the dangers of the new virus to humankind?
Instead of assuaging Australia’s concerns which are widely shared by many countries China embarked upon coercive diplomacy. It sought to damage Australia’s commercial and economic interests. Along with concrete steps it used disparaging language against Australia. In doing so it not only raised Australian hackles but also offended many other countries for the boorish conduct of diplomats is never overlooked.
To return to Chinese actions in Ladakh. China had not perhaps foreseen that its actions have deeply offended Indian public opinion. This will have long term consequences for it has brought to the surface feelings of betrayal that this country had felt because of the events of 1962. It has also begun the unravelling of the carefully constructed policy that was crafted in the years following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988. That policy was based on a peaceful and stable LAC. Without that India would simply find it impossible to proceed with developing ties in other spheres such as commercial and economic where they have become particularly robust.
Did China factor in that its LAC aggression would lead to India pushing for self-reliance which is an increasing its manufactures and also putting restrictions on many of its internet applications? It is true that it would not be possible in the short or even the medium term for India to reduce Chinese imports almost completely but once the process begins and manufacturing increases then no one can really predict what would be the nature and shape of India-China commercial ties. India’s approach on Chinese hi-tech imports in the communication and power generation fields will be an indication of the future of ties in this area.
Obviously, the law of unintended consequences cannot be an excuse for either policy inaction or an absence of risk taking and remaining rooted in the status quo. At the same time, it is a reminder of the need to carefully consider as many aspects of a situation before embarking on major policy changes and actions. This is especially so when one nuclear power is dealing with another nuclear power. It is futile to provoke through armed action especially on the territory or territory controlled by a fellow nuclear state. Nuclear powers have to show great responsibility and patience and China is showing neither. This applies particularly to its LAC actions.