Taiwan issue: China’s actions along LAC a dare to Narendra Modi govt as India readies for leadership role at WHO

There are no coincidences in geopolitics. The sudden flare-up in border tensions between India and China is not a matter of chance.

Sreemoy Talukdar May 14, 2020 09:56:12 IST
Taiwan issue: China’s actions along LAC a dare to Narendra Modi govt as India readies for leadership role at WHO

There are no coincidences in geopolitics. The sudden flare-up in border tensions between India and China is not a matter of chance. It is based on a cynical realpolitik calculation by the Chinese State that, through its opportunistic behaviour, was seeking to send several messages at once in its continuous quest for tilting the balance of power in its favour, advancing its interests and consolidating hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

But before we read those messages that China was trying to send, it is worth taking a closer look at the twin recent incidents of face-off between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that heightened tensions on ground and led to fervent media speculation over India “scrambling jets” to counter China’s attempts to violate India’s airspace. 

Taiwan issue Chinas actions along LAC a dare to Narendra Modi govt as India readies for leadership role at WHO

File image of Chinese president XI Jinping. Reuters

It appears that among the two instances of “flare-up”, one was settled amicably through existing mechanisms of dispute resolution while the other gave rise to ‘considerable tension’ on ground to the extent that both sides reportedly deployed additional forces to ensure de-escalation.

While none of these incidents developed into a full-blown conflict, the stand-offs still led to aggressive behaviour, clashes and minor injuries to both sides. This is a deviation from pattern.

According to media reports quoting Indian Army sources, at least four Indian and seven Chinese soldiers were injured at the Naku La sector of North Sikkim in a high-altitude clash on 9 May that involved around 150 troops from both sides. The situation was resolved after “dialogue and interaction at local level”. 

Though flare-ups at Naku La are rare, altercations between the two sides along the 3448-km LAC are not unusual since the boundary lies un-demarcated and subject to varying claims by patrol teams from both sides. The timing of the latest fracas, however, is interesting and seems to have been caused by a sudden influx of troops from the Chinese side that has a motorable road.

The earlier fracas at a relatively hotter Eastern Ladakh is more interesting. It reportedly occurred in the evening on 5 May near the Pangong Tso lake, two-thirds of which is controlled by China. Here, too, several soldiers were injured in a scuffle that involved throwing of stones and fisticuffs leading to injuries on both sides.

According to a report in The Print, though “disengagement” happened on 6 May, the “matter has been noted for the next formal discussions between higher military authorities on both sides” and “additional forces have been brought in.”

At least one more report, dated 12 May, claims that “fully-armed troops of Indian and Chinese armies are at present locked in a tense stand-off in Eastern Ladakh, indicating that the clash on the night intervening May 5 and 6 between the two sides is still simmering.”

This report by The Tribune further claims that PLA troops are “holding ground” on the north bank of the lake with reinforcements stationed at a back-up location, while India has also spruced up its military presence at a location it perceives as its own.

Though Indian Army has dismissed this and confirmed only the brawl that took place on 5 May, the language of denial is worth noting. The army spokesperson has clarified that “there is no continuing face-off at the Pangong Tso Lake. There is no build-up of armed troops in the area” while leaving open the possibility of a “non-armed” deployment. 

Coincidentally, while the scuffle was happening in Eastern Ladakh on ground on 5 May, Sukhoi-30 jets of the Indian Air Force were deployed in the region, according to multiple media reports. Coincidentally again, Chinese helicopters were also flying in the region close to the LAC during the fracas. There is some amount of confusion over the nature of these events.

While some Indian media reports claimed that IAF was forced to rush in its jets to intercept the Chinese choppers that were incidentally flying “close to the LAC” (though there was no violation of Indian airspace), other reports indicate the IAF jets were part of a regular routine of flying sorties in eastern Ladakh.

The Times of India reported that two IAF Sukhoi-30MKI jets were in the region when two Chinese military helicopters were detected flying close to the LAC but “the fighters were not scrambled to intercept or scare off the two Chinese helicopters, which did fly close to the Indian territory but remained on their side of the LAC.”

The Indian side, too, had a chopper carrying a top Northern Army command officer “flying in the vicinity to review the situation on the ground.”

NDTV confirmed the report but noted that “neither the army or the IAF have any comment on reports that Chinese helicopters in the region aggressively manoeuvred towards an Indian Air Force or Army chopper operating in the region.”

We now know that two violent standoffs broke out between Indian and Chinese forces within a week along the LAC, resulting in injuries to both sides, and at least one resulted in forward deployment of troops and “coincided” with a seemingly coordinated assemblage of Chinese military choppers and IAF fighter jets not too far away from each other in a hotly contested, un-demarcated region. This doesn’t sound good.

As mentioned, there are no coincidences in geopolitics, and certainly not involving China. As argued earlier, there is no reason to believe India will remain immune from China’s post-pandemic assertiveness as the ruling Chinese Communist Party goes all out to deploy diversionary tactics in dealing with the fallout of a ravaged economy.

As China faces a decline in foreign investment and at least a partial loss of domination over global supply chain, the CCP may double down on revanchist policies to shape, manage and control the narrative. This may explain why there is a sudden and noticeable increase in the number of “incidents” involving China and its neighbours. These escalatory “incidents”, therefore, are meant to send messages and simultaneously part of a probing behaviour to check responses.

Diversionary tactic

Heightened tension at the border, sudden “transgressions” and “flare-ups” between Indian and Chinese troops are part of a larger pattern.

Beijing’s flexing of muscle on its periphery — Chinese ships last week chased a Japanese fishing boat in Japanese waters near the Senkaku islands, its maritime force late last month had a tense stand-off with US Navy while trying to intimidate a Malaysian drillship, forced Taiwan to scramble its fighters as PLA jets crossed median of Taiwan Strait in a night-time flyby, sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and blamed Vietnam and tightened administrative grip over the disputed artificial islands on South China Sea  — have direct link with reports that China’s GDP shrank 6.8 percent year-over-year in the first three months of 2020.

As Chinese economy shrinks, the political legitimacy of the authoritarian CCP suffers a concomitant decline leading to opening up of fissures within the party.

Suddenly, stringing together of seemingly innocuous events lead to an indication that the impregnable authority of President Xi Jinping and political stability of China is under threat, as India’s former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale pointed out in a prescient piece for ORF.

The sudden ratcheting up tensions with neighbours in its maritime periphery, activating scuffles along undemarcated border (the LAC) are signs that the CCP is trying to divert attention of the disaffected public amid financial duress through cynically timed revanchism.

Mixed messages to India

However, China’s behaviour towards India is not reckless adventurism. It is more a calibrated opportunism and probing to send a more nuanced message. Notably, Chinese media has struck a restrained tone in reporting the “incidents” of fracas.

The State-controlled Global Times in a report claimed that the “quick resolution to China-India border face-off shows communication mechanism stays effective”. While this appears to be a positive premise, the report then goes on to issue a veiled threat to India.

“The faceoff reminded both countries that while these reoccurring minor issues have not yet hurt China-India relations, they may in the future… So we need to find opportunities and work out a fair and reasonable resolution to the border issue as soon as possible.”

China seems to be signaling that while it remains interested in continuing with the “friendly relationship”, New Delhi must stay within line or else Beijing won’t hesitate from an escalatory response. This is China’s ploy of putting the onus on India to maintain balance in the relationship, and even incentivizing “better behaviour” from the Chinese.

Through its provocative behaviour — staying just under the conflict threshold — China is also probing India’s psychological willingness to deploy the leverages that New Delhi have over Beijing, prominent among which is Taiwan.

India’s WHO leadership and the Taiwan question

Notably, the sudden Chinese belligerence at the border has coincided with India’s chance to assume a leadership role at the World Health Organization by taking over as the chair of the WHO executive Board on 22 May.

As the head of the 34-member executive board, the Indian nominee will have considerable weight in administrative decisions and policies of WHO. Some of these decisions are contentious, and loaded with geopolitical significance such as opening a probe into the origins of the pandemic and Taiwan’s participation in next week’s World Health Assembly.

As JNU professor Rajesh Rajagopalan points out, many partners with whom New Delhi shares values and interests will want India to take a firm stand on these issues and “it is also in New Delhi’s interest to ensure that China does not gain disproportionate influence over such bodies because that has consequences for India’s interests.”

It is not a coincidence that just when India has been presented with an opportunity to expand its leverage over China — the pandemic probe and Taiwan’s elevation — Beijing has started pressing some of the buttons to remind New Delhi that it must not overemphasise on that leverage because China can and will complicate India’s security situation and heighten the costs of maintaining stability in border. Chinese actions, therefore, are a dare to the Narendra Modi government.

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