With the Chinese troops pulling back from Galwan Valley and Hot Springs, the first few tottering steps towards de-escalation have started along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. It will take at least a few more weeks if not months for the status quo to be restored provided the People's Liberation Army (PLA) sticks to the modalities of disengagement. The Indian army remains cautious though as a similar pullback was done by Beijing before catching India on the wrong foot in 1962.
But keeping aside the modalities and mechanisms of disengagement, the standoff leading to the subsequent clash and Beijing’s power play in South China Sea have thrown up some vital lessons that not only India but the world has to take cognisance of.
China’s rise is a threat to others
M Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, believes that Beijing’s need to project its strength is the main reason behind the confrontation with India. Indeed it will be a grave mistake to view the border dispute as a problem of perception between the two sides or China’s concern over India augmenting infrastructure along its side of the LAC.
There’s a pattern in which China raises its territorial issues with its neighbours and uses them as pressure points to bog them down. In the last decade and half, Beijing has hardly allowed Japan, Vietnam, Philippines to carry out their maritime activities without incurring the wrath of the Chinese navy. From ramming into Vietnamese fishing boats to laying its claim over Senkaku Islands, the brazen belligerence is often at full public display.
The muscle flexing and territorial demands, which till now came to be regarded as ‘salami slicing’, were just a smokescreen. All in all it was China’s way of saying to its neighbours that they should accept and kowtow to the hegemonic might of the world’s second largest economy as it wants the world to be Sinocentric.
USA gearing up to play a decisive role
The common glue that binds India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and even Australia is the United States, or the dependency of these countries on America’s military might to stop a marauding communist China. And all indications are that the US will take the posture it deems necessary to meet any challenge from China. Already, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that America will shift some of its troops from Europe to counter China’s threat to India and other Southeast Asian countries.
A few days later, Chief of Staff at the White House, Mark Meadows, unambiguously said that the US will not let anyone including China take up the reins and become the dominant force. China’s continuous threat towards Taiwan and its sabre-rattling in the South China Sea has unnerved the US so much that it has sent two aircraft carriers to conduct dual carrier operations at the disputed sea.
To make its intent clear and send a message to Beijing, Washington had also dispatched a long-range, nuclear capable B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
Imperative for India, Japan, South Korea to increase military spending
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute military expenditure database shows an important fact that’s hard to ignore. Since 2014, China’s military budget has always been more than $200 billion annually whereas India’s highest-ever budgetary allocation in that period has only been $71 billion. For Japan and South Korea, the highest budgetary allocations in this period for a particular fiscal year have only been $47.6 billion and $46 billion, respectively.
The figures clearly emphasise the thrust and the importance that Beijing has put on developing its forces into a formidable military power. From aircraft carriers to stealth fighters, it depended on its domestic industry, while it imported technologies and weapons platforms like the S-400 missile defence system which it couldn’t develop on its own. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his recent visit to Ladakh, peace cannot be achieved by the weak, all those finding it impossible to accept China’s bullying anymore must develop their military prowess.
Australia has already showed its intent by publicly announcing that the country will acquire state-of-the-art long-range missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, AWACs and even establish an offensive cyber unit. India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines all need to increase their spending and ramp up their preparedness to meet any eventualities.
The need for a grand alliance against China
In the short term, almost all of China’s neighbours, who have been antagonised by Beijing’s muscular engagement policy, will find it difficult to take on the might of the dragon. There’s a need for a united front against China. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic forum compromising the US, India, Australia and Japan, needs to up its military coordination and present a united front against any future misadventure by China.
Deception and surprise: Cornerstone of China’s military tactics
“Attack your enemy where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected,” said Sun Tzu, former Chinese military strategist. The Middle Kingdom has mastered the art of deception and surprise as espoused by Tzu, who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China.
The territorial aggression at Ladakh happened out of the blue without Beijing even once voicing its displeasure over Indian activities in the region. The violent clash at Galwan was also a quintessential Chinese deception that took the form of a Machiavellian scheme. In a similar move, its new demand over Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, situated in eastern Bhutan adjoining Arunachal Pradesh, is another masterstroke in subduing the enemy without fighting — another cornerstone of Sun Tzu’s war principles.
By creating multiple pressure points and opening multiple fronts, China likes to catch its neighbours completely off guard with new demands every now and then and shifting the goalposts. This strategy is highly effective in disrupting the opponents’ plans who are forced to revise and recalibrate their tactics in order to fend off the Chinese.
China doesn’t want to be seen as an expansionist, arrogant force
For a country, which views all its territorial problems and belligerence through the prism of sovereignty, PM Narendra Modi’s indirect reference to China's expansionist policies has hit the bullseye. While the opposition in India was busy criticising the PM for not naming China, its embassy spokesperson in New Delhi, Ji Rong, cried foul claiming that it was “groundless to view China as ‘expansionist’, exaggerate and fabricate its disputes with neighbours”. Beijing feared that being called out would expose its real intentions before others and jeopardise its carefully crafted discourse that China’s rise has been peaceful and it poses no threat to others.
Only countries part of China’s BRI are safe from the dragon’s wrath
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is like one of the East India Company’s treaties with local kingdoms in India whose eventual but inevitable fate would be to get completely gobbled up by the Raj. Under the guise of providing credit and expertise to develop infrastructure in developing and poor countries, China pushes them into a huge debt trap by investing in a series of economically unviable projects. Those countries, unable to pay back, are forced to behave like a vassal or a client state.
Take the example of Pakistan. It moved its troops to Gilgit-Baltistan along the Line of Control (LoC) and allowed the PLA to use its airbase at Skardu in June at the height of the face-off. In April only the Imran Khan Government had sought an extension on a debt repayment of $30 billion that Islamabad had taken to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Though Islamabad vouches that China is its only all-weather friend, behind the troop movement lies the cold calculations of easing the repayment process.
And Pakistan is not an isolated case. Those countries which are a part of the BRI have been spared the bullying tactic as they speak in unison to endorse Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior’ foreign policy. The Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, calculated that the combined debt of 67 countries, who are a part of the project, tracked in 2017, amounted to $135 billion. No doubt all these countries supported China’s decision to impose the security law in Hong Kong.
Like Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, China’s meteoric rise now threatens to upend the system that has become the bulwark of 21st century world order. Unless and until Beijing decides to revisit and reform the way it is taking on the world through its BRI project and ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, the day is not far when a confrontation involving multiple nations will be inevitable.