Rage of the Impotent: Three Reasons That Explain China’s Border Moves and How India Should Respond

Kanchan Gupta

The Book of Changes, or I Ching, containing distilled ancient Chinese wisdom which guided the heavenly ordained rulers of the Middle Kingdom both in the discharge of temporal duties and in the pursuit of pleasures, offers this cautionary advice: “Give rein to your emotion. If not, disaster is ahead. There is no benefit whatsoever.”

The men who rule China from Zhongnanhai clearly follow these words of sage advice as did the emperors who ruled from the adjacent Forbidden City. Their inscrutability bears evidence to the overwhelming influence that I Ching wields even today.

Yet, there has been a certain departure from the inscrutability that has been the hallmark of the CPC leadership ever since China realised that the global blowback to the manner in which Beijing handled the ‘Wuhan Virus’ outbreak, that has since turned into the rampaging COVID19 pandemic, is more than fleeting anger.

With tens of thousands of people dead, many more afflicted and several times more losing their livelihoods across continents, the rising tide of anger against China is real and here to stay.

The CPC leadership, which doubles up as the totalitarian regime of China, understands that this anger can have far-reaching consequences. A fierce global blowback will inevitably adversely impact the Chinese economy. That, in turn, would upend the CPC’s plans and politics at home and abroad.

A politically and economically isolated China, a pariah state, cannot aspire to become the sole global power, a goal that has driven the Chinese regime since the days of Deng Xiaoping.

Party time is over, or so would the emerging numbers suggest. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the global economy to a grinding halt and countries are scrambling to kickstart their stalled economies. If China believed it would go unscathed, it clearly overestimated its resilience and strength: The Chinese economy has turned cold along with the economies of the rest of the world.

Unemployment in China is currently estimated to be at 10 per cent, which is four percentage points more than what is admitted officially. Closed factories mean lost jobs; neither the CPC commissars nor their super-strong general secretary-for-life Xi Jinping ever thought either would happen. Just as they did not expect the ‘Wuhan Virus’ would shrink the Chinese economy by 6.8 per cent in the first quarter of the year compared to the first quarter of 2019.

Unemployment in China is currently estimated to be at 10 per cent, which is four percentage points more than what is admitted officially. Closed factories mean lost jobs; neither the CPC commissars nor their super-strong general secretary-for-life Xi Jinping ever thought either would happen

Understandably, at the all-important annual ‘Two Sessions’ meetings last week, delayed by nearly two months (something that was unimaginable a year ago), the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress spent considerable time in deliberating on the economy and the path ahead. While little will ever be known of the actual deliberations, what little is known is sufficiently indicative of the mood in Zhongnanhai.

For the first time since 1990, no annual GDP target has been set; the government’s focus will return to where it was decades ago, that is, job creation (to reabsorb millions who have lost their jobs and create employment for 8.7 million new graduates) and tackle food inflation. It is believed that the 14th Five-Year Plan, which is being drafted, will steer China away from a globalised economy, dependent on others, to an economy primarily dependent on the Chinese market.

It would be fair to suggest that China is preparing for life after Covid-19 when global supply chains and geostrategic alignments and geopolitical alliances will be in for a churn. How extensive will be that churn can only be contemplated and not commented on with certitude at the moment.

For China, or rather the Communist Party of China, these are not happy times. Their promotion and projection of Xi Jinping as a strong and resolute leader above criticism at home and beyond reproach abroad has not quite turned out the way it was supposed to be. The handling of the ‘Wuhan Virus’ outbreak, the making of a pandemic and the absence of concern, compassion or contrition on the part of the Xi regime has had the opposite effect.

For China, or rather the Communist Party of China, these are not happy times. Their promotion and projection of Xi Jinping as a strong and resolute leader above criticism at home and beyond reproach abroad has not quite turned out the way it was supposed to be.

This stark reality has resulted in the inscrutable Chinese leadership and its mandarins and minions dropping their masks and showing their raw emotions.

From abusing and threatening Australia (recently it was called a “dog of America” in a replay of Chairman Mao’s description of Jawaharlal Nehru as a “running dog of American imperialism”) to seeking to browbeat the US (whose President recently described his Chinese counterpart as a “whacko”) to bullying the EU into watering down its position on Chinese culpability in the spread of the ‘Wuhan Virus’ to flexing its muscles over South China Sea (quite needlessly as the world’s attention is focussed on the pandemic) to manipulating those countries which have benefited from Chinese patronage (Nepal and Pakistan among others), China has been betraying its battered and bruised emotions, disregarding what I Ching says – that this way lies disaster and there is no benefit whatsoever.

As Quad Plus rallies together and an alliance of democracies takes shape, as countries call for new supply chains and restructure their economies, disentangling them from the pre-Covid-19 global mesh, as manufacturers relocate from China and look for new hubs, as big ticket investors look at India despite the current setback to the economy, and as America continues to harden its position, imposing penalties and disincentivising American firms doing business in China, as broke BRI ‘partners’ plead inability to service their debt, and as Huawei fails to fly as the global flagbearer of Chinese technology, the rage of the impotent, metaphorically speaking, sets in.

It is against this backdrop that one must view China’s multiple intrusions across the Line of Actual Control in India’s Ladakh and the almost simultaneous campaign by the Oli Government in Nepal to project India as a land-grabber. It has been said that the Chinese action has been prompted by India scrapping Article 370 and reorganising the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir into two separate Union Territories, carving out Ladakh as a separate entity, directly administered by the Union Government.

That happened on August 5, 2019, and Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament that India remains committed to regaining control over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China-occupied Aksai Chin, a reiteration of earlier parliamentary resolutions, is not of recent vintage.

It is laughable to suggest that Indian Meteorological Department issuing weather reports on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan, has ruffled Chinese feathers. Nor does it make sense that India’s building strategic infrastructure along the LAC has raised Chinese hackles: Road and bridge construction, along with enhanced troop movement, has been happening for some time now.

There are three plausible explanations for China’s actions along the LAC. First, the CPC commissars and their bosses are sufficiently worried about anti-regime sentiments at home to create distractions from piling woes and drum up populist support. This is like the Arab palace declaring support for Palestine every time the Arab street would express disaffection and discontent on domestic issues.

In other parts of the world, China has put its missions on ‘Aggressive’ mode; in this part of the world it has sent troops across the LAC and pitched camp on the Indian side. Both are low cost tactics.

Second, the Xi regime does not want to be seen as shaken, if not weakened, by the cost China is having to pay for the ‘Wuhan Virus’. The CPC draws its power and authority from a strong leader at the helm; whatever it takes, Xi must be propped up as unassailable and unwavering in leading China to its goal of dominating the world politically, financially, technologically and culturally.

Just like the Chinese incursion into Doklam in Bhutan, nobody knows who planned and executed the intrusion into Ladakh. But within China and beyond it signals that while Covid-19 may have proved a deterrent and distraction for capitals of other nations, Beijing remains unaffected and undeterred, that it is business as usual.

Third, it is a message from Beijing to New Delhi: Step back and lay off, do not try to step into the breach created by the pandemic and posit India as a potential supply lines hub in the post Covid-19 world; stop seducing manufacturers now based in China and abandon the barriers that are being raised for Chinese investments, goods and services, or else. This is of course a bluff. And India’s calm, steady and understated response has only served to add to a bully’s pique.

However, all this and more must remain in the realm of conjecture. It was expected that some clue would be offered during the ‘Two Sessions’ meetings as to why China has adopted the path to trouble which leads to no benefits whatsoever. No such clue was offered although the Chinese Foreign Minister spoke for a record 100 minutes. Emperor Qianlong had a simple yet instructive message inscribed on a plaque that hung above his throne: “The way of heaven is profound and mysterious. The way of mankind is difficult.” It would be safe to suggest the Xi regime is being difficult.

So, how should India respond? China watchers and analysts have called for a tough line. But conflict in any form at the time of Covid-19 is not the best way forward; India cannot afford either the distraction or the cost. At the same time, capitulation is unacceptable, not the least because India has firmly rebuffed similar Chinese misadventures in the past, most recently in Doklam, without conceding an inch. There should be a strategic response with India tactically aligning with countries that are vocal in their criticism of China and in pushing the envelope for Taiwan.

There should be a military response with India matching the deployment of Chinese troops along the LAC and demonstrating its capacity to protect its territory. There should be a political response with India further amending laws and raising barriers to Chinese goods and services and investments. There should be a diplomatic response with India engaging China in dialogue, no matter how seemingly obdurate, irrational or inchoate the Chinese may be.

India must to be doing something right for China to be so riled. India should stick to doing those things and building a Great Wall of Democracies. In the coming days, as Hong Kong becomes a hot item on the global political agenda, this coalition’s strength will be tested.

Last, though not the least, India must actively seek to keep China and its feckless proxies out of leadership positions in global organisations. There is no percentage in sticking to bogus ‘anti-West’ ideological positions of the past or seek South-South cooperation in a world where North and South, East and West are fluid geographies.

India must to be doing something right for China to be so riled. India should stick to doing those things and building a Great Wall of Democracies. In the coming days, as Hong Kong becomes a hot item on the global political agenda, this coalition’s strength will be tested

All this has to be done with a certain finesse. In-your-face hostility may animate the chattering classes and thrill the masses but would be unwise: As former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sagely observed, “You can change friends but not neighbours.” That observation still holds true.

However, the twin pillars of India’s China policy, cooperation and competition, need to be repositioned to competition and cooperation. Meanwhile, it would be astute to remember what I Ching says, “No matter how smooth it is, there are always slopes.” Bullies blunder their way into slopes regardless of consequences. Responsible powers skirt the slopes.

The article first appeared in ORF.

The author is a distinguished fellow at ORF. Views expressed are personal.