In the early days of its Covid bungle this year, as the world contemplated on mounting pressure on China, Beijing decided to move first. A familiar messaging strategy was put in place: counterattack.
At a closed-door meeting of UN Security Council in January, China brought up a request to discuss the Kashmir issue, in the middle of the virus crisis at home. Though Pakistan and China stood isolated in the UN in their attempts to raise the issue, the move carried an interesting twist: for the third time in six months, ever since article 370 was abrogated in August 2019, China had brought up the status of Ladakh and Aksai Chin, which Beijing illegally occupies.
It wasn’t a surprise then that the World Health Organisation (WHO), facing accusations of having compromised its independence at Beijing’s bidding, displayed parts of Ladakh (Aksai Chin) in the China section of its website in April — an ignominious first for any UN body.
The pot had started to brew. After Pakistan’s supreme court ordered the conduct of elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, India struck back with strong protests. India’s weather reports included regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Muzaffarabad — in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) — as part of Jammu and Kashmir. China wasn’t pleased as its BRI includes the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through POK.
Meanwhile, as China continued to lose support internationally, Xi felt the pressure at home. The Chinese Communist Party that has been in the middle of two annual sessions in May, decided that China needed to be more assertive in its defence against global attacks on account of corona. In early May, as the global clamour to punish China rapidly grew, a belligerent Beijing made the first moves. Besides hitting back against Australia and New Zealand, China threatened Vietnam and Philippines in the South China Sea. Hong Kong followed soon.
India was likely to play an important role in WHO which did not augur well for China. It was time to round off its pre-emptive counter attack strategy with a familiar adversary: India.
Three years ago, India and China had a 73-day standoff in Doklam amid different conditions. Back then, China could count on the US to push India to the negotiating table. Three years later, it finds itself isolated in the international community. Therefore, a different set of tactics was needed to pressure India. China picked three spots along the LAC. In north Sikkim, at Naku La, Indian and Chinese troops jostled against each other, ending in brawls. In Ladakh, a flashpoint has been the north bank of Pangong Tso lake.
In Galwan valley in Ladakh, troops of both armies are locked in a ferocious standoff. China has objected to India’s construction of a new road, the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Baig Oldie road with all weather access. China wants to prevent India from strengthening its links to LAC. Further east of it is the Aksai Chin plateau, occupied by China.
The third point in the India-China tussle is in Lipulekh and involves Nepal. When defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road to Lipulekh in May, Kathmandu protested and laid claim to a larger area, including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. Nepal even issued new political maps using an old forgotten treaty to buttress its claim angrily. China is aware that to extract concessions from India and deter it from joining an anti-China global alliance, it needs to squeeze India at multiple places. The use of Nepal is a signal that it would engage the neighbours and embarrass India in its larger surrogate conflict. China believes that opening of multiple hostile fronts would impose higher costs of negotiation for India.
China is aware that a strategic aim of gaining physical territory against India is difficult to achieve and therefore aims to extract tactical gains. In an impending US-led post Covid alliance where countries such as India could play a part, China wants to send across a message of dominance in the larger context: South China Sea, trade and India.
Since 2000s, border protocols set in place have enabled India and China to resolve multiple standoffs. Its interesting that more number of standoffs have occurred after agreement on protocols, which means both countries are aware of the levers to pull back from the edge. The standoff in Ladakh may look grave and the increase in Chinese troops, said to be in thousands, has sparked frenzied commentary. China could convert this into a dispute with a long standoff that deflects global attention. At worst, it can end in a local skirmish, but it’s not expected to turn into a large-scale conflict. At this stage, with the world at its throat, China simply can’t afford war.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.