By: John Elliott
Sixty years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, thought he and China’s premier Zhou Enlai could work together as equals on the world stage – until he learned otherwise in 1962 when India was humiliatingly defeated in a brief Himalayan war by China invading its territory and then withdrawing.
Now it looks as though Xi Jinping, China’s president, may be teaching the same lesson to Narendra Modi, who has displayed Nehruvian-style ambitions since he became prime minister in 2014, parading a desire for equal ranking in carefully choreographed photoshoots when the leaders have met.
Xi with Modi September 2014
China’s People’s Liberation Army has taken territory in India’s Ladakh region on the undefined 3,488-km border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), occupying areas that were earlier regarded as ‘disputed’ and left vacant by both sides.
China claims it has been acting defensively, but the two countries are teetering on the brink of armed conflict after three months of military confrontation.
Whether they will go to war at Himalayan heights of 4300 to 4900 meters is, for the first time since 1962, a real risk if current attempts to defuse the crisis fail. Xi, it has been widely assumed, wants to teach lessons – including putting a brake on India’s economic development – without war, but that can become accident-prone.
The Global Times, an aggressively controversial government-linked newspaper, said on September 11 that the Chinese people don’ want war. They should however have “real courage to engage calmly in a war that aims to protect core interests” at a time of “territorial disputes with several neighboring countries instigated by the US to confront China.”
Reports suggest that the PLA has over 40,000-50,000 troops in position on the LAC with supporting missiles and aircraft, and India has indicated it has matching forces. At some points, the two sides are a few hundred meters apart or less: elsewhere they have commanding positions in heights overlooking each other’s military installations.
The PLA has been signaling that “China is risen and you have to accept that China is the pre-eminent power in Asia, and you better understand your place in this hierarchy,” Gautam Bambawale, a former Indian ambassador to China, has told the Financial Times. “They are saying the 21st century isn’t an Asian century. It is merely and solely a Chinese century.”
Kashmir Observer map
The FT article, published online on September 16, dealt with China’s actions in various locations with an apt headline: “China’s great power play puts Asia on edge”, with “Domestic insecurity, ambition and the pandemic blamed for Beijing’s belligerence” as a subhead.
“The potential flashpoints are familiar: Taiwan; disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas; and India’s Himalayan border,” said the article. “What is unusual is that tensions have risen in unison and some commentators have warned that there are risks of military flare-ups potentially involving the US.”
In the past, incidents on the LAC have been defused, including a 10-week confrontation at Doklam on the Bhutan border in 2017 when India stood unexpectedly firm instead of quietly backing off. So it is a mystery precisely why these two nuclear powers have allowed over half a century of carefully managed coexistence to collapse into the current crisis.
The immediate reason for the Chinese action may well have been to block road building by India in the strategically important Galwan valley close to the LAC.
That led to an ugly and unprecedented brawl between both sides’ troops on May 23, with the first deaths on the LAC since 1975. Further escalation led to the exchange of 100-200 warning shots on September 7, again the first since 1975.
On a broader front, it has been widely assumed that Xi wanted to teach Modi not to draw too close to the US and its allies.
Indian village near China border
That includes Japan and Australia in a loose but increasingly significant link-up called the Quad.
Xi now probably sees an opportunity to curb India’s emergence as an economic rival and world power by forcing it to boost spending on long-delayed defense equipment and infrastructure. That will mean diverting India’s scarce funds from other more constructive developmental projects when the economy has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic that is now spiraling out of control into the country’s vast rural hinterland.
The Chinese goal could well be to compel India “to divert our resources into military spending, pushing us away from the economic trajectory where India looked to besting China in the coming decades,” said Manoj Joshi, an experienced defense analyst.
Some analysts believe that China doesn’t wish to invade more territory than it has already done. Instead, it is engaged in “a battle of financial and military manpower attrition” that will be “hugely manpower intensive and costly” for an “interminable period”, according to Rahul Bedi, a veteran defense correspondent writing on TheWire.in.
That long-term view is borne out by what happened when the two countries’ foreign ministers, S.Jaishankar and Wang Li, agreed a five-point plan to avoid future clashes at a meeting on September 10 on the sidelines of a regional conference in Moscow.
The five points include talks between militaries on the LAC and a continuation of decades-long inconclusive talks between top government representatives, but there is no indication that China will withdraw from territory it has occupied – nor that India will pull back from heights it has gained.
There was no sense of urgency, which indicates that the stand-off could well last through the winter, hardening the positions of both sides and making a resolution difficult.
In the past week, both sides have been exchanging tougher statements. China has been demanding that India withdraws from the current positions, but today in parliament, India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh, said “No force in world can stop Indian forces from patrolling on Ladakh border”. He warned China “we can start a war, but its end is not in our hands.”
One thing is for sure: the crisis is not of India’s making. Since it was defeated by China in 1962, it has been wary of provoking its militarily and economically more powerful neighbor. “India showed timidity since 1962,” Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, told the RUSI London think tank in a webinar today. That gave China “confidence they can handle India.”
Modi has tried constantly for six years to establish effective working relations – he has had as many as 18 meetings with Xi. But he has adopted a stronger stance on the LAC, first at Doklam in 2017 and now with the current crisis. To look weak would undermine his strongman nationalist stance.
Equally sure is that the current confrontation fits with Xi’s determination to establish his country as a world power, ignoring overriding international objections, as his recent subjugation of Hong Kong has shown.
“Friction with China is a given”
“Friction with China,” is a given, said S.Jaishankar, a career diplomat and former ambassador in Beijing who is now India’s foreign minister. Talking recently about his new book, The India Way, he said relations between the neighbors have been made more complex because both are rising world powers.
India has fought back in recent weeks with economic action against Chinese companies including banning the video app TikTok and some 60 other apps as well as stiffening foreign direct investment controls, banning Chinese companies from bidding for some government contracts, and acting against Chinese Huawei involvement in telecom systems
But whatever the outcome of the current stand-off, the historical parallels of miscalculations stemming from Nehru’s suave hubris and Modi’s egotistical nationalism cannot be ignored. It is unlikely Modi will find it politically credible to sit chummily on a decorated swing with Xi as he did in his home state of Gujarat six years ago today in September 2014.
Maybe he should have learned a lesson on what was the first visit by a Chinese president for eight years. Planned as Modi’s 64th birthday party – today he is 70 – it was upset by over 1,000 troops facing off against each other in Ladakh, a foretaste of what is happening now.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.