Beijing’s Asian solidarity is a China-dominated Asia

The Indian foreign minister’s statement still does not convey the strength that a bully like China would appreciate, writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Indian and Chinese foreign ministers

Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting at Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on September 16 that “Asian solidarity would depend on the example set by India-China relations”. Sino-Indian ties encompass an entire range of subjects but the most prominent is the unresolved border issue. But if Asian solidarity is to depend on India-China relations, what are we witnessing in this aspect?  

China invaded India in Eastern Ladakh last year and has indulged in land-grabbing large swathes of Indian territory, including so-called no patrol zones which have denied traditional grazing grounds to Ladakhis. Media reports indicate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has erected concrete watchtowers with CCTV cameras at their new locations inside India-claimed lines in Ladakh. According to an Indian official, “The watchtowers and posts erected by the Chinese overlook areas held by the Indian Army. It’s a matter of extreme concern.” 

Chinese aggression 

Chinese patrols have been transgressing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in areas other than Ladakh as well, especially in Barahoti and Arunachal Pradesh. Satellite images show two newly constructed Chinese villages, one consisting of 100 houses and the other of 66 houses, in Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as "South Tibet". 

As part of his address to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly on September 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “China has never and will never invade or bully others or seek hegemony (sic).” On September 30, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “The Indian side has long pursued the 'Forward Policy' and illegally crossed the LAC to encroach on China's territory" as the “root cause of tension” in the border situation. 

China says its territory and sovereignty are inviolable. By territory it obviously includes all illegal territorial claims. China’s new border law tasks the PLA to carry out border duties, organize drills and prevent invasion, encroachment, provocation and other acts. The law also states that China will strengthen border defense, support economic and social development as well as open up border areas, improve public services and infrastructure in such areas and the like. In simple terms, this implies perpetual activation of the LAC leading to border tensions. It also makes resolution of the border issue with India that much more difficult if not impossible. 

A Beijing dominated Asia 

No doubt Xi Jinping wants to realize his dream of China dominating the world. But he is buoyed by lack of global consensus against actions he has bulldozed through, be it the genocide in Xinjiang and Tibet, Wuhan virus, steamrolling the UN recognized treaty with the UK on Hong Kong and the like. Xi perceives an opportunity to annex Taiwan and dominate the world with advances in spheres like space and cyber domains as well as biological warfare. 

For Xi, the signals from America’s Joe Biden administration appear conciliatory notwithstanding Biden “considering” diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in China. If at all China is to feel the pinch of the US boycotting the Winter Olympics, it will also depend on which other countries follow suit, which may not be many.   

As for the India-China border issue, India needs to acknowledge its share for China’s rogue behaviour.  Despite clear aggression by China in Eastern Ladakh, India did not call China the aggressor – only blamed China for the Galwan Valley clash much later. This resulted in China calling India the aggressor in return and China taking the stance that India must withdraw first to de-escalate. This means that Indian forces must retreat further in their own territory. 

India not showing strength 

China also coerced India to withdraw from the Kailash Range within Indian territory, occupation of which had been hailed as a strategic step. But in exchange, China only agreed to a 10-km long no-patrol zone along the north bank of the Pangong Lake which Indian forces used to patrol earlier but now cannot. India, therefore, lost all leverage at the bargaining table.     

Speaking at a panel discussion at the Bloomberg New Economic Forum in Singapore recently, Jaishankar said: “I don’t think the Chinese have any doubt on where we stand on our relationship and what’s not gone right with it... We are going through a particularly bad patch in our relationship because they have taken a set of actions in violation of agreements for which they still don’t have a credible explanation and that indicates some rethink about where they want to take our relationship, but that’s for them to answer.” 

The Indian foreign minister’s statement still does not convey the strength that a bully like China would appreciate. In fact, it will be viewed as continuing pusillanimous behaviour on the part of India, not that Xi would bother much being focused on realizing China’s illegal territorial claims, large parts of which are in India. 

India has also refrained from imposing any worthwhile costs on China and China is gaining financially more through bilateral trade after its aggression on India last year. So, why should it bother about India? 

China does not believe in the principle of equality in international relations; it views India as an adversary which it wants to confine to South Asia in a China-centric Asia. If Asian solidarity is to depend on the example set by India-China relations, as Jaishankar perceives, it is already fractured and is set to fracture even more. 

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.)