Ever since Xi Jinping came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), he has given greater wings to a form of victimhood-based nationalism in China and promoted the image of the CPC as the only institution capable of defending China’s interests. One narrative that has built up as a result is that China must reclaim territories that it had supposedly lost to imperialism and great power machinations over a century and a half before the arrival of the CPC at the helm of affairs in China in 1949. In the initial years however, under Mao Zedong as Chairman of the CPC, it was not nationalism as much ideology that drove China’s actions – China even willingly gave up territory to Vietnam as part of the objective of maintaining friendly relations with a fellow communist country.
But even then, as in the case of India in 1962 and the Ussuri clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, China was ready to throw in and risk everything to push back when it thought its neighbours were trying to take undue advantage of it or acting in a hegemonic manner. In the case of India, the Chinese saw India as inheriting the imperial behaviour and attitudes of the British by making what they saw as expansive claims in Aksai Chin and trying to change the status quo on the ground through the forward policy. In their telling, the Chinese were only reacting in self-defence to protect their legitimate interests.
This particular aspect of Chinese security behaviour that whatever China does – even if it is the one that takes the initiative or goes on the offensive – is always in self-defence, is so ingrained that they simply never see themselves in the wrong and never accept that the opposite side might have a genuine claim or grievance. Thus, the Chinese see no contradiction in their promotion of the Panchsheel principles even as they are expressly violating them by occupying another country’s territory whether in the South China Sea or in India or they are intervening in the domestic politics of countries such as by supporting insurgent groups in India’s Northeast, for example.
In other words, the Chinese have consciously developed tone-deaf foreign and security policies when it involves territorial sovereignty and historical claims and put the onus of compromise always on the other side. At the same time, the Chinese are also alert to the possibilities of strengthening their positions by being extremely open and creative in other aspects of their foreign policy such as especially, economic exchanges and public diplomacy. Thus, we have a situation where nearly every country that China has a dispute with in the South China Sea as well as Japan and India that it has other territorial disputes with, are all highly dependent on China economically and need to factor this in before escalating these disputes.
In the broadest terms, these factors explain China’s continued belligerence in Ladakh. It should also be evident from the progression of events that the Chinese are particularly concerned under any and all circumstances about conveying any impression of them giving in to pressure. This in large measure also explains the reason for the series of standoffs on the LAC that began in May but which here and elsewhere have been ongoing for several years now.
From the Indian perspective, infrastructure development in the border areas along the LAC is a legitimate activity and a response to the overwhelming superiority of physical infrastructure and logistics capabilities on the Chinese side. This development on the Indian side picked up pace only in the 2000s as the Indian economy grew and more resources were available to spare for the border areas. As a result and unlike in the past, Indian troops, especially in the Western Sector, have the ability to physically patrol areas all the way up to their perception of the LAC through the summer months.
It is not the case that the Chinese have not continued their infrastructure development. Indeed, in most areas, they still possess superior infrastructure and the capabilities and the advantages that accrue accordingly. From the Chinese perspective, however, the Indian progress might also be viewed as a steady degradation of advantages that the former had taken for granted for decades. And even if the quality of Chinese infrastructure keeps improving and remains better than that of the Indians, it does not significantly alter the fact that the latter are now in a position to both block Chinese patrols and undermine the latter’s territorial claims.
Under the circumstances, it might be argued that it becomes imperative for the Chinese to innovate and to press forward to change the status quo on the LAC by word and by deed, where they can and when they still hold some advantages. This, together with extremely charged nationalism in China and the deepening politicization of its armed forces, surely offer some explanations for the increasing violence of standoffs in recent years. One could even argue that the Chinese deliberately created a provocation at Galwan to find the excuse they needed to achieve their goals. As satellite images from Galwan and Pangong Tso make clear, the Chinese have been able to move troops and equipment rapidly to build up their positions post-15 June.
The idea of a deliberate provocation in the offing also possibly explains why the Chinese have underplayed news of the clashes with India at home. But perhaps, more important is the fact that India has historically ranked as a low priority in China’s foreign and security policies. Any confrontation with India which creates a perception of China being at the receiving end – and especially, any loss of lives of its troops – thus, weakens the CPC’s legitimacy and casts doubts on its ability to lead the country against bigger competitors such as the US.
What should be concerning in the wake of Galwan and the reported loss of lives also of Chinese troops, is that Beijing will now be particularly prone to viewing any Indian action as provocative and seek to respond in an overwhelming manner as a way of saving face. India must prepare its options accordingly.
This article was originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s Actions In LAC: India Must Be Wary As Beijing “Saves Face”’, The Quint, 22 June 2020.