As China enters the new year — the year of the tiger according Chinese zodiac — what are some of the prominent themes that mark Beijing’s approach to India since the beginning of the crisis in eastern Ladakh in 2020? Official statements apart, it might be useful to look closely at some Track-1.5 and Track-2 interactions that have taken place in the interregnum.
One, China has been unwilling to admit to any mistake or lapse on its part for the provocations in eastern Ladakh in 2020. Two, the Chinese have offered the Indians reassurance in the form of old tropes about similar civilisational heritage, common developmental challenges, and so on. Three, they have tried to distract by repeating that the boundary dispute should not be allowed to impede progress in other parts of the bilateral ties.
Four, Beijing has also attempted to recast the current crisis as an opportunity to negotiate a new framework calling for “a comprehensive, objective examination of the relationship.” Thus, it has come up with new concepts, ignoring principles that were agreed to after decades’ worth of bilateral talks. These principles it now finds inconvenient, no doubt, perceiving that they prevent China from taking advantage of the gap that has opened up in capabilities with India since the last major treaty was signed in 2005.
Five, Chinese interlocutors have been bold enough to issue threats to their Indian counterparts, both subtly and overtly. In the first instance, threats are disguised as complaints. A common instance is to talk of the “the real question”, namely, “the role of outside players” to imply that India views China with a Western (read US) mindset.
The message is that since China sees itself in strategic competition with the US, then India too will bear its consequences. This is patronising and tone-deaf certainly but understandable given the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) stress on preserving itself in power.
The perception of being in competition with the US helps justify the CPC rule as a counterweight and alternative model for the world. In this worldview, India can only be portrayed as a bit player or as a lackey of the US, and not a leader in its own right, in order to simplify the CPC’s political narrative at home.
‘A Big Strategic Mistake’
A related approach is to blame “some Indian scholars” for viewing China as pursuing hegemony in Asia, and for hyping the China threat, and indirectly, therefore, warning Indian leaders to not make the same mistake.
In an example of a more direct threat, Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong, was on record at one meeting in July saying that if India viewed China as an enemy, then that would be “a big strategic mistake”. At a recent online interaction involving Chinese scholars of South Asia associated with prominent Communist Party and PRC think-tanks, a Chinese speaker noted that 2022 was India’s 75th anniversary of Independence, and an important year for China itself given the upcoming 20th CPC National Congress. But he had begun the list of milestones by briefly reminding the Indian side that 2022 was the 60th anniversary of the 1962 conflict.
‘Teaching India A Lesson’
There is no way to read this as anything but a reminder that the Chinese are not averse to engaging in a limited conflict with India if they perceive that this serves their purposes. These purposes could include solidifying their advances on the LAC, reversing any perceived Indian gains since June 2020, punishing Indian intransigence at the military-to-military talks, responding to any overt India-US/Quad signalling and/or responding to any overt Indian ingress in China’s perceived sphere of influence (example: sale of Brahmos missiles to the Philippines). A number of these have the nature of ‘teaching India a lesson’, and we already know that CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping is big on history and on repeating or mirroring some of Mao Zedong’s actions and statements.
Indeed, in a rare honest admission that the situation is unlikely to be resolved soon, the Chinese participant also stated that “there is no good way out” of the current impasse in bilateral ties. Naturally, Chinese diplomats would never say such a thing out aloud but that is all the more reason why such candour needs to be taken seriously by New Delhi.
Reassure and Distract
This is not to say that the Chinese will not also continue to reassure, and distract. Indeed, always expressing optimism about the India-China relationship no matter what the circumstances is something of a standard operating procedure for Chinese interlocutors. One, in fact, viewed Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanging sweets this New Year’s Day — the first time they have done so since the Ladakh tensions erupted — as a sign of a thaw in ties.
The government appears not to understand the nature of the regime in China, very well. After stern words at the end of the 13th round of military-to-military talks in October, it returned to coming up with bland joint statements following the 14th round in January only to be later insulted by the inclusion of a Chinese PLA officer involved in the Galwan clashes as one of the torchbearers at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
New Delhi should refrain from soft-pedalling, and inconsistency, if it is to get anywhere with the Chinese. It is time the government came out with a white paper on the negotiations so far so that the general public is better informed about the exact state of affairs at the LAC, its negotiating strategy, and its objectives.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India must beware of China’s reassurances’, Moneycontrol, 15 February 2022.