What is the sum total of the Indian government’s achievements in dealing with China in the last year?
One, on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) itself, in the rush to create the semblance of ‘achievement’, the Indian government proved too eager to make concessions and to show as if the bilateral relationship was getting back on track. As a result, the Chinese got the Indian Army to vacate the Kailash ranges occupied at the end of August last year in return for disengagement from just two points – Pangong Tso and Gogra – in the opening months of the year. The entire process has subsequently stalled with Hot Springs, Demchok and Depsang remaining points of friction. This was entirely predictable and indeed, the government had fair warning.
At the heart of any communist political system is the Marxist emphasis on class struggle with the apparent objective of achieving the utopia of a society of perfect equality and free from want. But the class struggle itself and attempts to either promote it or to deal with it are the result of or depend on the economic conditions obtaining in the polity. It is, therefore, not without reason that Marxists and leaders of communist nations have a constant focus on the economy or on economic conditions, never mind the effectiveness of their prescriptions.
China’s leaders have since the end of the Maoist era at least, not only been rather more careful than their counterparts in the former Soviet bloc countries in giving economic growth its due place, but also succeeded in shaping a successful economic model that has delivered decades of high rates of growth. They have understood the consequences of economic conditions for a country’s domestic politics and its international prospects better than most.
The press release by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs at the end of the 13th round of the India-China corps commanders meeting held on 10 October was explicit in declaring that “the situation along the LAC had been caused by unilateral attempts of Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements.” It put the onus squarely on the Chinese side to “take appropriate steps… so as to restore peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the Western Sector.”
The statement is noteworthy for being one of the few times that New Delhi has directly accused China of bad behaviour outside of the context of major provocations such as the Galwan clash in June 2020 or the Chinese attempts to unilaterally change the status quo on the south bank of the Pangong Tso a few months later on 29-30 August. Other instances include Minister of State in the MEA, V. Muraleedharan’s replies to questions in the Rajya Sabha in February and the Lok Sabha in February and March, as well as Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla in a speech at the end of June this year. Both would refer to Chinese attempts over the last year to unilaterally alter the status quo in Ladakh.
A major change in tone and tenor is evident especially if one compares the latest statement with one from just a year ago at the end of the 7th round held on 12 October 2020. That statement was, in fact, a joint one with the Chinese that characterised discussions as “constructive” (twice in the space of a single paragraph), as “positive” and as having “enhanced understanding of each other’s positions”.
At the 6th JP Morgan “India Investor Summit” in mid-September, Foreign Minister Dr S. Jaishankar stated that India-China relations “can only be based on ‘three mutuals’- mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests”. The implication is that China is seriously working against or at least constraining India’s strategic interests. If so, New Delhi’s continued engagement with China through such forums as BRICS is a puzzling facet of Indian foreign policy, even acknowledging India’s need to be seen as exercising ‘strategic autonomy’. If the Indian government expects the rest of the world to take its arguments about Chinese bad behaviour seriously, then there is a case to be made for New Delhi cutting down on such mixed signals as its participation in the BRICS summits represent.
Rhetoric Masks Reality
Unlike say the G-20, BRICS is a small grouping that throws up in sharper relief both a particularly anti-West political orientation, which India itself does not quite have, as well as China’s outsized global role and influence, which is surely not what New Delhi intends. Indeed, BRICS could very well be done away with given that India already has a strong bilateral relationship with Russia and has engaged with Brazil and South Africa in a separate forum, IBSA, with an explicitly pro-democracy agenda.
An August 29 interview of China’s Special Envoy on the Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong offers a useful overview of China’s views and concerns about the situation in the aftermath of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Chinese envoy’s reference to “The irresponsible and hasty withdrawal of the troops of the United States as well as the NATO” indicates that the Chinese too have been caught in a situation where they are not prepared with options. The fact that the interview was conducted in English suggests among other things that they are not shy of letting the world know this.
China has at least two challenges before it with implications for its security. One, in managing the Taliban itself, and the other in terms of impact on its other neighbours.
It is noteworthy that Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping started his visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) last week by flying into Nyingchi. This is because on Chinese maps, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is shown as part of the Nyingchi and Lhoka prefectures in TAR.
It should not be surprising that Beijing keeps a close eye on what it considers sensitive territorial issues. However, it would be incorrect to assume that the only kind of Chinese transgression into Indian territory is of the military sort. China’s civilian infrastructure build-up in TAR or Xinjiang is almost always seen in India as being also of military use, as indeed they could be. But their other uses must not be ignored. Nor should pronouncements from the Chinese leadership on matters of culture or the environment be dismissed merely as propaganda aimed at Tibetan and other minorities in TAR. They also have value as propaganda aimed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at India’s border populations.
1. The Beginning: What was the historical context, in China and in the world, of the birth of the Chinese Communist Party?
The CCP was formed in the crucible of a China beset by domestic upheaval, economic backwardness and a floundering experiment with a democratic republic that followed the fall of the Qing Empire. It was obvious to Chinese intellectuals that their country’s imperial greatness was a thing of the past and the search for national revival saw multiple ideologies contend during this period. The newly minted Soviet Union was keen to have more support in the east and sent cadre – including at one point, the Indian revolutionary, MN Roy – to support the growth of Chinese communism. The CCP also views the 1919 May 4th student movement as a seminal influence on many of its founders. The students were protesting the Chinese government’s inability at the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I, to get Western imperial powers and Japan to give up their territories and privileges in China. With the students also seeking a complete cultural and political overhaul calling for the adoption of science and democracy in place of traditional values, the May Fourth movement has continued to find its echo throughout Communist China’s history down to the present.
2. Early Decades: What political and ideological imperatives guided Mao Zedong in the decades of the 50s and 60s? What did the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution achieve for Mao and the CCP?
The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced India to accept foreign aid – including from the Chinese Red Cross – for the first time in 16 years. For Indians of a certain persuasion, there is a particular shame in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government having to seek foreign aid. For their worldview comprises a mix of various resentments against the perceived outsider – Muslims, Westerners/Christian missionaries, Chinese/atheists. Indeed, the strength of articulation of the vishwaguru trope lies precisely in this reality and the need to have something that is apparently of India’s ‘own’ to offer.
Even as India targets China in its alignment with the other democracies in the Quad, it is worth reflecting on how closely the temper and, to an extent the practice, of Indian foreign policy appears to be aligning with those of Chinese foreign policy. China’s assertiveness beyond its boundaries derives in large measure from the nature of the Communist Party of China (CPC) as a political party that does not believe in sharing power at home, from its conflation of regime interest with the national interest.
For Indians this should not be so hard to understand.