Since May 2020, China has occupied almost 1,000 square kilometres of Indian claimed territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Several talks at the military and diplomatic levels have failed to convince China to withdraw its troops and to bring back the status quo.
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While India’s political and military leadership have been pleading for a negotiated settlement, China has been repeatedly using threats of further military actions.
With a struggling economy, Modi has very little at hand to be taken seriously by rising China’s Xi Jinping, who is determined to reconstruct the global and regional power structure with its economic and military might
Immediately after the meeting between defence ministers of two countries in Moscow last week, China blamed India for escalating tension and declared it ‘won’t give up an inch of territory.’
China has been amassing a large number of its soldiers and fortifying its military presence along the LAC. It is also conducting several provocative military exercises in the nearby regions to show off its military might.
As if those were not enough, the Chinese army had not only killed 20 and injured at least 76 Indian soldiers on 15 June 2020, had also taken 10 Indian soldiers including three officers as hostages. For the first time since the 1962 War, India is seeing this sort of aggression by China.
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In the past, when Chinese forces were intruding to the Indian part of LAC, the Indian army used to do a similar operation in another part of LAC, which was bringing both the countries to the negotiating table to agree to maintain the status quo.
This time four months have passed but the Indian army has not been able to take any reciprocal action, instead it has only started to consolidate its controlled areas to prevent further poaching by the People Liberation Army (PLA).
China has become so confident about its position that it is even threatening the Indian army’s consolidation exercise as a provocative action and warning of retaliatory measures.
Despite repeated provocations, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who never misses any chance to issue war threats to Pakistan has been trying to play down the crisis and his guarded condemnation has become so guarded that it fails to name China.
Ban on TikTok and PUBG
His government has been trying to take some token retaliatory measures by banning Chinese apps. In July, it had banned 59 Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat, last week another 118 mobile applications, including a popular game PUBG.
However, this trade standoff is something for the Modi government to please the nationalist crowd at home than making any meaningful impact on China.
China’s economy has grown to 6-7 times more than India. Moreover, India has asymmetric trade relations with China, with a trade deficit of $48 billion and also importing mostly intermediate and finished products.
Indian economy’s dependence on China can’t be adjusted by publicity stunts as it needs long-term comprehensive policy changes at home. Modi’s retaliatory moves on the economic front create more challenges for the Indian economy than they do to China.
China’s continuous aggressive posture has made Narendra Modi clueless about India’s necessary and adequate response. He seems to have been caught completely off guard by Xi Jinping’s power moves.
Despite several areas of contention, China and India had developed a somewhat working relationship since the mid-1980s. They had stopped being openly hostile to each other and had managed to create a framework of bilateral conflict management. That road seems to have reached a dead-end now.
Why has China decided now to take punitive actions is the question which needs an answer. Narendra Modi, in his first term in the office, had taken a couple of steps which had annoyed China greatly.
Right time to retaliate
His decision to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US in 2016 and boycotting Xi’s pet project, Belt Road Initiative (BRI) since 2017 had made China furious but it was waiting for the right time to retaliate.
In August 2019, when Modi decided to take away the limited autonomy of Kashmir and divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir and made Ladakh a separate administrative unit, that made China anxious over India’s future plans.
Adding to that, Modi’s Home Minister thundered inside the Parliament to give his life to capture Aksai Chin.
Furthermore, while China was confronting the Covid-19 crisis in the early months of 2020, the Modi regime not only criticised China openly but also boasted about luring global business with sops to exit China and move their operations to India. Those insensitive blusters were to keep Modi’s nationalist supporters excited but enraged China.
China recovered from the Covid-19 crisis fast and its economy has bounced back while India has become the new global epicentre of the pandemic and its economy continues to take a sharp downward journey.
What seems to have shifted significantly in China’s favour is the changing geopolitics in South Asia. China’s relationship with Pakistan was always strong, which only intensified after Modi abrogated Kashmir’s limited autonomy.
South Asia is undergoing a political shift. India’s relationship with Nepal is at its lowest point. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh has been distancing from India and getting closer to China for some years now.
Sri Lanka has elected a pro-China government. Even a gradually democratising Bhutan is trying to maintain a safe distance.
India’s near diplomatic isolation in South Asia has made it vulnerable to China’s aggressive actions.
With a struggling economy, Modi has very little at hand to be taken seriously by rising China’s Xi Jinping, who is determined to reconstruct the global and regional power structure with its economic and military might.
Ashok Swain is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden