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Indian and Chinese soldiers near the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. Image Credit: Supplied

Foreign policy or diplomacy needn’t necessarily be a zero-sum game. Not always, that is.

Looking at the trajectory of the recent skirmishes between Indian and Chinese infantry troops stationed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region, the truth behind this adage becomes all the more obvious. When it comes to a game of one-upmanship involving two neighbouring states with such massive economic and military resources and accounting for the combined fortunes of as much as 38 per cent of the global population, then the contours of Indo-China relations since the early 1960s present a case study that’s truly unique.

To put things in perspective, China, the world’s second-largest economy, and India, the fifth-largest economy in the world, share a border that stretches over 4,056 kilometres. And yet, the last time these two Asian powerhouses were involved in a military conflict was way back in 1967. Since then, while border skirmishes over disputed land territories primarily along the Line of Actual Control have often been recorded, not a single bullet has been fired from either side, leave alone fighting a war. In 2017, the armies with the world’s second and third-largest infantries faced off for a 73-day border pow-wow at Doklam in Bhutan, which was settled through diplomatic channels – again, without even the slightest trace of a smoking gun anywhere on either side of the border.

Retaliatory measure

The latest skirmishes between the armies of the two countries in Galwan, Ladakh, which started earlier this month, need to be seen in the light of this unique position that both Beijing and New Delhi share with each other.

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An Indian Army convoy crosses the Chang La Pass near Pangong Lake in the Ladakh region. Image Credit: AP

According to Indian media sources, thousands of Chinese troops forcibly entered the Galwan valley in Ladakh and erected tents and dug up trenches on what was primarily regarded as Indian territory. The move came largely as a retaliatory measure from the Chinese side after India built a road stretching over hundreds of kilometres to connect one of its high-altitude air bases to the mainland. The reason why this started ringing alarm bells on the Indian side in particular is that the Chinese incursions took place at points along the LAC that were mutually accepted and acknowledged as Indian territory since long. According to Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s own admission, the nature of the current conflict is “a bit different” compared to past skirmishes. The poorly-demarcated LAC, with its overlapping zones of rival territorial claims, has often added a military dimension to already existing political tensions between New Delhi and Beijing. What probably prompted Singh to say that the nature of the current conflict was “a bit different” from the past was the sheer size of the troop build-up on the Chinese side. Beijing reportedly deployed as many as 5,000 soldiers along the LAC in the Galwan hotspot during this month’s showdown, prompting many a defence observer to say that such a massive buildup along the LAC was unprecedented.

The tactical aspect of even a low-intensity war in an age of social media activism and proliferation of the world-wide-web can prove to be far more bruising than many a smart bomb put together.


Foreign policy hyperposition

Showing off its military might and muscle-flexing at places well and truly beyond its shores have long been a part and parcel of Beijing’s not-so-nuanced foreign policy hyperposition. Coupled with that is its global business and entrepreneurship overreach in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that plans to have China’s unmistakable footprints on infrastructure projects worth around $8 trillion covering 60 countries primarily from Asia and Europe, but also involving Oceania and East Africa. Add to that the fact that by virtue of being a manufacturing behemoth, China today has its finger tips firmly placed on the nerve-centre of global supply chain.

Given such a massive global presence as a military-manufacturing-entrepreneurship triple-play blockbuster that has fast come to contest even the United States, the world’s largest economy, it is only natural for Beijing to try and browbeat its next-door neighbour that runs the best chance of acting as an effective counterweight to its expansionist intent in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. So in that sense, a massive Chinese troop build-up along a fiercely contested territory of mutual interest with India is not entirely unusual. But the moot point is: Can China really afford to provoke India into a full-scale war at this juncture, notwithstanding its overwhelming military might? The answer to that lies more within China’s geographical boundaries and not so much beyond it.

Administrative iron-fist

In a rather unprecedented policy shift prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese leadership decided to do away with its annual economic growth target at the opening of the National People’s Congress on May 22, with Prime Minister Le Keqiang instead announcing the need to focus on employment and poverty alleviation. Owing to Covid-19, China’s gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2020 shrunk for the first time in many decades. Off-budget measures were undertaken to boost the economy and generate more employment and the total fiscal stimulus targeted to achieve these objectives is expected to be around 7 per cent of China’s GDP. Rising trade and diplomatic tiff with Washington, with Taiwan and Hong Kong on the edge over Beijing’s unrelenting administrative iron-fist, the global supply chain taking in a huge blow due to the pandemic-induced disruptions, and with more than hundred member-states of the World Health Organisation demanding to put the microbiology laboratory in Wuhan under the scanner for a closer look at the suspected ‘source’ of the novel strain of coronavirus, this for sure is no time for China to go to war – least with a neighbour who is nuclear-armed.

And make no mistake: Beijing’s superior military position on paper is no guarantee for a favourable outcome in strategic terms in case of a high-octane, full-on military conflict with New Delhi, because modern warfare hardly ever follows a ‘two-plus-two-make-four’ matrix. The tactical aspect of even a low-intensity war in an age of social media activism and proliferation of the world-wide-web can prove to be far more bruising than many a smart bomb put together.

Lockdown woes

Likewise, India too has its plate full, with the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Shaktikanta Das, cautioning that GDP growth in Asia’s third-largest economy could plummet below zero in 2020-2021 owing to an unprecedented socio-economic crisis triggered by a prolonged lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic. With a sudden spike in unemployment due to job losses during the lockdown and lack of business activities within the country, private consumption, which accounts for 60 per cent of India’s domestic demand, could be severely impacted. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, by the end of April 2020, more than 122 million people had lost their jobs in India owing to the coronavirus crisis – 75 per cent of them being small traders and daily wage earners. For India to get into a war-like scenario at this point in time, not to mention and actual war, will be nothing less than a hara kiri.

So why are the two armies, of India and China, apparently getting into yet another who-blinks-first scenario at the LAC?

‘War games’

Apart from the diplomatic point-counterpoint, modern statecraft has a lot to do with what in popular parlance is often referred to as “war games”. What we have been noticing in Galwan Valley over the last fortnight has a lot to do with ramping up tension for a projected military exigency to keep the neighbour next door feel a little more insecure at times of grave uncertainties otherwise, without actually ratcheting up a war-cry. For both India and China, the stakes are too high for an all-out military conflict, though keeping the fear-psychosis going is just as much a part of the survival kit!