Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing in the world was certain, except for death and taxes. The assertive adventurism by the People’s Republic of China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) can be added to that list. As belatedly learnt, on December 9, the troops of both India and China had an unarmed “contact” in the Yangtze area of eastern Tawang, reminiscent of the Galwan Valley encounter in Ladakh in June 2020 that had led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers.
In television studio debates, one line of reasoning was that this was merely in line with similar past standoffs engendered by the so-called “differing perceptions” of the alignment of the LAC. Government sources were at pains to emphasise that the injuries to the soldiers were minor, although almost 300 PLA troops were involved. Intervention by senior officers had matters deescalate. Joe Wallen, South Asia correspondent of London’s Telegraph, tweeted that he was told by Tapir Gao, who is the president of the BJP in Arunachal Pradesh, that 20 Indian soldiers had been injured, of whom six severely injured ones were flown to Guwahati. If correct, that is far from casual jostling.
The credibility of the Union government is not high with regard to the sharing of information about Chinese intrusions in the aftermath of the 2020 Galwan clash. In fact, to date, verified information is unavailable about the current status of Chinese intrusions in the Depsang Plains and Charding Nala areas. Although disengagement occurred in September in the Gogra-Hot Springs region in eastern Ladakh, the exact nature of the buffer zones created after the mutual withdrawal of troops is also not clear. Are the buffer zones likely to stymie Indian patrolling up to points it has traditionally had access to or both sides have conceded equally?
The large number of Chinese troops involved, which like in the case of Galwan came with spiked wooden clubs and metal wrappings on wrists, means the incident was hardly accidental. Chinese delay in scheduling the overdue next round of military-to-military talks was a warning signal that some mischief was afoot. The Chinese are driven by strategic and tactical considerations. Strategically, President Xi Jinping has lifted the veil off a deep-rooted Chinese perception of themselves as the historical Middle Kingdom, superior to all other cultures and civilisations, towards which the neighbours must kowtow. On assuming the top Communist Party post in 2012 he first referred to the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. The external aspect of that is restoration of Chinese predominance regionally and globally. The 2008 financial crisis, which singed the developed nations, left China relatively unscarred. That convinced them that their destined role as a dominant global power could be pursued more blatantly. That in effect ended the advice of Deng Xiaoping to keep the claws withdrawn and pursue an orderly rise. After the recent congress of the Communist Party of China and the emergence of Xi Jinping as supreme leader anointed with a third term, aggressive Chinese nationalism appears a given.
Some additional factors are fanning it. China is now facing the likely consequences of a rollback of its “Zero Covid” policy, after widespread protests. With patchy Covid vaccination coverage of the population as well as less efficacy of their indigenous doses, the disease is perhaps already spreading, as it did in the rest of the world in 2020-21.
Thus in 2023, China may have a health crisis on top of an economy slowing due to extensive lockdowns due to the Zero Covid policy of the last two years. Autocratic regimes, when confronted with domestic disaffection, tend to get more chauvinistic abroad to create a distraction. It is now generally accepted that prior to China’s 1962 attack on India, Mao Zedong’s leadership was under challenge following the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which had caused 30 million starvation deaths in the period 1960-62.
There is also the G-20 presidency passing to India, enabling India to influence the global agenda in the coming year. With it happening on the eve of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is planning to turn it into a year-long jamboree of celebration of Indian nationhood and its achievements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will naturally get a boost to his international image. With a clear intent to contain India’s rise, China would resent that. Again, a historical parallel is available as the global standing of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was at a peak prior to the 1962 India-China war. Nehru never recovered his domestic dominance or international repute after the setback of military defeat.
The “salami-slicing” tactic of gradual occupation of maritime or land areas is a Chinese speciality. In Ladakh, after quickly intruding up to their claim lines in 2020, they have negotiated to turn areas that India claimed into buffer zones. In the critical sector of Depsang Plains, even that approach has so far not been accepted with Chinese troops digging in at the Y-junction. With the Ladakh intrusions not yet fully resolved, China has since last year shifted focus to Arunachal Pradesh, especially Tawang. The renaming in Chinese of Indian-held towns in that state is a warning that China will persist with using the unsettled Sino-Indian border to keep India distracted.
Historically, two rising powers unable to compromise on their contested claims tend to go to war. China has multiple objectives in its recalcitrance on the border issue. One is domestic consolidation via jingoism. Two is to compel India to divert resources to its defence sector, away from economic development. Three is to punish India whenever it moves closer to the United States or is seen as gaining diplomatic standing. Finally, to contain India’s rise as an economic and military power through a hybrid continental-maritime strategy of alliances stitched among India’s neighbours.
The accounts so far available indicate India was able to quickly deploy additional troops to match the 300-strong Chinese intrusion. Tawang has special interest for China as it has the largest Buddhist monastery outside Tibet. It is also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama’s visits to Tawang endorse India’s control over the region, as enshrined in the 1914 Shimla Agreement. For China, these are provocative steps that undermine its attempt to assimilate Tibetans and their culture.
Thus, incidents like the latest Tawang dust-up are a symptom of rivalry between two Asian powers trying to restore their perceived past glory. The next year will test the wisdom of both in maintaining peace and normalcy at the Line of Actual Control. But, as the saying goes, the best guarantee for peace is to be prepared for war.