Has Beijing succeeded in intimidating India with its brazen info warfare?
At the beginning of the year, it is customary to look at the past 12 months and try to draw conclusions about the past year’s happenings.
2020 will undoubtedly remain as an awful year, not only for India, but also for humanity at large, and only one country (or more correctly, one regime) is behind this planet-wide misery: China and its ruling Communist Party.
It has obviously not been a bad year for China: Hua Chunying, its foreign ministry spokesperson, described 2020 as a “fantastic year”.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) team will soon travel to Wuhan to investigate the origins of Covid-19, but will they find any clues? In an interview with the BBC, Prof. Shi Zhengli (the “bat woman”) who has been associated with the P4 “French” lab in Wuhan, recently denounced “unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus leaked from her laboratory”.
But even without speaking of Wuhan, when the BBC team tried to visit the remote district of Tongguan, in Yunnan, to enquire about Prof. Shi’s fieldwork, they could not reach the place: “Plainclothes police officers and other officials in unmarked cars followed us for miles along the narrow, bumpy roads, stopping when we did, backtracking with us when we were forced to turn around. We found obstacles in our way, including a “broken-down” lorry, which locals confirmed had been placed across the road a few minutes before we arrived.”
The fact remains that many whistleblowers have now disappeared, and it will be difficult to prove anything as the lab has been cleaned of all traces of mishaps.
Even the conservative National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France admitted that “the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is being seriously questioned”.
In an interview, eminent CNRS virologist Étienne Decroly discussed the various hypotheses, including that of an accidental leak from a laboratory.
When asked if the virus could have escaped from a laboratory, the professor said: “The hypothesis cannot be ruled out, given that SARS-CoV, which emerged in 2003, has escaped from laboratory experiments at least four times.”
One factor which has been ignored (or conveniently forgotten): the Chinese authorities gave the control of the “top secret” lab in Wuhan to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when the world was still unaware of the coming pandemic. The high technology transferred to China was done under the garb of Sino-French advanced scientific collaboration; the “top secret” label ensures that nobody is allowed to seriously inquire into why France left the project after 2017.
However, we know at the end of January 2020, a Chinese PLA general took over the civilian institute in Wuhan – Maj. Gen. Chen Wei, a researcher at the Military Medical Research Institute of the Academy of Military Sciences, became the laboratory “in charge”; by March 2020, the lady general claimed to have found the first vaccine against the virus. All this raises many serious questions which very few are ready to discuss openly.
In February already, a group of Chinese scholars led by Botao Xiao of the South China University of Technology wrote a paper for the Natural Science Foundation of China; it dealt with “the possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus”.
After searching around the seafood market in Wuhan, said to be the epicentre of the outbreak, they identified two laboratories conducting research on bat coronavirus. The first one, the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, is located 280 meters from the market where the virus is supposed to have emerged. The scientists found that “surgery was performed on the caged animals and the tissue samples were collected for DNA and RNA extraction and sequencing. The tissue samples and contaminated trashes were a source of pathogens”. It was not proof, but a strong lead.
The second laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is located 15 km from the seafood market; this is the “French” lab taken over by Maj. Gen. Chen Wei.
Prof. Xiao and his colleagues concluded: “In addition to origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. The safety level may need to be reinforced in high-risk bio-hazardous laboratories.” That study quickly disappeared from the Internet.
It was in these circumstances that China decided to “teach” India a lesson.
From all available information today, Gen. Zhao Zongqi, the commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) facing India, managed to convince President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, that China could advance in a few areas in Ladakh at little cost for Beijing.
Gen. Zhao had already masterminded the 2017 Doklam incident. In May, the PLA began to move in Ladakh, but it soon turned into a “misadventure” for Beijing; the Chinese generals had not planned for New Delhi’s strong reaction.
The good news is that on December 18, Gen. Zhao has been replaced by a rather unknown officer who has never set foot in the WTC; and he has no experience of the Indian border. It’s too early to say what it means for the future negotiations in Ladakh, but it probably indicates that Beijing will be more “flexible”. If so, this is certainly a good thing for India as Gen. Zhao was the main hardliner.
Retrospectively, what Mr Xi has achieved in 2020?
The virus has made the world acutely aware of the dark sides of China; the image of the totalitarian party won’t improve in 2021.
Today President Xi finds himself in a lose-lose situation, as he realises he can’t bully India in Ladakh. Will the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road Gen. Zhao tried to stop be shelved by India? The answer is “no”. Will India drop its suzerainty claims over Gilgit-Baltistan? No!
Gen. Zhao will certainly not get a seat in the Central Military Commission as he expected. Has China gained strategic advantages in Ladakh? Hardly. In August, the ridges in southern Pangong Tso, on the Kailash range, were lost to the PLA.
Has Beijing succeeded in intimidating India with its brazen info warfare? Absolutely not. Has Mr Xi’s prestige been enhanced after Ladakh? Certainly not. Instead, it showed the PLA’s limitations facing a determined adversary. Economically too, Beijing lost a lot, especially with India (and several other countries) banning a number of Chinese apps and the decision to not award big contracts to China.
One could add many issues to the list. All this makes me think 2021 will an “annus horribilis” for China and its new Great Helmsman. It would only be justice.