China's syndromes

The recent skirmishes between China and India in Ladakh and Sikkim underline the need to understand Beijing’s motives and respond to them appropriately so that mistakes — most notably in responding poorly to signals in the run-up to the 1962 border war — are not repeated. Since the Chinese have already moved a few kilometres into previously uncontested Indian territory, getting them to vacate and reverting to status quo ante can be done only diplomatically. Speculation on China’s motives for this escalatory behaviour has so far focused on Beijing responding to India improving its border infrastructure, especially in upgrading and linking border roads to military bases further inland. But these upgrades have been going on for some time, and, despite this, significant asymmetry remains between the quality and sophistication of Chinese and Indian border infrastructure. It is possible that part of the provocation is on account of the recent move by the Indian government in closing the automatic route for Chinese investment. It is equally possible that this can be read as a warning that India, which has already tilted towards the US in the area of defence, should not join the Washington-led chorus of condemning China’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and desist from supporting the reinstatement of Taiwan’s status in the World Health Organization.

Indeed, the fact that China has moved into both Ladakh and Sikkim suggests that this could well be part of a larger foreign policy objective. In the post-Deng era, China’s growing economic clout has encouraged its leadership to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy. Since 2010, China has more or less had its way against Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines with regard to territory in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. It is now pushing harder on Hong Kong, where protests have erupted afresh over a new national security law, and in Taiwan (though with less success). China has also sought to penalise Australia (through the imposition of penal tariffs on specific products, an old tactic used earlier against the Philippines and Bolivia) for some of its recent anti-Chinese moves. Its actions in Ladakh and Sikkim appear to fit that pattern.

It is clear that China, which has earned grudging admiration for the pace at which it is recovering from the pandemic, will play an even bigger role in the post-Covid-19 world order. The question is whether the world will make room for a rising power, or whether there will be conflict, latent as in a Cold War or overt in terms of military action. The possibility of tension is underlined by the fundamental re-reading by the West of China’s long-term direction, compared to the thesis when China entered the WTO in 2001 that it would become “normal” as it became more prosperous. Already, China has split and neutralised the EU by making overtures to Italy (though Belt and Road Initiative projects and other investments) and Germany (where China is viewed as favourably as the US). For a country that equates hierarchy with stability, in which each country knows its place, there is no question that China expects India to recognise and accept Beijing’s growing military power, both on land and in the Indian Ocean, and in missile capability. This will increasingly test India’s long-standing search for strategic autonomy, especially when the country’s defence capability vis-a-vis China gets steadily more unbalanced.

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