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Strategically Speaking

Dragon drags the world down

From the Covid-19 pandemic and the Galwan Valley incident, China is the primary reason why 2020 has been an ‘annus horribilis’. It is now left to be seen whether the Dragon will pay the price for its actions in the year ahead.

Claude Arpi



The year has come to an end. For most human beings living on Planet Earth, it was an annus horribilis—by far, the most ‘horrible’ year since the beginning of this century—and this, courtesy China.

Of course, Beijing denied that the dreaded coronavirus, which has affected 80 million people and is responsible for 1.8 million deaths, originated in China. 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”.

Even the conservative National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) of France admitted that an accidental leak from a laboratory was a possibility. When asked if the virus could have escaped from a laboratory, a 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.”

At the very time the virus started spreading all over the world, China decided to ‘teach’ India a lesson in Ladakh. Gen Zhao Zongqi, the Commander of the Western Theater Command (WTC) facing Ladakh, convinced Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), that China could advance in a few areas in Ladakh at little cost for Beijing. Zhao had already masterminded the Doklam incident in 2017. It soon turned to be a ‘misadventure’ for Beijing; the Chinese generals had not planned for Delhi’s strong reaction.

Interestingly, Zhao was recently replaced by a rather unknown officer with no experience of the Indian border. This shows that the leadership in China, if it has to choose, will go for loyalty to the Emperor (and the Party) against professionalism or at least ground knowledge.

On Christmas Day, the Chinese Communist Party’s Political Bureau held a two-day meeting about ‘democracy’. According to reports from Beijing, the theme was “to study Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era [a formula dear to the President], strengthen political construction, improve political capabilities, adhere to the feelings of the people, and achieve the goal of building a well-off society in an all-round way.”

A day before, Indian Army Chief Gen M.M. Naravane visited several frontline posts in eastern Ladakh. He was concerned about the welfare of the Indian troops stuck during the harsh winter in an inhospitable environment. The general spent time at Rechin La, the vital mountain top captured by the Tibetan and Indian Special Forces at the end of August. Located south of the Pangong Tso, the ridge, which is a part of the Kailash range, provides a bird’s eye view of the Chinese garrison at Moldo, where Indian and Chinese troops are posted eye-to-eye.

Something struck me: Why did no members of the all-powerful CMC, or even Gen Zhao Zongqi, the WTC commander, visit the Chinese jawans in Ladakh to convey the good wishes of Chairman Xi Jinping? It would have been a great morale booster for the PLA troops. One can ask, does China really care for the masses (and its soldiers) or are ‘important’ speeches of the Chinese President just mere Marxist rhetoric?

After checking through my records, I realised that Gen Xu Qiliang, one of the two CMC vice chairmen (and a member of the Politburo), last toured the Xinjiang and Tibet garrisons in July 2014. According to China Tibet Online, “Xu Qiliang recently inspected the troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) garrisoning Xinjiang and Tibet.”

Xu Qiliang also met the sentries of the frontier defence force ‘performing duties at the altitude of 5,380 metres’ at Shenxianwan (north of the Karakoram Pass). Gen Xu Qiliang also went to the barracks at the Khurnak Fort post (opposite the Indian troops in Ladakh, north of the Pangong tso) to meet China’s border troops. 

Then, in September 2015, Gen Zhang Yang, then a CMC member, visited Ngari Prefecture, bordering Ladakh. Zhang, who was in Tibet to ‘celebrate’ the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), paid a two-day tour of Ngari. He went to convey the ‘loving care’ and the ‘deep feeling’ of the CPC Central Committee, the State Council, and the Military Commission to the ‘cadres and masses of all nationalities’ (note that ‘of all nationalities’ just means ‘Tibetans’). After that, no known visit of high officials has taken place on the Ladakh front.

From the Indian side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat went to Ladakh after the beginning of the present confrontation. They met with the troops and conveyed the strong support of the entire nation. It is particularly strange that no Chinese big-shot visited the Ladakh front, since it is Beijing which unnecessarily started the conflict with India in Galwan, Pangong, Konka-la and Depsang. 

But, despite being a bad year, positive things took place in 2020. For one, India has so far managed to resist the hegemonic advances of the Chinese Dragon. 

As put by Lt Gen H.S. Panag, “India has forced a stalemate in Ladakh. That’s a defeat for China.” The former Army commander added, “China will seek to clinch a disengagement agreement to achieve its political aim. India shouldn’t be in a hurry to agree to disengage or de-escalate.” That has been a great achievement, partly due to the political decision to let the Indian Army (the 14 Corps based in Leh), handle the negotiations. 

Retrospectively, over the last decades, the Indian diplomacy has not been very successful in negotiating frontier issues, which requires a considerable knowledge of the ground reality and the strategic value of each peak, ridge or nalla. 

The induction of the Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the talks was, however, a good initiative, as modern diplomacy should be holistic. Although, one can regret, of course, that the Tibet and Xinjiang cards have not been used by the government. Was it out of pure shyness, fear of the reaction of the Wolf Warriors in Beijing or just because Delhi wants to keep some ‘cards’ up its sleeve? The year 2021 will tell us that.

If I was to foretell something for 2021, I would say that it is going to be an annus horribilis for Xi Jinping. Without speaking of ‘karmic’ factors, the CMC Chairman has simply taken too much on his plate, made too many enemies and lost touch with the masses, including the PLA jawans trying to help him enlarge his empire in Ladakh.

The writer is a French-born author, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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Strategically Speaking


Analysing India’s foreign policy in the year 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, and how it may affect us and our relations with other countries in the future.



India’s foreign policy in 2020 faced two principal challenges, one particular to India and the other affecting the international community as a whole: China’s aggression in Ladakh and the Wuhan-origin pandemic. China’s pressures on the border have been an enduring feature of our bilateral ties. China has used the unsettled border to keep India off-balance, shaping India’s strategy of maintaining “peace and tranquility” and CBMs to avoid armed clashes. India has been pressing for a border settlement, with clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that China agreed to and then reneged on its commitment. Alongside, India agreed to separate the border issue from progress in ties in other areas, especially economic, including working together on international platforms where our respective positions can be mutually reinforcing.

File photo of PM Narendra Modi with Donald Trump.File photo of Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi and with Xi Jinping.

This Indian strategy virtually collapsed in 2020 with China’s decision to unilaterally change the LAC in Ladakh. China has violated all the previous border management agreements (1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, 2013), effectively rendering them void for the future. So is the case with the core principles of the 2005 agreement on the guiding principles and parameters for settling the border. The value of the Special Representative (SR) mechanism which had already become less a vehicle for a settlement of the border on a political basis and more a mechanism to maintain a high-level dialogue to handle the overall relationship has been eroded.

China’s aggression has also politically devalued the pluri-lateral platforms on which India and China are together, such as the Russia-India-China (RIC) dialogue, BRICS and SCO. The gap between how China and India relate to each other bilaterally and on a wider pluri-lateral platform has widened. Lack of confidence in China bilaterally cannot but affect India’s approach to China regionally and internationally. If China can violate bilateral agreements to its advantage, it can do so equally with regard to multilateral understandings, especially as China has become more unilateralist in its thinking with its growing power. India has henceforth to consider very seriously to what extent through group cooperation it facilitates the achievement of China’s hegemonic ambitions. The power gap between China and its RIC, BRICS, SCO partners has grown to the point that it does not need these groups to promote its goals for which it has already established timelines. It can do so on its own with its economic and financial power through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and so on. China is now the biggest trade partner of most countries, and has developed constituencies all over the globe. Its equation with Russia has changed, to China’s advantage, with Russia needing China more than the reverse. Russia’s Western options have been circumscribed by US and European hostility, compelling it to turn towards China as a counterweight, even as China confronts the US, reaches out to Europe and takes advantage of Russia’s weakened position even in Europe.

The changed Russia-China equation has implications for India, and this has surfaced more openly in the recent critical comments by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad. Russia is effectively questioning the strategic legitimacy of these two geopolitical constructs whose main purpose is to circumscribe China’s ambitions, particularly maritime. China has for centuries not been a naval power, but today it is expanding its naval capacities at a pace no country has done before. The purpose obviously is to make its power felt in the maritime space, hitherto occupied preponderantly by the US in Asia. This presents a challenge to the countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The ASEAN countries, despite being victims of China’s maritime expansionism, lack the political will to counter China, which leaves the US, Japan, Australia and India, the non-ASEAN powers, to create a defensive ring against China’s expansionist polices.

Russia is a Pacific power but with limited naval capacities; it is also not seen as a threatening power in the region. Its economic penetration of the region is relatively limited. Russia is in no position to counter China’s maritime encroachments into the Indian Ocean, be it in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan. In this context, Russia’s objections to the Indo-Pacific and Quad construct do not seem valid from India’s point of view. To suggest that the US is trapping India into anti-Chinese games is not factual. India has genuine concerns about China’s conduct at the bilateral and regional levels, including its undermining of India’s ties with its close neighbours. It is constantly boosting Pakistan’s hostile capacities vis-à-vis India. Why Russia should ignore the massing of 50,000 Chinese troops in Ladakh to browbeat India is not clear. Russia’s larger concerns about India’s political and security shift towards the US affecting the depth of India-Russia traditional ties are understandable. Russia is no doubt concerned about the dilution of the SCO project as a vehicle for Asian security and stability. If so, it is China’s conduct that needs restraining, not the defences against it. Why we have not been able to establish better understanding with Russia on the China dimension of the threat we face is not clear. Russia has enough understanding of geopolitics and its own experience of China to appreciate India’s concerns. Unfortunately, we have seen public contestation between the two sides on the legitimacy and the future of the Indo-Pacific paradigm and the Quad. A more intensive dialogue with Russia on this issue is necessary to bridge the developing gap.

Despite its intensive provocation, India has continued to engage China in a dialogue, hoping to resolve the standoff peacefully, but at the same time by mirror deployments it has signalled to China that it is ready to defend itself. Some economic costs on China have been imposed, and more will follow as the standoff proceeds. India has now made it clear in various official statements that the earlier policy of separating the border issue from the overall relationship is no longer workable, as it was predicated on China adhering to the many signed border agreements and maintaining tranquility on the border. India’s demand for the restoration of the status quo ante will not be met by the Chinese as it will mean a military and political setback for President Xi Jinping. Such restoration does not serve India’s interests either beyond the short-term need to disengage and avoid an armed clash as it leaves the LAC unclear as before and will allow China to continue its salami slicing policies as in the past and create an incident as might suit its strategy of exerting control India’s foreign policy choices. From now on India’s foreign policy decisions in all domains—political, military, security, economic, technological, digital—will have the China factor in mind. The working relationship of the past based on some modicum of trust has been deeply vitiated.

2020 has brought to an end the Trump era in US and international politics. All eyes are turned towards the Biden presidency and the degree of continuity and change in US policies that we may see. India, despite the ravages of the Wuhan virus in the US and its own battle with this Chinese infestation at home, managed to maintain progress in bilateral ties. President Donald Trump visited India in February 2020, just before lockdowns began. Remarkably, India and the US physically held a further round of their 2+2 Dialogue (Foreign and Defence Ministers on both sides together) and signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, which, with China sitting on the border, sent a message of its own. This agreement gives India access to high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts and data exchange. The US has by all accounts been very supportive of specific India’s needs in view of China’s aggression in Ladakh.

While Brazilian President Bolsanaro was chief guest at R-Day 2020, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a virtual event with Nepal’s PM K.P. Sharma Oli, the outbreak of the pandemic compelled a resort to a virtual format for summit meetings. In March India held a virtual meeting with SAARC leaders and PM Modi participated in a G20 virtual summit in the same month. Other virtual summits in which India participated were NAM, SCO, ASEAN, East Asia Summit and BRICS. PM Modi held altogether 17 virtual summits with the leaders of Australia, European Union, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, A virtual summit meeting with Russia could not be held.

The Wuhan pandemic saw India taking the opportunity to project itself as the pharmacy of the world in view of its capacity to produce vaccines on a massive scale. India commercially supplied at the initial stages of the health crisis 560 million tablets of Hydrochloroquine and 53.3 metric tonnes of active pharmaceutical ingredient of HCQ to 82 countries, besides 154 million units of paracetamol and 1605 metric tonnes of API to 96 countries to counter the virus, gaining a lot of international goodwill as a result. India took up in various forums the issue of availability of vaccines at affordable prices to developing countries, a vital need at the time of this massive pandemic that has disrupted normal life across the world.

The writer is former Foreign Secretary. The views expressed are personal.

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