Also Publihsed in The Financial Express @ https://www.financialexpress.com/world-news/looking-beyond-yangtse/2927052/
The recent attempt by PLA to dislodge the Indian piquet at Yangtse is without doubt a plan conceived at the highest level in China. Why did Xi Jinping attempt this? There are many reasons which I have put forth in many of my articles. A successful operation is a political victory for Xi Jinping. It externalises and diverts attention from China’s internal economic and covid related turmoil. It raises PLA morale. It reignites nationalism in China. It is a political message against Indo US military exercises. It fixes Indian attention on the LAC to enable enhanced Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean. The LAC is a pressure point for China to impose its will on India as also send out a larger international message.
Reflections of the recent past indicate that while all these are valid, there are deeper motives which drive Chinese actions against India. Unless we get that right, we might not be in a position to handle the oncoming situation squarely. We need to head it off since it could develop into a deeper conflict. Hence, one needs to understand the real and deep rooted Chinese motives – the politico military objectives of China, Xi Jinping’s persona, decline of China and relative rise of India. More importantly, these need to be seen from a Chinese perspective rather from our point of view.
Politico Military Objectives
It is universally known that two politico military challenges confront China – rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by reunification of Taiwan and resolving the boundary issue with India in its favour. The common geopolitical understanding is that annexation of Taiwan is the politico-military priority for China. That is what Xi Jinping himself indicated in the 20th Party Congress. However, China is not yet prepared to do so. Even when it puts resources and capacities together (by around 2025 or so), the chances of a military success in a complicated amphibious operation are slim and carry high political risk. There is also a risk of igniting a wider conflict with USA and Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Australia. Why would China get involved in an overmatch? Further there is no timeline compulsion to achieve unification militarily. The military stick can be brandished to achieve reunification politically. Once a full scale military operation against Taiwan is underway, there are hardly any viable exit options. It’s an all or none situation. On the other hand, the 3500 km LAC is live with a history of recent conflict and constant transgression. Across the LAC, an inexperienced PLA squares off with a rising India with a tough Army. Further, the LAC is across Tibet, whose people are not yet assimilated with Communist China. Till such time the Dalai Lama is in India, there is always an incipient threat. Mutual claims by India and China either side of the LAC means that PLA must also defend the border. If ever, India choses to be offensive, the political and geopolitical stakes for Xi Jinping become unacceptable. Most importantly, the comprehensive national power differential is in China’s favour at present. Hence this window needs to be maximised through offensive action and salami slicing to set the stage for larger action later. India’s strategic confidence must be dented permanently. Most importantly, the LAC offers multiple options where actions can be calibrated to achieve desired / intermediate outcomes. A major issue which is never mentioned or analysed is that every military option has a political exit along the LAC through post conflict bargaining. Any reverse can be explained away in the garb of defending against transgression by India. Every success, small or big, creates the halo of invincibility of PLA and serves to destroy Taiwanese morale. Take all these into consideration. It is very clear that offensive action against India along the LAC is always a better proposition. No western analyst will never agree with it since it is not the popular narrative and does not suit their domestic purposes.
The Xi Jinping Factor
Xi Jinping is an ideologically driven man ever since he assumed power in 2012. His mission is to build a modern socialist country , rejuvenate the nation on all fronts and realise the Chinese dream. He seeks to prove that the socialist system is the best form of governance compared to democracies. He has systematically eliminated all political opposition and ‘remantled’ a Maoist system of state control and command economy. He seeks to be the most consequential leader in Chinese history to the extent that he has got his own history pre-written. He seeks to make China the greatest power on earth and establish a Sino centric world order. To achieve this he must tackle two strong democratic powers consequential to China – USA and India. China must displace USA as the pre-eminent power on earth. It must also stymie India’s threatening rise. Displacing USA is feasible only if China has sufficient comprehensive national power and a military at global scale. That has been a work in progress ever since he took over. Probably receding at this point of time. A rising India assumes importance due to many factors including the intractable border dispute. Stymieing it by putting military pressure on the LAC has been Xi Jinping’s plan from the day he assumed power. Actually it is a well thought out plan which has been put into action. From all available reports, the number of transgressions across the LAC and border incidents have showed a significant uptick since Xi assumed power in 2012. There have been serious incursions and clashes between troops since 2012. This is despite the unprecedented number of summit and other meetings between Xi Jinping and PM Modi. In fact every major incursion/face off has been deliberately orchestrated around a summit or a visit. The table below clearly reflects that. Even the Depsang incursion of Apr 2013 preceded the visit of Li Keqiang in May that year. The recent Yangtse incident has happened just after a month when Xi Jinping and PM Modi acknowledged the presence of each other at the Bali G20 meet. More importantly, Xi Jinping has spoken peace with India and has indulged in conflict with it. On the other hand he has implied conflict with Taiwan but has not made an overt military move except the hot air blown in the aftermath of the Nancy Pelosi visit. Very clearly, China under Xi talks one thing and does another. There appears to be a India fixation with Xi. As far as India is concerned he is proving to be the “Bad Emperor” in the Fukuyama mould.
|Date||Incursion/Faceoff||Summit Meeting||Other Meets|
|Nov 12||Xi Assumes Power|
|May 2014||PM Modi Assumes Power|
|2016||Tashkent, Hangzhou, Goa|
|Jun – Sep 2017||DoklamPangong Tso||Astana (09 Jun)Hamburg (07 Jul)Xiamen (05 Sep)|
|Apr -Jun 2018||Wuhan||Qingdao|
|May -Jun 2020||Pangong Tso, Muguthang and Galwan|
The Decline of China
In the latter half of 2021, as the world was limping through the pandemic, ‘Zero Covid’ was eminently successful. Xi had then proclaimed : “The Chinese nation, is marching towards a great rejuvenation at an unstoppable pace.” At this juncture Xi Jinping culled the big tech, ed tech, fin tech, ride hailing icons, gaming, banking and entertainment industry as part of his common prosperity drive. The Evergrande crisis was setting in and the real estate bubble was straining to burst. An economic stall commenced and suddenly the question was – Has China Peaked? When Will China Rule the World? Maybe Never! Decline of China was suddenly in the air. In a series of articles on the wobbles of China (at that time), I had written ‘The cobbles of capitalism were only a stepping stone to common prosperity prior to entering a state of total socialism. The cornerstones of the new China will be ideology, nationalism, populism, self-sufficiency, and security’. The slide had started. It was also asked : “What if what we are seeing in connection with the Himalayas or the South China Sea are not acts of growing confidence, but acts of growing desperation”? That question needs a serious revisit now. What we are seeing is a leader besotted with staying a life time in power, a country staggering under the deadweight of covid mishandling for three years, a people who are demographically declining , a nation under constant surveillance bracing for an imaginary security threat and a slowing economy which will remain large but stagnant. The trajectory of China’s comprehensive national power is falling as I had explained in another article. In this context , a recent article in Foreign Affairs, reinforces, explains and highlights various facets of a declining China. Significantly, it mentions that a weak, stagnant, or collapsing China would be even more dangerous than a thriving one—not just for the country itself, but for the world at large. However one needs to contextualise it in a Sino Indian context. Apart from the historical Sino Indian friction there are many other reasons for China to undertake an adventure. India has not supported the BRI. It is part of the QUAD. There is an issue of regional hegemony. As time goes, the necessity of externalisation will increase. As India rises, the window for a successful operation will close. China is already losing South Asia with trouble in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan which was helped through Pakistan, is more welcoming towards India than China! China will need additional leverage to nominate the next Dalai Lama. India has emerged as a systemic competitor to China. In this environment, an all-powerful leader with a single-minded focus who sees his prize slipping away is a recipe for an adventure into India. Is the Yangtse attempt a harbinger of that danger? Is China attempting to revive itself through a limited conflict with India? In such case, the dangers ahead are even more stark considering that the LAC offers many targets with varied options to prosecute operations.
The Rise of India
The rise of India is a major factor in future Sino Indian Conflicts. As per estimates of Goldman Sachs , Deutsche Bank, Japan Center of Economic Research and many other analytics, the Indian economy will be the third largest one in a decade or so. The Guardian, proclaims India as the potential new economic superpower and France 24 acknowledges that India is a rising power finding its place on global stage. The geoeconomics of India’s are already propelling it to be a third pole in global affairs. Its global partnerships are growing in a direction which lead to containment of China. China is being hemmed in from all sides. As an extension, India will become a counterweight in all spheres of Chinese interests including the Indian Ocean Region. As the relative differential between India and China narrows steadily, China’s loss is India’s gain. China will feel that this flow must be plugged militarily, if it has not felt so already. Further, India’s infrastructure build up along the border, which its growing economy will propel, poses an implied threat to China. Sooner than later, India will become too powerful for China to handle if it is allowed to grow unchecked. Xi and his loyalist communist party apparatchiks might just feel tempted to undertake an ‘Indian Adventure’ before it is too late. The Yangtse attempt might just be the spearhead of things to come. This line of reasoning is evident in the article in The Diplomat.
India is in for a time where China will try all tricks in the trade to keep it down. Xi Jinping’s self- image as a leader who is propelling China to greatness will egg him to focus on India. The fact that China will adopt a multi domain approach in this endeavour is a no brainer. It is already playing out. The trick is to identify the threats, current and future, in each domain and handle them with resolve. Even in the multi domain paradigm, the military domain will be the most volatile and threatening. The LAC will be the focus. We need to assess this threat realistically and prepare for it accordingly. Last but not the least, one should not exult that we have been able to thwart China at Yangtse. We need to be prepared for the next Yangtse. That is the next article.
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