For the last several weeks, India and China have been engaged in an acrimonious face-off in the Doklam area of Bhutan. China is claiming some territory that Bhutan says belongs to it. India has got into the fray because first, it is bound by treaty to defend Bhutan’s territorial integrity and, second, because if China gets hold of that strip of land it will be able to fire artillery shells at the road through the Chicken’s Neck which connects the seven north eastern states of India to the rest of the country.
So both for treaty and security reasons India has firmly opposed China’s claims and moves. Overall, though no one articulates it for obvious reasons, the Indian view is that China understands only the language of force, either economic or military or both. China is livid and has taken to uttering intemperate threats; India has behaved with much more restraint. Overall, China has emerged looking very foolish, something it hates because of ‘face’ reasons. China wants India to acknowledge that it is the boss of Asia. It finds India’s resistance and opposition most annoying.
Everyone is now waiting to see what it will do: retreat, with further loss of face or go to war to keep face. For the moment it doesn’t seem like war, but with China, you never can tell, especially if things become tougher for the ‘Communist’ government generally, and President Xi Jinping particularly because of the economic slowdown.
While hoping that China will not behave more foolishly than it has been behaving in recent years – claiming territory all over East Asia – it is instructive to ponder on why, from time to time, such foolishness overcomes nations. For, let us be clear, throughout history, many nations have behaved like this. The last ones to do so were Japan and Germany in the twentieth century. The result was a period active war that, with some breaks, lasted from 1894 to 1945. A shorter and more comic episode was Iraq which invaded Kuwait in 1990. By and large, however, until recently in the Middle East and in the Ukraine there has been no forcible change of international boundaries.
At the heart of such aggression by incumbent governments lies the desire, and even need, to hang on to power. This can be for any number of reasons from ideological nationalism to the need for resources or even the survival of the boss man in the regime. We must assume that Jinping doesn't have any survival problems, at least where his life is concerned. So it is must be the other things, nationalism which gives nations a sense of entitlement to resources.
In a sense, China has already initiated what might be called a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. It objects strenuously to anyone else, and notably India, prospecting for oil and other minerals in the East China Sea. The latest case is when India sought to look for oil with Vietnam jointly. China even objected to Indian naval ships visiting the Gulf of Tonkin on a friendly call.
China currently leads the pack in this regard. Its Middle Kingdom syndrome makes it feel more entitled than any other country. Its economic rise in the last 30 years has in the meanwhile boosted its confidence hugely, and it is behaving exactly like Japan did in the 1930s – claim, threaten, grab.
This tendency has become accentuated since the Communist party, an undemocratic gang of thugs, came to power. They have not only inherited the entitlement chip on their shoulder, but they also behave as any criminal gang does, use force to ensure a claim, and demand a monopoly on the pickings. So if anyone wants to understand the Chinese government’s behaviour, they should find out from criminology, not from ancient Chinese texts.
China has two problems, to solve which it needs more territory, both on land and in the sea. One, it is short of natural resources and two it is short of food. In the first half of the 20th century, Japan and Adolf Hitler had also diagnosed their country’s problem similarly. Hitler had come with his demand for Lebensraum or ‘room for living’. Japan had simply invaded China. The result was the Second World War.
Where food is concerned, it is China’s Achilles heel because China is heavily dependent on imports. For more than a dozen years now it has been trying to tie up long term sources of food supply including gigantic farms of leased land in countries in Brazil, Kazakstan, etc. It has also been quietly advocating a global convention along the lines of the chemical and biological warfare one that will disallow the use of food as a weapon.
These vulnerabilities on the resources and food fronts have made its leadership very jumpy and jittery and aggressive. So the question today is not whether China will use force to gain territory – it has not so far – but when and against whom. Indeed, the situation today is alarming similar to the 1930s when Britain and France, exhausted after the First World War had withdrawn from the international scene, and one rising power, Japan, had made common cause with another resurgent one, Germany, to challenge the then existing global arrangements.
In the end, the point is this: when a serious challenger meets an entrenched incumbent, it is rarely that war doesn’t follow whether local or regional or global. While Barak Obama put the United States(US) in withdrawal mode, and Trump emphasised that mode, China has felt it can fill the vacuum left by the US.
Therefore, that it must be stopped is not the issue. The issue is who will take the lead in stopping it. It takes democracies ages to realise fully that the old rules are no longer playing the game. That is why it is necessary that India accelerates its efforts in building an anti-China coalition. The problem is that the more successful India is, the more belligerent China will become.
But that should not become a reason for a replay of Munich when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, gave away Czechoslovakia in March 1939 only to and embolden Hitler to invade Poland in September.
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