Is there a link between India gaining the chairpersonship of WHO’s executive body and China’s recent provocations at the LAC?
Border incidents are sovereign infringements. Since they carry the high, inherent risk of uncontrollable escalation, these key policy decisions are usually made by governments only for strategically vital purposes. The reasons may vary widely.
Pakistani shelling across the Line of Control (LoC), for example, is a tactical move to facilitate the passage of jihadi terrorist elements from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) into the Srinagar Valley; but it serves a strategic policy purpose of trying to bleed India with a thousand cuts.
On the other hand, Indian artillery fire which flattens terrorist launchpads and Pakistani posts, is a strategic move made for two main reasons: first, to remove the potential threat of infiltration, and second, to warn Pakistan that matters would escalate if it crosses limits.
So, it was mystifying to hear of a fistfight between Indian and Chinese troops at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to reports, a young Indian Army Lieutenant knocked out a Chinese Major at the Naku La Pass in Sikkim on 9 May.
This was followed by reports of a similar incident at the Galwan River area in Ladakh (near its confluence with the Shyok River, north of Pangong Lake). Unverified video footage showed troops from both sides jostling, pushing and even kicking each another – all unarmed.
In both cases, the incidents reportedly occurred when Chinese troops crossed the LAC. The Indian Air Force even flew a few sorties.
On cue, the usual suspects rushed to predict that this was a second Doklam Plateau standoff in the making, but far more dangerous, since it was taking place simultaneously at two opposite ends of the LAC.
Senior analysts wrote breathless pieces advising the Indian government to be careful, since, in their eyes, India lacked the ‘strength’ to take on China. A few bored wits cussedly wondered if that meant another photo-opportunity for the Congress party’s leadership, with the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi.
But alarm and sad jokes aside, the twin episodes on the LAC are in fact nothing but the illusion of conflict – precisely as Swarajya had accurately identified during the Doklam standoff in 2017. Like then, this time too, the scuffles have very little to do with Sino-Indian border issues.
Instead, China’s recent provocations on the LAC are linked to four things: India gaining the chairpersonship of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive body; the question of Taiwan finally joining the WHO or not; a resolution by numerous countries, including India, asking for a probe into the origins of the Wuhan virus; and trade.
Think about this logically: the Indian Army does not jostle; it kills – swiftly, efficiently, and without mercy. In which case, what on earth were those visibly unarmed troops doing at 14,000 feet in the Galwan Valley, throwing air punches and slow kicks at intruders?
On the other hand, a border flare-up serves to notify that China has drawn a few lines internally, and is willing to negotiate a compromise if India and other nations do so too.
If not, then the matters at hand are important enough to China, for it to cast aside a few long-standing foreign policy formulations.
This is messaging, plain and simple, by a country which, thanks to its myriad, inherent contradictions and mistakes, has lost the fine art of diplomacy. By the very nature of its state, China has reduced negotiating points to a crass binary of money or power.
And yet, this is a crude but effective approach, because it allows China to aggressively accumulate leverage against the global pandemic inquisition to come, reposition itself for the trade wars that shall surely ensue, retain some say on crude prices, and paper over some of its crimes (including the propping up of two nuclear proxies on either end of its influence sphere – North Korea and Pakistan).
China is desperate, because the Wuhan virus pandemic has pushed it into a corner. While there is no doubt that the ‘Chinese Melon’ won’t be cut again, like it mercilessly was by colonial powers in the nineteenth century, it knows that a number of countries will use the opportunity to stymie China’s dominance over global manufacturing.
One route is by enforcing an international probe, to try and officially pin the pandemic’s blame on China (everyone loves a new hate object, because it serves so many strategic purposes).
Another is to use the threat of a probe, to legitimise Taiwan’s seat at the world’s table, and by doing so, to formally trim China’s clout.
Third and most importantly, is trade: leveraging the epidemic to rebalance whopping trade deficits is in everyone’s interests, including India’s.
All three would mean a shift in global dynamics, because the world is at a stage when the China growth story is starting to slow.
What is to happen is inevitable; the pandemic has only advanced timelines.
China would undoubtedly resist these efforts, but the origins of the virus within its borders, and the fairly mercenary manner in which China shipped malfunctioning testing equipment to unsuspecting countries for a price, would add extra moral heft to the leverage set to be employed against it.
That is why China now faces the unenviable headache of tackling the situation at the bilateral level with dozens of countries, while staving off mass action led by America.
Where is India in all this?
Quite central, actually, because the Chinese know that India’s trade deficit with China is so bad that it can’t get much worse.
Second, the longer India is kept out of the United Nations Security Council, the more it would use international bodies like the WHO, to further highlight the injustice of that exclusion.
And third, most importantly, is the continued Chinese patronage of Pakistan.
So for once, the shoe is on the other foot, and why wouldn’t India make the most of it as chairperson of the WHO’s executive body?
These are not the days of Panchsheel, or the Bandung Conference, of the 1950’s, when the preferred tune on Raisina Hill was a dulcet adagio of heady idealism, backed by a tremulant chorus of the blind. No; today, the true worth of ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ will have to be earned by mutual interest, or not at all.
That reality seems to have permeated widely in the past week. The border incidents went off the headlines as quickly as they appeared.
These have been replaced by Nepalese boundary complaints in the Lipulekh Pass and Kalapani River sectors.
China has reluctantly acceded to an international probe, into the true origins of the epidemic and the WHO’s response to it. And Taiwan shall remain the Cinderella of the diplomatic world for now.
It is all this and more, which has coalesced once again into the illusions of conflict – both at the Naku La Pass in Sikkim, and at the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
Readers must, therefore, not make the mistake of seeing these incidents as anything more than what they truly are. This is messaging, and both sides are reading one another five-over-five, as India prepares to head the WHO’s executive board from 22 May, for a long and eventful year.
As they say on Twitter: aap chronology samhajiye!
In closing, though, picking the Galwan Valley to make a point probably wasn’t the most intelligent of moves, since that is where 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat sacrificed so much during 1962. The Chinese should have known better.