The real and diplomatic gains are pouring in for India for taking on the mantle of checking China, at least in South Asia. The fresh developments have resulted in a quick flurry of reciprocal diplomatic moves from the United States, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and some favourable media commentary from the US too. These broadly favour India vis-a-vis Pakistan’s designs on the Kashmir valley. And by proxy, they undermine China and its other belligerent dependent, North Korea.
Very significantly, there have been absolutely no calls for India to stand down unilaterally at the China, Bhutan, India trijunction near Sikkim. America has, instead, pointedly begun to get a move on its military relationship and support of India. This is taking place legislatively in the backdrop of the recently concluded Malabar Naval exercises with India, the US, and Japan participating. This time the Malabar, which had Australia and Singapore in it earlier in addition, emphasised anti-submarine warfare. This is in counterpoint to China, which has deployed its large fleet of submarines in addition to its battleships, including an aircraft carrier of its own.
Australia is most concerned about restrictions on the use of the South China Sea, as more than 60% of its trade passes through it. It has recently overcome its reservations on supplying uranium to India, joining Canada in doing so. Singapore, with enormous commercial shipping using its ports, is also worried by China’s attitude.
Other countries affected by Chinese highhandedness, with rapacious trade deals, over-priced infrastructure, claims on international waterways, include Vietnam, the Philippines, Borneo, Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand and a number of African nations. The latest addition overground, is Mongolia, with a newly elected leader opposed to Chinese domination, whom India has invited to visit.
Russia, though not yet affected by Chinese imperialism, and working with both Pakistan and China, is clear it wants to continue to partner India’s military modernisation.
The US, apart from expediting the sale and joint-venturing of high technology military equipment, has sanctioned, in the US House of Representatives, a hefty budget running into over $600 billion. This is to be spent on military cooperation with India, and the US is drawing up plans on how to best go about it. The enabling Bill, to be processed via the Senate and the President, is unprecedented in terms of its scale and intent. India, on its part, is rapidly overcoming its reservations on military participation alongside the US in Afghanistan, and the mutual access to each other’s military bases and ports.
Calls for direct military help to India are growing louder in the US from leaders such as former Senator Larry Pressler and current Congressman Ted Poe, amongst others. As America reviews its Afghanistan-Pakistan-India South Asia policy, there is a compelling case for encouraging the restive independence movements of peoples along the Durand Line. Balochistan has an 1,100 km border with Afghanistan, and would-be Pakhtunistan, accounts for the remainder of the porous 2,430 km Afghanistan-Pakistan contiguity. America has, in addressing the problems of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, stopped $350 million in reimbursement of military aid, citing that the latter has not done anything to rein in terrorist organisations, naming several operating from its soil.
China’s huge debt burden, amounting to 250% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and massive industrial and infrastructure-building over-capacity have also prompted it to embark on a grandiose, if frantic, course.
Elsewhere, the US is asserting the international right to freely use the South China Sea by way of overflights and US ships passing through it.
China has ignored the adverse ruling against it by the arbitrators at the International Court of Justice and continues to maintain an aggressive posture.
Canada has, at last, stopped the funding of Pakistani terrorist outfits acting against India, from its soil, and South Korea has cancelled its plans to work on hydropower projects in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Vietnam has invited India afresh to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea, despite Chinese threats.
China’s huge debt burden, amounting to 250% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and massive industrial and infrastructure-building over-capacity, has also prompted it to embark on a grandiose, if frantic, course. It seeks to dominate countries and whole continents, with offers of projects in road, rail and industry, in the name of a seemingly visionary, but in truth spurious “connectivity”. Spurious, because China under President Xi Jinping actually seeks to kick the can of imminent collapse of the Chinese economy, already slowed to half of its peak, down the road. It is attempting to cleverly embroil the account books of scores of other countries in the process. China has also developed a strange way of refusing to adhere to negotiated agreements, going back on them, introducing new elements by referring back in time to obscure premises, or flouting them altogether.
This has made it clear, at least to India, that the only way to persuade it to behave is to resist it militarily. Despite bilateral Indian overtures and at fora like BRICS and the G20 recently, China chooses, almost every time, to react with arrogance. It seeks to expand BRICS, to take in several more countries, including Pakistan, to do away with any possibility of much Indian influence. It has blocked the Indian bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and has refused to allow Pakistani terrorist masterminds be named at the UN.
But now India has at last taken the other tack and stood up to China. It has done so, much to China’s amazement, unilaterally, confidently, and very visibly—three times in quick succession. The first time was in April this year, then again in mid-May, and yet again at end-June. The last China has found particularly astounding, because it is an eyeball to eyeball confrontation at the trijunction.
Meanwhile, during the stand-off there have been highly successful Indian bilateral visits to the US and Israel, also unsettling for China.
It is this stand-off at the trijunction however, that has made the strategic establishment around the world sit up. The first of the recent unilateral Indian actions was when it allowed the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and the Tawang Buddhist monastery there, in April, ignoring vehement Chinese objections. A subset of this development took place in early July, when the Tibetan government in exile in India was allowed to perform religious ceremonies and unfurl the Tibetan flag on the Indian side of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh, in full view of the TV cameras. In May, India ignored China’s mega summit over the One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative, citing violations of its sovereignty in PoK, general opacity and lack of wider consultations.
Towards end-June, in reaction to China’s attempt to change the status quo, yet again, because this is the scene of earlier land grab attempts too, came the stand-off at the trijunction.
India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval is in China as I write this, meeting with his counterparts from BRICS on 27 and 28 July. There is intense speculation, and therefore an outside chance, that Doval would hold discussions on the matter. But equally, because a climb-down is not on the cards for India, he may choose to delink the BRICS visit from the stand-off altogether.
That Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected in Beijing in early September for the BRICS Summit, is adding grist to the mill.
There is a compelling case for the Chinese to maintain a status quo and treat the stand-off in the minor key—better for the Chinese Communist Party Summit in November, when several members of the Politburo will be changed. Besides, Chinese trade with India tops $70 billion, and it does not make much sense to imperil it. However, from the domestic point of view, will Chinese pride in its military prowess allow it to let India go unpunished?
India is confident on its part, that, at least at the trijunction, it has the military advantage. In addition, China has not only ignored the Indian position on PoK by building a road through it, but has now issued a threat of military intervention in the Kashmir valley too. This, on the back of unsolicited offers to mediate.
The face-off at the trijunction, apart from its strategic military objectives, is a struggle for broader credibility for both countries. China wants to be taken seriously as the rising dominant. And India, with its alternative narrative, has invited the leadership of 10 ASEAN countries to its next Republic Day celebrations. It is determined to call the Chinese bluff.