Why China is being aggressive along the LAC

Paper: II

Mains: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.

Context:

The ongoing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) pose the biggest national security challenge to New Delhi in at least 20 years. The clashes in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh have claimed 20 Indian lives, the first incident of fatalities on the India-China border in 45 years. China has revived its claim on the entire Galwan Valley and has asked India to pull back from the areas. Satellite images in the public domain suggest that China has set up defence positions in the valley as well as the disputed “Fingers” of Pangong Tso. Both sides are engaged in a face-off at Hot Springs. Despite multiple rounds of military-level talks, tensions are unlikely to ease given the complexity of the ground situation.

Current Scenario:

  • Satellite images suggest that China has set up defence positions in the valley as well as the disputed “Fingers” of Pangong Tso.
  • Both sides are engaged in a face-off at Hot Springs.
  • Despite multiple rounds of military-level talks, tensions are unlikely to ease given the complexity of the ground situation.
  • This has led to question the real motive behind China’s aggression.

India’s stand:

  • Doklam standoff: In 2017, India and China agreed to amicably resolve the Doklam standoff that lasted for more than two months. No blood was spilt then, and no shots fired.
  • India did not upset China’s domestic and geopolitical sensitivities: India has occasionally issued joint statements with leaders from the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries, reasserting India’s commitment to “freedom of navigation” (a veiled criticism of China’s claims over the South China Sea).
  • India has stayed away from criticising China on controversial topics, whether its “de-radicalisation” camps in Xinjiang, crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, or disputes with Taiwan.
  • Superficial local factors: The reasons cited are India’s infrastructure upgrade and its decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
  • Driving India deeper into the U.S camp: There is an argument that China’s LAC action will put India into the anti-China camp which belongs to the USA.

The reasons for Chinese agressions:

  • Shift in Chinese foreign policy post the COVID-19 outbreak: The tensions along the LAC are part of this shift. The clear policy shift is seen in
  • China’s rising tensions with the U.S.,
  • Its threats against Taiwan,
  • Repeated naval incidents in the South China Sea, and
  • A new security law for Hong Kong.
  • China is an ambitious rising power:  It wants to reorient the global order.
  • Dissimilarities with Soviet Union: Although China is not an ideological state that intends to export communism to other countries but like the Soviet Union of the post-war world, China is the new superpower on the block.
  • Era of peaceful rise is over: When it was rising, China had adopted different tactical positions — “hides your capacity and bide your time”, “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development”. That era is over.

Global order:

  • China believes that global order is broken because the global economy is in an irrecoverable crisis given by the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • COVID 19 & geopolitical maneuvering:
  • Weakening global powers: Europe has been devastated by the virus. The U.S. is battling in an election year the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the deepest economic meltdown since the Great Depression.
  • Challenges from USA: The U.S. under an isolationist President Trump is taking the most aggressive position towards China.
  • Salami slice strategy: It is fighting back its challenges through “salami tactics” — where a dominant power attempts to establish its hegemony piece by piece. India is one slice in this salami slice strategy.
  • India is not a ‘swing state’ any more for China: It sees India as an ally-in-progress of the U.S. If India is what many in the West call the “counterweight” to China’s rise, Beijing’s definite message is that it is not deterred by the counterweight

India’s concern: 

  • The Indian economy was in trouble even before COVID-19 struck the country, slowing down its rise.
  • Social upheaval over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the National Register of Citizens had weakened the Indian polity.
  • Tensions with Pakistan have been high keeping the troops occupied in the border areas. Nepal raised boundary issues with India; Sri Lanka is diversifying its foreign policy and China is making deep inroads into that region; and Bangladesh was deeply miffed with the CAA.
  • Even in Afghanistan, where Pakistan, China, Russia and the U.S. are involved in the transition process, India is out.
  • Strategically disastrous Balakot airstrike:  India lost a jet to the neighbour and its pilot was captured and later released by Pakistan. The whole operation exposed the chinks in our armour, eroding India’s deterrence.

Way forward

  • A national security strategy: This strategy should be decoupled from the compulsions of domestic politics and anchored in neighbourhood realism.
    • Facing China: It should stand up to China’s bullying on the border now.
    • Winning neighbours: Long-term focus on enhancing capacities and winning back its friendly neighbours.