Like in fairy tales, the dragon’s life is not in its fire power. It could be in one of the soft underbellies, or all of them

by Seshadri Chari

The seventh round of military-level talks to be held on 12 October between India and China to resolve the five-month-long standoff in Ladakh may turn out to be decisive, but only in finalising the date for the eighth round of deliberations. Going by China’s stand and seriousness, rather the lack of it, in resolving the issue, New Delhi should not hope much.

According to reports, the Chinese side expects India to vacate the southern bank of Pangong Tso and also its positions along the Rezang La ridgeline. India has been insisting that the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, should withdraw from Finger Four on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso. In fact, India has reiterated its stand that the PLA should withdraw up to Finger Eight, which was the Chinese position before the April 2020 troop advance began into areas that India considers a violation as per its perception of the Line of Actual Control, or LAC. Meanwhile, there is little doubt that the situation remains extremely complex on the northern border.

Winter Or Not, China Will Act

China has introduced newer elements of complication into the talks by raising the issue of the 1959 Claim Line. India has rejected the suggestion and asked Beijing to “refrain from advancing an untenable unilateral interpretation” of the de-facto border. Contrary to information on the pullback by the two armies in some areas of conflict, the current position is that there are more than half-a-dozen points of intense contestation between the two sides with both the armies in a near eyeball-to-eyeball position. According to some commentators, the onset of snowfall may deter the Chinese from further military action or advancement, and stay put in the current position. The Indian Army, too, will stay in its positions.

But, going by past experiences, China’s tradition of springing a surprise on its adversaries and given the domestic constraints of PLA’s Commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping, New Delhi should be prepared to face limited military action by the Chinese. The PLA will try to consolidate its position for a better bargain with India and for the furtherance of Beijing’s strategic objective.

India’s Options

Any strategic advantage of China is at the cost of and to the detriment of India’s security and power equations in the region. It is, therefore, important that while we fortify our military capabilities in the conflict zone, we also hit China where it will hurt Beijing’s interests the most. A letter from the press section of the Embassy of China in India, widely circulating on social media, ‘advises’ the Indian media not to refer to Taiwan as a “country (nation)” or “Republic of China”.

New Delhi should convey to Beijing in clear and unequivocal terms that the question of one-China policy is not a settled one and that India reserves the right to review its ‘long-standing official position’ anytime and in any manner, unilaterally. The human rights excesses in Xinjiang and Tibet, the inhuman treatment of the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, especially the monks, should be raised in as many international forums as possible. Like in fairy tales, the dragon’s life is not in its firepower; it could be in one of the soft underbellies or all of them.

Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan continue to remain a source of concern for Beijing despite its increased socio-political and economic influence in these areas. Beijing’s command structure in these regions is unassailable with strong multi-layered military and security arrangements. China’s foray into these contentious pockets and the subsequent annexation of Xinjiang and Tibet gave it a great advantage in establishing borders with Central Asian countries such as Nepal and India. China had no border with India till it quelled the rebellion by brute military force and annexed Tibet in 1959.

China-Russia Axis

The disintegration of the USSR offered a great opportunity for China to expand its economic outreach to the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Central Asian states that were once under the political and economic umbrella of the Soviet Union. The US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Kosovo operations in 1999 had adversely impacted US-China relations and increased Beijing’s threat perception of Washington. Moscow, too, had ample security and strategic reasons to regain foothold in countries that were once its backyard. The increased strategic and economic relevance of the new geography brought China and Russia on one platform, extending their common sphere of influence and economic and techno-military muscle.

But recent events have indicated a shift in strategic posturing of the two partners to the advantage of New Delhi. The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Moscow and the second round of Quad meeting in Tokyo should be seen in this light.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been vocal in his condemnation of China’s hegemonic agenda for quite some time now. At the start of the Quad meeting in Tokyo, where the foreign ministers of Australia, India, Japan and the US converged to take the idea of grouping further, Pompeo reiterated the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific. But more importantly, he emphasised on the criticality of the allies to collaborate against the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, coercion and corruption”.

After the SCO meeting in Moscow, both, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar returned via Tehran and held important meetings with their respective Iranian counterparts. The fact that the US threatens to use The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on any country that has strategic and/or military relationship with Iran and Russia, among other countries mentioned in the Act, did not deter India from engaging with these two nations. New Delhi has to make its choices wisely at this stage of confrontation with China, but it cannot allow its shoulders to be used as a firing board for any power.