In 2049 the People's Republic of China (PRC) will mark the centenary of its founding. President Xi Jinping has set that as the milestone when China overtakes the United States as the world's leading superpower. In overplaying its hand in the Galwan Valley, Beijing has made a close US-India alliance all but inevitable

by Minhaz Merchant

All of China's recent actions must be viewed through this geopolitical prism: the build-up in eastern Ladakh, the militarisation of the South China Sea, the national security law in Hong Kong, the aggressive air sorties around Taiwan, the clampdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang, the diplomatic confrontation with Australia and Canada, the subversion of scientists in the United States, the theft of Western intellectual property, and the coordinated cyber attacks on government assets globally.

Growing Ambitions

China expects to overtake America's GDP within ten years. The gap has already narrowed sharply ($21 trillion vs $14 trillion). China's defence budget ($178 billion) is still just a fourth of America's ($722 billion). China has only two aircraft carriers against America's 20, a crucial factor in the South China Sea. But China's navy has an ambitious carrier building programme as well as development of fifth generation stealth fighter jets.

However, it will take at least 20 years for China to rival American naval and air power across global theatres. China, playing the long game, knows this. In 1980, when its economy was the same size as India's, it bided its time and focused on growth at all costs.

It was only in 2007, however, that China's economy entered the big league. In 2007, China's GDP was just $3.55 trillion, one-fourth of US GDP of $14.45 trillion. In four short years, by 2011, China's GDP had more than doubled to $7.55 trillion. America's GDP had meanwhile crawled to $15.54 trillion. The gap between the economies of the two countries had narrowed from 4:1 to 2:1 during 2007-11.Where does India fit into China's game plan? Beijing is not lulled by India's stop-start economic growth, noisy democracy and slow decision-making.

It recognises that India will stumble its way to becoming the world's third largest economy by 2030, ahead of Germany and Japan. It also knows that the Indian army, navy and air force, currently under-funded, are expanding rapidly. It realises that with a middle-class consumer market of 400 million, a world-class software sector and the third largest start-up universe globally, India will be a force to reckon with in the future. That complicates Xi Jinping's plans. The last thing China wants is to face an alliance between the US-led West and India.

Everything Xi has done in his eight years as China's most powerful and ruthless President since Mao Zedong has therefore been calibrated to cut India down to size. Beijing uses Pakistan-sponsored terrorism to pin India's security forces to the Line of Control (LoC). It blocks India's efforts to become a permanent veto-carrying member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and vetoes its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

In Beijing's long view, there can be only two superpowers by 2049. That is when it expects the baton to pass from the US to China. India is an irritant, an unwelcome third angle in this evolving triangle of global power.

This is why Xi Jinping went through the charade of the Wuhan and Mahabalipuram informal summits. India was to be kept in good humour and equidistant from the US and China.

India & The Long Game

Three events have upended this strategy. First, India's continuing opposition to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Xi considers this globe-girdling infrastructure project his personal legacy. BRI has signed on over 100 countries and pledged investments of $3.70 trillion in 2,600 projects. India's unyielding opposition to BRI as well as its high-cost debt have stalled infrastructure projects in various countries. BRI is aimed at solidifying Chinese influence worldwide. Any disruption in its progress constitutes a setback to Xi's 2049 mission.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic. India led 123 countries to institute an independent inquiry into its source and whether China suppressed information in its early stages, potentially costing tens of thousands of preventable fatalities globally. India's leading role to pin accountability for the pandemic has angered Beijing.

Third, India has begun to proactively build roads, bridges and other infrastructure in eastern Ladakh along the LAC.

For decades China built fortifications on its side of the LAC and was pleased India did not do the same on its side of the LAC. Doklam changed that. India has built more infrastructure in the past two years along the LAC than it did in two decades. All three events have rattled China. Its longstanding view of India as a passive regional power that punched well below its geopolitical weight has been abandoned.

The Ladakh Blunder

China is determined to cut India down to size. The events of the past two months in eastern Ladakh are part of China's changed strategy towards India.

But in overplaying its hand in the Galwan Valley, Beijing has made a close US-India alliance all but inevitable. That is precisely the outcome China fears the most. Its miscalculation in Ladakh will extract a heavy geopolitical cost.