The great game in Inner Asia

By K.N. Pandita:

India-China standoff in Eastern Ladakh is something more than what meets the eye. A plethora of reportages and commentaries on the Sino-Indian flare-up on Eastern Ladakh border has been published by the international media. Experts and observers have expressed various shades of opinion on the incident and have also tried to link it to the history of border skirmishes between the two sides.

However, Alice G. Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs has succinctly summed up the core of the problem. Addressing a select media briefing, she made some profound remarks like this: “China’s border scuffle proved that the country’s aggression is not always rhetorical. it was an indication of China’s disturbing behaviour” Examining the event from a global perspective, Wells added, “China’s behaviour is why “like-minded nations” are now “rallying” with each other under a handful of diplomatic groupings such as the ‘Trilateral’ (the US, Japan and India) and the ‘Quadrilateral’ or ‘Quad’ (US, Japan, India and Australia).

This is an indirect hint that it is the time-tested political philosophy called democracy that is under serious threat because radicalism has found an ally in authoritarianism and the duo now appears in the form of economic avatar in which “lend and bend” is the new political mantra.

After US-China trade spat earlier this year, and thereafter the sudden upsurge of Covid-19 linked to the WHO episode with 123 countries signing a letter that demanded the UN conduct a probe into the Wuhan origin of this pandemic, China ad to meet with embarrassment. At stake was her tenacious refusal of any probe of that sort as it could make a hole in her transparency balloon. Beijing immediately rallied the 57-member OIC and some more Afro-Asian countries to counter the inquiry move.

President Trump rattled Wall Street when he ordered U.S. firms to move production out of China. But, in conference calls with investors just this past month, dozens of executives have signalled plans to further diversify their supply chains away amid the intensifying trade war with China. For example, Toymaker Hasbro, Bath & Body Works parent company L Brands, and fashion designer Steven Madden have all outlined plans to substantially reduce their dependence on Chinese manufacturing in the next few years. The Americans are fighting back, blacklisting 33 more Chinese firms for trying to access US technology, while the Senate last week gave its consent to delisting Chinese companies. India ordered that FDI would need clearance from the Indian government. Japan ordered financial support to production centres moving back to Japan from China. She is not averse to Japanese companies investing elsewhere in democratic countries but would like to see them coming out of China.

With her economic power expanding globally, China began to nurse some misconceptions which a hegemonic chief executive generally indulges in. For example, she began to believe that economic development is assured only through authoritarianism and not democratic dispensation as she looks inward. Presuming that the pandemic has exhausted the US beyond expectation, Beijing carries the unrealistic impression that aggressive posturing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Ladakh would not evoke a serious reaction. It shows that Beijing has not come out of its phantasmal easy walk over Indian positions in the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. Eastern Ladakh episode is a message to India for what Secretary Wells has referred to as “trilateral”. Beijing’s recent threatening to Australia is her response to the “Quad” again referred to by Wells in the same vein.

The second reason for Chins belligerence in Ladakh is her ambition of controlling and minimizing Nepal’s role in the SAARC. Why not wean her away from Indian intimacy if a proxy Nepalese PM is reachable? What Nepalese Prime Minister is doing is rebalancing the time-tested “roti-beti” relationship with India in favour of Beijing. Sources think that Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi has been proactive of late.

Some observers think that Beijing feels disparaged to have to return to the status quo in the Doklam plateau in 2017. Indian troops had stopped China from building a road with a potential threat to India’s border security. That is perhaps the reason why China has deployed a strong force around 5,000 PLA close to the LAC in Eastern Ladakh and has overnight pitched more than a hundred tents in the disputed area.

India Health Minister, Mr Harsh Vardhan has been elected Chairman of the WHO’s Executive Board. 62 member states of the WHO has moved a resolution calling for an independent investigator into the WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the zootomic origins of the coronavirus. India is a signatory to the resolution. Ladakh face-off is to be taken a warning to India against aligning with the Western nations in this demand. Beijing’s recent threatening to Australia that supporting the resolution could “bring her more pain” has to be understood in this context.

Reflecting on the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Nehru once remarked that China’s diplomatic language has two meanings, one for themselves and the other for those to whom it is addressed. Keeping this in mind, let us reflect on the statement issued by the Chinese foreign minister in the context of Ladakh stand-off. He said, “China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas. At present, the overall situation in the border areas is stable and controllable. There are sound mechanisms and channels of communication for border-related affairs, and the two sides are capable of properly resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultation,” the statement added.

Intruding into an area that dominates the region and deters India from completing the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, which, once fully asphalted, will give India a major advantage in terms of access and military mobilization, is in the words of Chinese foreign minister “safeguarding its national territorial sovereignty and safeguarding peace and stability in the China- Indi border areas.” .A key part of this is the construction of a bridge at Daulat Beg Oldi that China wants to stop.

Chinese foreign minister cannot have different yardsticks to measure “national territorial sovereignty”. The Indian Border Roads Organization (BRO) plans to complete all 61 strategic roads assigned to it along the border with China by December 2022. These roads are spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and will allow swifter mobilization of troops and stores to forward areas. This is in-line not only with the concept of “safeguarding national territorial sovereignty” but is also in line with the rail and road link China has built over the years in its western region along the LAC. Reinforcing the disputed site with 5,000 troops over-night and deploying trucks to move material is in no way a sign of promoting peace along the China-India border region as claimed by the Chinese foreign ministry. It is belligerence and aggression and China will be making a mistake if she thinks India will succumb.

The ground reality is that the Great Game in Inner Asia is changing. The Silk Road town, Daulat Beg Oldi, is today an Indian military base, located just 8 km south of the Karakoram Pass, an all-weather route built by China for its all-weather friend and ally Pakistan. The classical “Great Game in Central Asia” has changed its skin and so have the players of this game also changed. The shift has been from military power to eco-military power and Belt and Road theorem serves as arteries.

The “Inner Asian Game” of China has assumed added dimension resulting from the pandemic that is devastating economies and demolishing old order. It has not to be seen from the prism of local or border conflicts only but a far larger canvas spreading out from the Himalayan ranges to the South East Ocean waters.

Authoritarian regimes prone to using government resources to suppress dissent, sometimes violently, are stepping up these tactics and exploiting the crisis to consolidate power. Already closing space for civil society and democratic actors, a foundational element of stability, may collapse further. From some time democracy and liberalism have been facing the civilizational challenge. The trend has changed and in the methodology adopted is to break the states under debt and throw a begging bowl around their necks.

Examining the issue from a broader perspective we find that the US is gauging the consequences of fragility and conflicts. Terrorist organizations exploit instability to orchestrate attacks on U.S. assets and allies. Violence hinders U.S. companies’ access to valuable markets and strains supply chains. Fragility impedes governments’ ability to effectively address pandemics, and keep them within their borders, raising the prospect of regional diffusion and sustained infections.

The confluence of the above factors — already surging fragility and violence, with COVID-19 as a multiplier — magnify the relevance and timeliness of the forthcoming global fragility strategy.

The tactics China uses to pursue this goal exacerbate instability that the global fragility strategy seeks to address. The CCP’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), comprised of loans and infrastructure spending globally, not only weakens U.S. influence with recipient governments but, through opaque deals and associated illegal practices, has the potential to undermine democratic institutions across the developing world.

India needs to find a working solution to the border issues with China. China will create an issue if there is none. Hindsight reveals that China can blow hot and cold only to camouflage its ultimate intentions of grabbing more and more lands that are vulnerable and left without solid protection on the southern and southwestern border. New Delhi has taken the right decision of upgrading connectivity of her northern and northeastern border with China. It was a blunder to have neglected road connectivity in that region for a long time. Now that Ladakh has become a Union Territory, upgrading the infrastructure that will considerably improve our defence position in the region is a priority. In achieving this goal no intimidation from Chin or Pakistan has to be entertained. This Inner Asian game is not going to come to an end as early as we think.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, Srinagar).

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