The Asian Voice

When giants joust on the roof of the world: The Statesman contributor

The writer says that Chinese rise will not be a smooth one and resistance from India, Japan and Russia will always hamper its Middle Kingdom aspirations.

An Indian fighter plane flies over a mountain range in Leh, in the Ladakh region, September 15, 2020. Many parts of Ladakh's undemarcated border between the China and India are the subject of dispute.
An Indian fighter plane flies over a mountain range in Leh, in the Ladakh region, September 15, 2020. Many parts of Ladakh's undemarcated border between the China and India are the subject of dispute.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) -In the saga of India-Chinese relations the latest episode has been a violent one.

The changed rules of engagement at the Line of Actual Control point towards the change in Chinese mindset towards the border question with India.

Instead of seeking peaceful border management, China has now decided to wage a micro- scale offensive to keep the unsettled border issue simmering.

Within the larger picture of the coronavirus pandemic and the elections in United States, the rumblings in Chinese circles and activation of the Himalayan border point to the deeper psychological game that China is playing.

India has a significant place in the assortment of countries that China focuses on, primarily because it is the only country in Asia to have the mammoth scale of resources, territory and people to match China.

If China wants to dominate the Asian continent, it is India, along with Japan, that will pose a serious challenge to its superiority. Hence the present bout of tensions in the high Himalayas needs to be assessed from the strategic and diplomatic perspective.

Since ages the great Himalayas have acted as the stabilising force at the border between the two ancient civilisations.

The highest peaks of the world and the difficult terrain have historically made a good fence between the neighbours. Not only the source of hydrological resources for the sub-continent, the Himalayas are also the source of socio-cultural influences on both India and China.

However, with modern technologies, the great Himalayas became surmountable and the stabilised boundary between India and China became unstable. The precarious nature of the unsettled northern boundary became more evident in the 1962 war.

Historically, the border disputes between India and China have occurred at strategically important times in Chinese politics. The 1962 war between India and China had occurred when Mao Zedong was cornered within Chinese politics on account of the failure of 'The Great Leap Forward'.

The border dispute with India provided a convenient excuse to distract Chinese society away from the disaster created from within towards the 'war' with an outsider.

After Mao, Deng focused on building the capacities of Chinese economy and to undo the damage done by Mao's disastrous policies.

His famous 24-point programme is very informative about the approach China was to take diplomatically with the larger world. It included, inter alia, to hide capacities, to maintain low profile and to not claim leadership.

It was the result of this covert diplomatic orientation that China signed the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (1993) with India that brought peace in the Himalayas.

However, since Xi Jinping became the president, Mr Deng's 24-point programme has undergone major changes. Now China does not hide capacities, does not maintain a low profile and claims leadership.

Mr Xi wants to show the Chinese might to India and to the world by taming India at the border, along with hemming it with Chinese allies chiefly with the help of Pakistan.

By reducing India to the South Asian region, China aspires to claim the unchallenged leadership of the Asian continent.

When President Xi came to India in 2014 or Prime Minister Modi went to China in 2015 there were border skirmishes reported from the LAC, indicating the psychological pressure being mounted on India of assertive Chinese superiority.

Another interpretation given is that the Chinese dispensation is forcing India's hand at bilateral relations.

However, India is uniquely poised to address the Chinese predicament. Firstly, the memory of the 1962 war and the memory of Chinese aggression had lasting impact on Indian psyche.

As a result, India has always been cautious about China.

Secondly, India has military might to give stiff opposition to China, should it come to a war-like aggressive situation.

Thirdly, the Chinese predicament about its rise as a superpower is that it is hemmed among the countries with relatively better off power capacities including India, Japan and Russia.

It means that Chinese rise will not be a smooth one and the resistance from these countries will always hamper its Middle Kingdom aspirations.

Fourthly, the aggressive Chinese posturing under Xi including the One Belt One Road project has other countries on their toes. The Quad group of USA, India, Japan and Australia needs to be seen against this Chinese posturing.

Recently Australia has made a comeback to the Malabar exercise; it points to the growing bonhomie within the grouping.

Lastly, Covid-19 and wolf-warrior diplomacy have put China in a corner in the international arena.

China has forced India to look for friends across continents and oceans, in order to balance the Chinese aggression.

From the Quad meeting in Tokyo to Malabar exercises to the visit of Mike Pompeo to India and the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement between India and the USA, all of these developments are aimed at hedging against Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific region by affected and more importantly capable democracies.

The significance of the recent agreement lies in the fact that it opens up room for negotiation between the Asian neighbours without turning hostile as the latent power concentration within the Quadcan be a potent deterrent to Chinese intentions in the Himalayas as well as the East and South China seas.

As the reaction from the Chinese dispensation to the Indo-US agreement shows, the message has reached home. Whether it will be understood and acted upon is a different story.

The present chapter of Indo- China relations is quite fluid, and the picture is not clear.

However, the contours of the emerging future seem to be taking the shape of balance and counter balance between the countries. But one thing is clear.

The post-cold war world order has been replaced by the multi-polar world order with the receding dominant power and the emergent power being fiercely challenged by others.

The writer is a Research Scholar, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The Statesman is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.