India emerges as a roadblock in China’s march to Persian Gulf - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 20 May 2021 3 Comments

Within a relatively short period of time, bilateral relations between China and India have taken a nosedive. During the past five years, the veil of trust that had shrouded the face of rising China and kept Indian eyes misty and unfocused for the last three decades was lifted. A set of harsh knocks forced India to look at the real face of Xi Jinping’s China and accept today’s Beijing as a fierce competitor that would not hesitate to bend all norms to brush aside India’s concerns about security, and even sovereignty, to pursue its goals. Coming to grips with this unpleasant reality and exhibiting the willingness to stand up to protect its own interest based on that reality, India has finally positioned itself as a formidable obstacle to China’s determined march through South Asia to West and Central Asia.


Now that India and China are at loggerheads and not the friends they could have been, a great deal of uncertainty may dog the future of smaller nations in the South Asian region. To mitigate that uncertainty, both China and India will have to act on ground realities. First, China needs to look at India with clear eyes and accept India’s strengths. China will have to accept that the days of coercing India from one defensive position into another through dilatory talks and deceptive actions are over. 


The 2017 stand-off at Doklam, the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan, between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army should have been an eye-opener for Beijing. India’s firmness led to the Chinese troops’ withdrawal after more than two months of tense confrontation/stalemate. But China’s fresh adventure in the frozen plains of Ladakh in May 2020 indicates that Beijing chose to remain in a state of denial. At the time of this writing, Chinese troops are still holding on to the ground they encroached in the strategically important Depsang Plains in Galwan Valley. Talks to achieve at least a temporary peace between the two in Ladakh have been taking place for months.


China’s Diplomatic Deceptions


After Doklam, Beijing resumed its effort to convince New Delhi that such incidents were rare and, essentially, the product of misunderstandings. In April 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Wuhan, China, for a two-day, informal one-on-one summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first of its kind since the Doklam stand-off ended. The objective was to repair and reenergize the stuttering Sino-India relationship. Although much of the content of the deliberations remains confidential, the two heads of state issued a joint statement afterward indicating their agreement to push the reset button.


A month later, in May 2018, China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui added another layer of spin on the Wuhan Summit in an article in the Indian daily, The Tribune: “The two leaders further deepened their understanding with each other and shared similar views on the historical position, stage and goal of development of China and India. The two sides viewed each other’s developmental intentions in a positive way and decided to build a Closer Developmental Partnership in an equal, mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.” Ambassador Luo Zhaohui continued: “Prime Minister Modi briefed President Xi on India’s ‘neighborhood first’ policy and the concept of ‘the world as one,’ which are quite similar with President Xi’s idea of ‘neighborhood diplomacy as high priority’ and ‘to build a community of shared future for mankind’” (“My Interpretation of Wuhan Summit,” The Tribune, May 6, 2018).


China’s effort to keep India’s guard down was given another push in October 2019 when yet another informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping took place at Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Xi’s objective at that summit was clearly to sidestep the security and sovereignty-related disputes, but assure Modi that he would work toward narrowing India’s huge trade deficit with China, an imbalance that troubles India. Xi also assured Modi that China would take measures to enhance border security, an assurance that turned out to be wholly disingenuous. For Beijing, the talks at Mamallapuram were all about optics.


One other apparent bit of Chinese deception centered on Kashmir. President Xi never mentioned Prime Minister Modi’s Aug. 5, 2019, decision to abrogate sections of the Kashmir-centered Article 370 that led to the separation of Ladakh as a Union Territory from Jammu and Kashmir. Yet on Aug. 6, more than two months before the Mamallapuram summit and a day after Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of the decision, Global Times - the English-language outlet of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party - tweeted: “China opposes #India putting Chinese territory in the western section of the border under its administration, which affects China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is ‘unacceptable and void.’” Global Times cited the Chinese Foreign Ministry office.


Moreover, on Aug. 6 Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying noted that India’s decision to “scrape away” Kashmir’s constitutional status and alter the status of the disputed territories through its domestic laws is “unacceptable” and does “not have any legal effect.” Responding to a question on India’s abolition of Kashmir’s special status, the spokesperson noted, “China is seriously concerned about the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir.” 


It would have been appropriate for China to not react because Beijing knew that the Indian decision vis-à-vis the state of Jammu and Kashmir is India’s internal matter and, further, that the abrogation of Article 370 was done to send a clear signal to Pakistan that their aiding and abetting of the dissidents within the Indian-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir is over and it is time to bid farewell to any prospect of Kashmir’s secession.


But given that his foreign ministry was expressing deep concern, President Xi’s silence on the subject in his talks with Prime Minister Modi meant only one thing: Xi was not interested in hearing the facts, and the commander-in-chief of China’s military had already begun planning to stage a military attack in Ladakh to advance the PLA west of the mutually agreed-on but non-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC).


That the PLA’s aggression in Ladakh was premeditated and had the involvement of the Chinese government at the highest level is a view shared by other experts. One of them is Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and earlier a staff member of the U.S. National Security Council serving as special assistant to the president. In “Hustling in the Himalayas: The Sino-Indian Border Confrontation,” Tellis addressed China’s Ladakh aggression: “But this time, there is one important difference: unlike the discrete and geographically localized confrontations of the past, the latest encounters are occurring at multiple locations along the LAC in Ladakh in the eastern section of Jammu and Kashmir, which suggests a high degree of Chinese premeditation and approval for its military’s activities from the very top” (Hustling in the Himalayas: The Sino-Indian Border Confrontation: Ashley J. Tellis: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 4, 2020).


Tellis noted that Chinese activity in Ladakh, centered on bringing “new territorial enclaves under Chinese control, were occurring simultaneously at several different locations, such as on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso, at Hot Springs, and in the Galwan Valley, north of Pangong Tso, places that all lie in the LAC in eastern Ladakh. The Chinese military now appears to have occupied some 40-60 square kilometers of territory claimed by New Delhi in these areas.” In Pangong Tso, China is aggressively completing a motorable road, and in the Galwan Valley, it is reportedly building bunkers and barracks, Tellis added.


Resisted and subsequently pushed back by Indian troops in the Pangong Tso area, Beijing’s immediate concern today is how to hook up with Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan through Ladakh. This is an important objective for China since it has invested heavily in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), particularly in Pakistan, and is setting up a large port at Gwadar on Pakistan’s Makran Coast.


In all likelihood, Gwadar will be converted into a major naval base in the coming years. Once that naval base is established, China could then become a formidable gatekeeper of the Straits of Hormuz and could emerge as a prime arbiter of the Persian Gulf oil and gas bounty. President Xi Jinping has identified BRI as the path on which China will march to global dominance. Because the stakes are so high, Pakistan has emerged as a key nodal point for China.


(To be continued…)

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