Ladakh Clash Was Long in the Making But India, China Now Need an Honourable Exit

Prime Minister Modi defied history and facts to woo President Xi with swing-rides and photoshoots, forgetting that settling the border issue is not merely a factor of personal equations between leaders.

The ongoing India-China standoff, mostly at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, causing the death of the commanding officer of 16 Bihar Regiment and 19 of his soldiers should not come as a surprise. Over the years, intruding to improve tactical ground positions or infrastructure has been an annual Chinese summer pastime. Sometimes, matters got more serious – like at Doklam in 2017.

After decisively winning a second term last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began forcefully implementing the BJP’s old agenda for reshaping India. In August, a constitutional amendment did away with Article 370 and split Jammu and Kashmir into two downgraded Union Territories. China protested strongly that this change in the status quo impacted its strategic interests, which India rejected as posturing.

South Block reasoned that over the past half century, China and Pakistan have made multiple changes in Gilgit Baltistan without consulting India. Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam valley, adjoining the Siachen glacier, to China in 1963. Fifty years later, China announced the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through this sensitive region as part of China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Just as the US agreed in 1972 to normalise relations with China while putting aside the Taiwan issue,  Rajiv Gandhi and reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping shook hands in 1988, relegating the tricky boundary issue to later settlement. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav dismisses that meeting and the border management accords of 1993, 1996 and 2013 as “homilies about peace, diplomacy and dialogue”, leaving the crucial boundary issue unsettled. He obviously omits mention of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, with China-expert Brajesh Misra as principal adviser, having followed the same path.

Finger-pointing aside, all Indian governments, as indeed leaders of the US and western nations, have been foxed by China’s endgame. By letting China join the World Trade Organisation in 2001, the US was still endorsing the Henry Kissinger-Richard Nixon thesis that bringing China into the global regimes of trade and investment would stabilise the global order. Much store was laid by Deng Xiaoping’s “24-character” injunction to his successors to “hide our capacities and bide our time”. Ignored was what would happen if China acquired massive economic and military power and also a leader who felt China’s time had come.

With India, the endgame has been clear since 1963, when the China-Pakistan strategic convergence began with Pakistan ceding the Shaksgam valley to China. The policy to box India in South Asia had commenced. China could not help Pakistan in 1971 as it was enmeshed in the devastating Cultural Revolution, but thereafter began clandestine transfers of nuclear weapons and missile technology.

Therefore, Chinese conduct must be viewed from two perspectives: its desire to restore the greatness of China that western powers destroyed and which India may challenge if not rival; and the socio-economic pact of growth and prosperity between the Chinese Communist Party and its people.

Three significant agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity at LAC were signed in 1993, 1996 and 2013. Another crucial agreement was signed on April 11, 2005 on the “Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question”. This was penned as India was negotiating a civil nuclear deal with US, eventually signed on July 18, 2005. Clearly, China was positioning a possible border settlement against India moving closer to the US. Thus, for China the border issue is an implement to condition Indian strategic behaviour. Concomitantly, its own economic compulsions can modify its outreach to India. Thus, settling the border issue is not merely a factor of diplomacy or of personal equations between leaders or even less the brilliance of party functionaries.

To take this reasoning further, the 1993 and 1996 agreements came after Chinese economic growth hit a bump after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which drew western sanctions. From a GDP growth rate of 11.2% in 1988, China slid to 4.2% in 1989 and 3.9% in 1990. Growth spurted in 1993 and 1994 but again declined from 1995. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis created an adverse external environment. Thus, Chinese conduct, perhaps like that of most nations, is modulated by economic and growth conditions.

The ascension of President Xi Jinping and the 2008 global financial crisis amidst which China was a stabiliser led to China abandoning Deng’s injunction to avoid assertive conduct. Chinese bullying thereafter became the norm in the South and East China Seas and across land frontiers. Its benign counterpart is the new Silk Road or BRI, to spread a Sino-centric web of supply and production chains. Coincidentally, the BRI, CPEC etc commenced as Xi Jinping became president in 2013. India’s rejection of that is a snub that Xi would remember.

Historically, two rising powers with a legacy of hurts and disputes have more often than not come to blows. Prime Minister Modi defied history and facts to woo President Xi with shared swing-rides and photoshoots at historical sites. Xi has consolidated more power than any leader since Mao Zedong. Narendra Modi, likewise, has acquired the most power since Indira Gandhi, riding a tsunami of jingoism, propelled by India’s Balakot airstrike, to electoral victory in 2019. Today, Modi is trapped by the persona of a populist-nationalist defender of Bharat mata. That limits his options.

Modi has assured the nation that retribution is inevitable for the killing of Indian soldiers. Xi is trying to deflate Modi’s persona and regional influence. He is also exposing cracks in the  emerging strategic convergence between India, the US, Australia and Japan. President Donald Trump and the US have not rushed to side with India, preferring to preach from the sidelines. But Xi is also vulnerable in the post-COVID world with Europe and US blaming China for not alerting the world in time to the danger posed by the coronavirus. The Chinese economy has perforce slowed as it faces decoupling challenges.

An honourable solution requires China quietly restoring the status quo ante, India accepting to not needle it at WHO, where it now holds the chair, or over Taiwan or Hong Kong, besides assuring China that all infrastructure development along the LAC is defensive. China officially conceding that they too lost soldiers in the melee would also obviate the political need for India to seek to restore honour through armed action.