An Indian soldier keeping watch at Bumla Pass on the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: AFP

The last couple of weeks have witnessed a number of confrontations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that delineates the boundary between India and China.

The Indian press is alarmed. Is there a bigger confrontation, even a limited clash, likely?

Also, the laws that the Chinese are contemplating for Hong Kong threaten the concept of “one country, two systems.”

India and Hong Kong are perhaps the best examples of China’s aggressive stance as it faces a global backlash for irresponsibly handling the Covid-19 problem. The Chinese muscular approach to a global cry to investigate China’s role in the spread of the virus is cause for alarm in global capitals.

Flareup along India-China borders

After the Doklam confrontation in 2017, when the armies of both countries remained deployed in eyeball-to-eyeball contact for 73 days, the tensions between Indian and China had never climbed to the levels they have reached now.

There are also a few disturbing deviations this time in the scheme of events orchestrated by the People’s Liberation Army along the LAC, between India and Tibet.

The more than 3,500-kilometer border has been transgressed at multiple points. Trouble has erupted at Ladakh to the west and thousands of kilometers to the east at Naku La in the India state of Sikkim.

In the Ladakh sector the biggest incursion, possibly one to two battalions’ strength, was in the Galwan Valley. India had recently finished construction of a border road through this valley after being at it for more than 15 years without a whimper from the Chinese side.

However, China objects to it now. The area had last witnessed action during the 1962 India- China war. Paradoxically, the two nuclear powers had, as in the past, limited the means employed in the confrontations to just unarmed soldiers jostling with each other.

The levels of violence have escalated this time, resulting in far more injuries. If an exasperated soldier from either camp presses the trigger, a shootout could result even before Beijing and New Delhi can get their consultative mechanisms to impose control.

Hong Kong back on the streets

The Chinese response has been particularly muscular as far as Hong Kong is concerned.  The National People’s Congress has authorized the drafting of a Hong Kong-specific law to safeguard national security. It paves the way for Chinese security forces to operate more freely in Hong Kong. Protesters could be banned for undermining national security, treason, sedition and subversion.

Hong Kong is out on the streets in protest. Taiwan has commented adversely about the law. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China.”

His statement opens up possibilities of doing away with Hong Kong’s special financial status and preferential trade arrangements.

China’s reasons for aggressive posturing

China’s reasons for sending the mercury shooting up goes beyond local issues. They are far more global in nature.

Alice Wells, who headed the US State Department’s South and Central Asia Bureau, said: “This is a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical. Whether it’s in the South China Sea or along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behavior by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.”

The foremost reasons driving Chinese responses are the coronavirus-related backlashes that China is facing. Much of the world believes that China lied. At best, it kept quiet early in the outbreak and now faces a global trust deficit.

India has supported efforts to initiate a transparent inquiry into a disease that has killed close to 400,000 people. India also supports reforms of the World Health Organization.

Italy has asked for a probe into the origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. It supports the initiative to reform the WHO. Among other countries that favor reforms are Bangladesh, Canada, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey, Britain and Japan. Some of these countries are otherwise quite close to the Chinese.

The pressures on China have increased, with Australia and Japan taking steps to reduce their dependence on China. Global conglomerates are also evaluating options beyond China. Japan has put in effect a US$2 billion plan to ease such relocation.  

The Americans are openly calling the Chinese out. Indians have brought in new regulations that will put Chinese investments under the scanner. The Chinese are faced with a major challenge if the biggest global economies start thinning out their logistics chain from China.

 Some major global companies are thinking about moving their manufacturing facilities to India or other Asian countries. The Chinese want the world to believe that India has unstable times ahead. It plans to get these companies to rethink their strategy.

The Chinese leaders are known to react irrationally when under pressure and there are other woes too that serve to precipitate such Chinese responses. The Belt and Road Initiative is losing pace. More and more countries are finding Chinese debts suffocating. The economic impact of Covid-19 further reduces the capacity of these nations to meet repayments.

Response to Chinese approach

Countries all over the world are coming together to take a unified stance in demanding accountability. The effort led by the European Union and Australia for an independent inquiry has 62 countries in support. The Chinese efforts to stall it have been been stumped.

That the virus that broke out in Wuhan spread globally while bypassing other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is both galling and preposterous. In any case, we will do disservice to future generations if we don’t get to the bottom of it and evolve ways to try to prevent such catastrophes.

The WHO has lost its legitimacy for having played along with the Chinese during the crisis and definitely needs a major revamp. The US has already stopped contributing to it. Such organizations have to be apolitical. The WHO has a pivotal role to play in coordinating activities globally in a major health emergency. Its speed of response and objectivity in decision-making are crucial to controlling the spread of disease and its containment.

Americans have initiated a large number of steps. One that will hurt huge Chinese companies like Huawei and its suppliers is a bar on using US technologies and software. It blocks companies from manufacturing chips for Huawei. The restrictions are to go into effect from September.

China’s muscular approach fans greater cohesion among the Quadrilateral’s partners – India, the US, Australia and Japan. Indian Ocean rim countries, currently leaning toward China either as an effect of Chinese coercion or economic dependence, would definitely find greater strength in independent strategic decision-making as the Quad evolves into a more cohesive arrangement and displays its intent of ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Sino-Indian confrontations run the risk of escalation and may lead to a localized conflict. Of late, there have been conciliatory steps on both sides, with India having revived a 2015 agreement. US President Donald Trump has offered to mediate. Though neither India nor China would accept it, his offer has brought the issue to the geopolitical center court.

In Hong Kong, major powers and especially the US will have to put a lot of pressure on Beijing to disallow China from devouring the island. The measures have to be primarily economic to deter China from playing around with the status of “one country, two systems” that remains operative in Hong Kong.

Trump’s announcement of scrapping Hong Kong’s special trading status has created divisions. Many residents believe that Hong Kong suffers collateral damage from the US-China confrontation.

Britain says it will extend the provision of visas for Hong Kong holders of British National Overseas passports. Currently they can stay in Britain for six months. The provision could be extended by another six months. Some members of the British Parliament have called for automatic citizenship for such people.

Diplomacy has never been China’s strength and Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s response was no less dictatorial than that of the dictator in Beijing he serves. His response to Alice Wells’ statement was: “The diplomat’s remarks are just nonsense.”

He also said: “We urge the Indian side to work together with us, abide by our leadership’s important consensus, comply with the agreements signed.”

China’s Xinhua news agency has meanwhile reported that Xi Jinping has ordered the military to think about worst-case scenarios, and scale up training and battle preparedness.

Notwithstanding possible Chinese response in the near future, there is a need to trace Covid-19’s flight back to its starting point. We owe it to those who have lost their near and dear ones in the biggest catastrophe that we have experienced in our lifetimes.

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S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.