The appointment of Xi Jinping as Communist Party chief and President of China for the third consecutive term on October 23rd spells continuing strategic pressure on India both along its northern land boundary and in the Indian Ocean Region.
It is no coincidence that after decades of peace and tranquillity, the PLA started getting aggressive along the Line of Actual Control, or LAC, in 2012, the same year that Xi Jinping was anointed Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress.
It started slow, with PLA troopers staking claim to areas which were earlier recognised as land between the two different perceptions of the LAC, followed by attempts to change the status quo by blocking Indian soldiers from patrolling areas up to their perception of the LAC where they had never faced problems earlier.
Then in April 2013, around the time Xi was named President and Supreme leader of the party and thus the country, the PLA established a camp some 10 miles north of the LAC in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector in Ladakh, which houses an Indian military base and airstrip. The Indian army was quick to set up a parallel camp on its side of the border, and the face off continued until May, when both sides pulled back to their earlier positions following extensive discussions.
But then came another face off at the border village of Demchok in September 2014, months after India elected a BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and when Xi was visiting India on the invitation of the Prime Minister. Less than a year later, in September 2015, Indian troops dismantled a watchtower built by the PLA in the Burtse region of northern Ladakh, leading to yet another face off.
Two years later, a PLA road building exercise at Doklam, near the Doka La which in Sikkim and Jamphari Ridge in Bhutan, was challenged and stopped by Indian forces in June 2017. In August, soldiers from both sides sustained injuries in a clash at Pangong Tso, a high-altitude (4,225 m/13,862 ft) lake spanning eastern Ladakh and West Tibet, with the LAC passing through it. Reports say at least 72 Indian soldiers were hurt, with some rushed to hospitals in Leh and Delhi. Videos purportedly showing the two sides engaging in stone throwing and bare-fisted fights emerge on social media. The PLA refused to admit any Chinese injuries.
In an attempt to lower the rising temperature at the border, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping engaged in the first of their ‘informal summits’ at Wuhan in April 2018, which became infamous a few years later as the source of the Coronavirus pandemic which rocked the world. The second such summit was held at Mamallapuram near Chennai, in October 2019. But all that hugging and romantic boat rides turned out to be a waste of time, energy and money.
The pandemic, spawned by a virus made in a Wuhan lab, hit the world in early 2020. And in early May that year, the Indian Army and the PLA clashed again at Pangong Tso and at Muguthang Valley in North Sikkim, with both sides reporting injuries. Later that month, Chinese troops, apparently protesting against the Shyok-DBO road being constructed well within the Indian side of the LAC, entered the Galwan River valley in Ladakh region, and by month end, some 800 to 1000 PLA soldiers each pitched tents and deployed heavy vehicles and monitoring at three places in the Gogra Hot Springs region, including Patrolling Points 14 and 15.
Things came to a head on June 15, 2020, when 20 Indian soldiers including a colonel died in clashes with the PLA that involved not just fists and stones, but steel rods and sticks spiked with nails in the Galwan Valley. While the Chinese side said only four PLA soldiers had died, reliable reports estimated the Chinese toll at 38 or more. These were the first mortalities in border violence in over 40 years.
As payback, the Indian army defied PLA artillery and armour to occupy the strategic Rechin-Rezang La heights near Pangong Tso in late August, which put the PLA’s Moldo-Spanggur Tso garrison below within its observation and reach. One report said the Indian side even fired a tank shot across the PLA armour to show that it meant business.
Several rounds of talks at various levels to restore the status quo have been in vain. But the salami slicing of the border with India is just one part of Xi’s grand ambition. Rebuffed by India over his grand Belt and Road Initiative, he has tried to woo, wine and dine India’s immediate neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives, albeit with limited success. Recently a map of Russian origin has shown POK and Aksai Chin as Indian Territory. That will only highlight Chinese ambitions on encroachment and land grabbing. The string of pearls, or ports, with which he hopes to encircle India and restrain its strategic room to manoeuvre, has also not taken off like he had envisioned it. The world is becoming increasingly wise to China’s dangerous debt diplomacy. Beijing’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy” has led to increasing resentment and anger not just in India, but globally. India’s membership of the Quad, which has the US, Japan and Australia (all clearly aligned against China for now) as the other members, is another irritant for Xi.
China is definitely not a power that can be ignored or wished away. Even the US of A under President Joe Biden appears nervous about taking it on directly, although there are various attempts being made to slow China’s inexorable rise.
Brushing away his predecessor’s maxim to wait and secure its strength before making a move, the pugnacious Chinese President apparently believes China’s time is now. His hard crackdowns in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, his tough posturing over the South China Sea, as well his increasingly brutal crackdowns on any internal dissent, turning China into an absolute police state, are all signs of a man obsessed with security, both for himself and the party.
Xi, whose made his absolute power brutally evident by having former President Hu Jintao whisked away publicly from the Party Congress session on Saturday, is also astute and experienced enough to know that things are not going to be smooth sailing for him or China during his third term. In fact, he said as much during his speech, warning his people to “be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms.”
The disruption in global supply chains due to the events in Ukraine have led to talks of a global economic meltdown which could be worse than the one of 2008. The vicious and unprecedented sanctions on Russia have also led to attempts by various nations to find an alternative to the all-powerful US dollar. And post the ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan, traditional western allies are becoming increasingly uneasy about their dependence on America. Put simply, the world faces tectonic economic and political shifts, which do not augur well for nations that are unprepared.
But even though China remains far superior to India in economic and military terms, at least on paper, recent events have shown that if Xi is hoping to replicate with India his antics in the South and East China Seas, where he has staked claim to ever-increasing areas of territory either by brow-beating, bullying, bribing or blackmailing the smaller nations in the region, he could be in for a rude surprise. Because this time, India is prepared.