Over the past 30 days or so, ever since the skirmish in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh that led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and a greater number of soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of China, there has been wide-ranging public discussions on the threat posed by our big eastern neighbour across the Himalayas.
Although some sort of disengagement has been negotiated, there is little expectation in India at least that “peace and tranquillity” along the Line of Actual Control will endure.
How Beijing views the situation and the larger relationship with India is still a subject of speculation because decision-making in China tends to be opaque and outside the public gaze.
However, read with China’s larger global thrust and in view of the stated objectives of the Belt & Road programme, there is an expectation that the claims of Chinese sovereignty over areas that are perceived to be under the direct or indirect way of the Middle Kingdom will endure.
If there is an offer by China to meet India half-way, the apparent show of reasonableness will be entirely tactical. In its bid to reverse the “century of humiliation” and reclaim the Mandate of Heaven by 2049 the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic by Mao Zedong China will never lose sight of its so-called lost territories.
One of the big errors that cloud public discussions in India on the challenge/threat posed by China is the disproportionate importance attached to the border question.
This, in turn, focuses the debate entirely on the military dimension of the India-China equation
It inevitably also prompts the conclusion that China’s acknowledged superiority in the military sphere not to mention its indigenous capacities means that India must proceed with an extra measure of circumspection.
The history of the 1962 conflict that led to a humiliating defeat for India also hangs over the deliberations like a nightmare. In particular, the complete debacle of Jawaharlal Nehru’s knee-jerk “forward policy” is held out as a reason why India should proceed with utmost caution against a superior enemy.
The assertion, frequently mouthed by those blinded by their anger against China’s perfidious history, that 2020 isn’t 1962 are not misplaced. India certainly is better prepared militarily to counter China.
This state of readiness is also backed by political determination and an unwillingness to be deluded by China’s double-speak. Nor does the present political dispensation of Narendra Modi entertain ideological hang-ups of the variety that clouded the vision of Nehru and his political circle.
Yet, one of the shortcomings of the public discussions of national security within India is that the India-China tensions are seen within a narrow South Asian perspective. An international view puts the whole subject in a slightly different perspective.
What is becoming increasingly apparent is that there are growing misgivings over two issues: the extent of China’s strategic control over key sectors of the developed world; and the political distortions resulting from China’s bid to extend its influence.
Last week, for example, the US administration banned the use of the Tik Tok app for members of the armed forces and government employees. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the Donald Trump administration is considering a national ban on the app that is seen as a major threat of national security because of the suspected transmission of data to China.
This comes in the wake of the decision in the United Kingdom to exclude the Chinese-controlled Huawei from the 5-G services in the country. Earlier it had been decided that the Chinese firm would play a big role in the up-gradation of a crucial sector of British infrastructure.
These developments over the past month are indicative. They suggest that Western powers have finally got over their preoccupation with short-term economic calculations and commitment to free trade and begun to look at the larger strategic consequences of allowing Chinese companies to acquire a big foothold in Europe and US.
Although the restrictions have been justified on issues that centre on the immediate the crackdown in Hongkong is cited as a factor in the UK the misgivings go far deeper.
I believe that in the days to come, China will find that its ability to do business smoothly in the West has been drastically curtailed, particularly in public utilities and nuclear power.
The fears over data security and reverse engineering have been complemented by wariness over China’s creeping control over important public institutions. The extent to which higher education in the US and the UK is dependant on the huge numbers of Chinese students is causing grave discomfiture. Last week, the Royal United Services Institute in London produced an 86-page report entitled China’s Elite Capture.
According to The Times (London) which has accessed this confidential report: “The report alleges that Beijing uses various influence tactics in the UK, including ‘useful idiots’ as well as agents of the Chinese Communist Party to develop links with politicians, business people and academics to build a presence in critical infrastructure.
It claims that ‘Britain’s universities have been wide open to Chinese influence partnering in research on gait recognition, cryptography and missile technology.’ One of Beijing’s key aims, it says, is to ensure that UK tech companies are open to acquisition.”
It is unlikely that this approach has been confined to the UK. There have been similar revelations about the vulnerabilities of Australia. In this context, it is pertinent to peruse the minutely researched book, Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping (2019) by Roger Faligot.
The writer warns that “The word ‘Guoanbu’ will probably become as familiar in the 21st century as the acronyms MI6, CIA and KGB were in the 20th.” The full name of Guoanbu is Guojia Anquanbu and it is the Ministry of State Security. It is the world’s biggest intelligence network that spans the globe, including India.