The incident that occurred on the night of 16 June in one of the mountain regions along the China-India (quasi) border is hard to evaluate as anything but a possible signal about the process at the world political table potentially transitioning from respected gentlemen putting their cards down on the table to undisguised physical assault.
Actually, its main participants launched previously “invisible” mutual kicks under the table while maintaining polite smiles on their faces. After the incident mentioned in the territory of the former principality of Ladakh, the prospect of a “multi-party brawl” has emerged, since there is a very high probability that a number of other “gentlemen” will be drawn into a potential armed conflict between the two Asian giants – and with obvious consequences for all of humanity.
It is important to note that together they continue to play “traditional” (extremely entertaining) geopolitical games, despite the very obvious early warning signal given off in the form of the SARS COV-2 pandemic. While fighting against that, it would look natural not for people to try to use it (politicians, propaganda masters, pharmaceutical companies, etc.) for their own “benefit”, but to stop – at least for the time being – these games and join forces to combat the general threat.
Now the question of where and how that threat originated is already insignificant: in the test tube of some too-smart-for-their-own-good scientists, or “inside” something like a pangolin or a bat that was not doing anything at all. It is important to realize that it is not the far-fetched nature of a sudden threat.
It is enough just to look at the curve representing the cases of coronavirus infections registered daily in that very same India, where even at the end of March the picture looked incomparably rosier than in Europe or the US. While in the middle of May – when the country started to relax its quarantine measures, the daily pace of growth for those infected was at the level of 3,500, by the end of June this indicator had shot up to 20,000.
SARS COV-19 is becoming the principal factor in the uncertainty that clouds not only implementing the qualitative development program for the Indian economy that was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi back on 12 May, but the prospects for (at the very least) repealing the quarantine regime and returning social and economic life back to their condition “during the period before the epidemic”.
In conditions where the coronavirus epidemic has been saddled with other factors, such as the spread of locusts on a scale unseen over the past few decades, and disastrous flooding along the Brahmaputra River in the northeastern state of Assam, the only thing that the Indian government “is missing” is a conflict with China.
However, what occurred on 16 June in Ladakh is obviously counterproductive for China. In conditions where its main opponent, i.e. the United States, is trying to set up a political (and maybe later down the road a military) blockade of China, for the latter it is extremely important to keep India – with whom it shares a boundary of 3,500 kilometers – in a position of strategic neutrality. And, due to the efforts put forth by the leaders in both countries, noticeable success has been achieved in this area.
And all of this could be virtually reduced to nothing in an instant (and apparently in the literal sense of the term) by the events that occurred on 16 June, since 20 dead and 70 wounded Indian border guards make up a factor of “blood demanding retribution” that is very difficult for N. Modi to oppose. Taking into account the obvious inequality in terms of the number of Chinese forces, those voices urging that the pace of a strategic rapprochement between India and the US be accelerated are resounding ever louder.
Delhi continues to insist that there are signs of a “pre-planned action of intimidation”. If this information (with a number of shocking details does resemble the truth, then the question arises about how effectively civilian Chinese leadership can control the plans and actions taken by its own armed forces, since we should repeat that in this case there is no doubt that the incident on 16 June is counterproductive for China as well.
However, here again a broader issue needs to be brought up to date: is China an exception to the general rule of having various groups comprise the ruling elite of a certain country, each of which in its own way interprets the issues involved in national interests, and the methods of asserting them?
As far as the situation that is unfolding in India goes, right now it is hard to believe that back in February this year, during the initial stage of the epidemic’s development in China, transportation aircraft from the Indian Air Force sent the latter assistance in the form of medical equipment and pharmaceutical drugs.
The Indian government made the emergency decision to allocate an additional amount that exceeded 5 billion USD for a top-priority arms purchase, and specifically: 33 fighter aircraft, 300 cruise missiles to strike ground targets, and 250 air-to-air missiles. It is apparent that in a situation that is not “extreme” (meaning not in the current one) this kind of money could be spent to help resolve more pressing economic issues.
In the context of a rising wave of anti-Chinese sentiments, restrictive measures in the area of bilateral economic ties are under review, and are being implemented. This started with relatively “small stuff” in the form of, for example, the prime minister suspending his use of the Chinese Internet service Weibo, or barring Chinese companies from participating in projects to upgrade railway and port infrastructure, or investing into Indian small- and medium-sized business projects.
It was reported that there is a ban that does not allow 59 Chinese Internet service tools to function in the country, and that the IT giants PRC Huawei and ZTE might be barred from participating in helping create the Indian 5G telecommunication system.
All these developments are taking place despite the level of bilateral trade that approaches 100 billion USD, and the fact that entire sectors of the Indian economy (for example, pharmaceuticals) depend to no small extent on supplies from China. These kinds of “countermeasures” are difficult to evaluate except as (forcedly) shooting one’s own foot.
What is noteworthy is how reports on possible measures by the Indian government against Huawei and ZTE coincide in time with the United States extending sanctions for another year (adopted in May 2019) against those same companies, which have recently been at the center of a trade war between the United States and China. Washington is taking great efforts to encourage its closest allies to take similar measures against Huawei.
The approval expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the termination of operations in India of the above Chinese service tools seems natural, since he is now scarcely the main “well-wisher” for the People’s Republic of China.
The incident in Ladakh sparked the exacerbation of the domestic political situation in India, which is already extremely complex. A series of sharp remarks ensued from the leadership of both the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, and members of the current government, represented by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Representatives from the former accused the government of “holding the army back from giving the necessary response to Chinese provocation”, whose consequence was allegedly the death of 20 Indian border guards. In response to that, the INC heard transparent insinuations that they received (at some time and in a certain amount) funds from that same China.
Finally, it seems that despite the multi-faceted negativity that followed the incident on 16 May, India and China have not lost the ability to make a balanced assessment of the current situation, nor the interest in keeping the “Wuhan spirit” in their bilateral relations, which is vital to revive and develop them further.
And even without these kinds of contrived, or absolutely unnecessary, incidents both Asian giants, along with other countries, are in the shadow of the impact from the worldwide catastrophe that has taken shape as SARS COV-2.
Therefore, we hope that the ongoing negotiations to resolve the extremely dangerous conflict in Ladakh reach a positive conclusion.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.