Aconventional view would be that the present flare-up on the India-China border would keep India engaged with China, a more powerful adversary, easing pressure on Pakistan. An in-depth analysis would reveal that finding itself unable to respond to Chinese physical occupation of the disputed strategic heights of Ladakh and Aksai Chin and territory of Arunachal Pradesh, it would focus its aggressive instincts and frustration toward Pakistan. (The area in dispute is 13,500 square miles in Ladakh and 35,000 square miles in Arunachal).
This could demonstrate in the form of stepping up firing on the Line of Control (LoC), violation of airspace, and calculated intrusions in Pakistani territory. Apart from serving the purpose of keeping the pressure and weakening Pakistan’s economy, it will be a good ploy for diverting the attention of millions of Indians from their own economic challenges and foreign policy failures. More so these diversions would hide the recent humiliating Indian military performance against China.
India, however, considers challenging China a long-term project. The economic power and military capabilities of China far outmatch India’s. Building its capabilities through greater emphasis on conditioning its troops to operate in high altitudes and extreme weather conditions will take time. And so would it to develop secure lines of communication to Ladakh.
In these efforts it will enjoy economic, political and strategic support of the United States and Western countries.
Meanwhile, by using its expanding military power and diplomatic clout India could intensify pressure on Pakistan for which it should be prepared. Some important Muslim countries viewing India as a strong ally of the US and in their own economic and political interests could tilt in its favour.
In this situation, Pakistan understandably would lean more on China to counter India’s aggressive designs. China too would find it strategically convenient to strengthen its ties with Pakistan and this is what we are currently witnessing.
The blowback of the humiliating retreat of the Indian military is having serious political fallout on the standing of PM Modi and the BJP leadership. The opposition leaders are reminding of the criticism and tall claims of the past to put them to shame.
A wave of anti-China sentiment has swept the Hindi belt in India that demands boycott of Chinese goods and suspension of industrial and technology cooperation. In all probability it has the blessing of the government to vent their frustrations and send a message to China of the adverse consequences on trade and commerce of its military operations. It is highly doubtful if these threats would ever materialise, apart from small adjustments or diversion in the trade pattern. The level of trade between the two countries is approximately $90 billion that neither government would like to forego.
India accuses China of trampling the Wuhan agreement and the spirit of cooperation that was behind it. The boundary dispute between them, the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC, and China’s perceived dominance of the Indian Ocean region are live issues on which there are wide differences.
There is a glaring difference in the Indian response to China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as opposed to theirs with Pakistan on the LoC. However, this may be a short-term approach. India’s long-term policy toward the Ladakh disputed border remains similar to the Kashmir dispute.
Compounding the difficulties of PM Modi is Nepal’s claim of areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh under the 1816 Sugauli treaty that are under India’s control since 1962. This has resulted in New Delhi finding itself engaged in border disputes with practically all its neighbours less Bhutan and Maldives. These developments clearly undermine India’s aspirations to be a leader of South Asia.
The other striking feature of the Modi government’s foreign policy is the sharp contrast in behaviour toward Pakistan as compared to China. It remains subdued while dealing with China on matters related to territorial disputes or policy and behaves like a bully on the block when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. Not a day passes when the government and Indian media in perfect harmony are not on the offensive against Pakistan. This reflects an immature leadership trying to find a scapegoat to cover its external and internal policy failures.
The present worsening trade situation between China and the US accompanied by political differences over the spread of coronavirus and issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong could have serious economic and political consequences. It could set back the global economy, which is already under severe strain. Cries of boycott of Chinese products will reverse the globalisation process.
The Chinese leadership is conscious of this predicament and is working toward calming the situation despite the hard position it has taken on territorial issues with India. It has offered to engage in dialogue with India. Moreover, it is making efforts at placing its relations with its neighbours South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia on a more mutually beneficial mode. And is trying to remove the misgivings of countries regarding certain projects of the BRI. The main complaint of the countries has been that there has been no return on investments and their debt burden had increased.
With China’s economic growth on the decline Beijing will not like to create political problems with important trading nations either.
Despite China’s one-party rule, the impact of economic prosperity and globalisation has transformed the Chinese society. It is relatively more liberal and demanding and needs a more nuanced handling.
Similarly, the financial controls that the state exercised until now it is finding difficult to manage in the present environment when its economy is on the decline. Whether it is the exchange rate, price control or capital flows it cannot afford to be rigid and move with the market forces. These changes are becoming inevitable due the pressure that is being applied by the US and the Western countries as a part of fair-trade practices.
The question is: how will these changes impact Pakistan and the long-term interests of China and the world at large?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2020.