As the world vacationed during the long Good Friday weekend starting April 7, China remained in focus.
Before Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck arrived in Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 4, controversy emerged over China-Bhutan border talks. Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said that their northern border may be settled in the next couple of rounds of talks with China. His additional remarks on Doklam rattled South Block. Indians wondered whether Bhutan was about to succumb to the old Chinese offer to concede a favourable alignment in its northern border in exchange for accepting Chinese claims in the Doklam sector. China gaining access to the Doklam trijunction via Bhutanese territory affects India’s strategic interests. The king’s visit, inter alia, was to allay these concerns.
As a buffer state between two rising powers with competing or even conflicting interests, Bhutan has a tough diplomatic task. It would like to retain Indian goodwill and economic connectivity without taking sides against China. It would seek a suitable modus vivendi to insulate itself from the fallout of China-caused friction or even conflict in Asia.
US’ China-containment strategy is now established as Chinese President Xi Jinping commences an unprecedented third term in office. Xi has been rallying his defence forces, urging them to prepare for war. The stated objective is the annexation of democratic Taiwan, by peaceful threats if possible or threatened or actual war if necessary. The US pivot to the Indo-Pacific is to deter these Chinese actions. The Sino-Indian border standoff is now, in US perception, a continental adjunct to their approach to deterring China. That is why the US has been quick to endorse Indian claims over Arunachal Pradesh, which China tries to undermine cartographically.
From the Chinese perspective the Ukraine war is a useful tool to tie down NATO in Europe, drain western weaponry and increase Russian dependence on China. In the Indo-Pacific China would like to disrupt the QUAD, consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the US, by needling India along the Line of Actual Control, diluting Indian strategic convergence with Bhutan, undermining Indian influence in Nepal, degrading Pakistan’s economic and strategic independence, and now by undercutting Russian status as a global power.
As part of this global game Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen tip-toed through the US, meeting Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles. China opposed such meetings and was ratcheting up naval deployment around Taiwan. On the other hand a former pro-China president, Ma Ying-jeou, joined Taiwanese students on a mainland China tour. His Nationalist Party (KMT) has in the past advocated engagement with China and rejected independence. The mood in Taiwan on the other hand has evolved towards independence, especially after the de facto annexation of Hong Kong by China despite commitment to one-nation-two-systems.
The Moscow trip by President Xi on March 20 was closely watched to see if China commits to weapons transfer to Russia. On return Xi received French President Emmanuel Macron accompanied by European Commission head Ursula von der Layen. The intention was to project European unity against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and Sino-US tension. But Layen’s public position had been more hawkish on China. Macron was received with great fanfare but seemed unable to extract a Chinese promise to lean on Russia to stop the war. China perhaps rightly calculates that the two antagonists are still not done fighting. Russia’s winter offensive has underachieved while Ukraine’s spring offensive is about to commence. Wars stop only if the result is decisive, or both sides reach exhaustion and realise that further military gains involve high costs and minimal returns. But China being wooed to play the peacemaker’s role shows the rise in its influence after Russia’s unwise Ukraine campaign.
Before the Bhutanese king’s arrival in India, China recommenced its pinpricks. It announced Chinese names of select places in Arunachal Pradesh. Some suggested that India should do likewise in its maps depicting Tibet and Aksai Chin. The Economist magazine writes that in February the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources repeated a 2003 edict that shows eight places in eastern Russia with historical Chinese names, as it claims that territory historically. This includes the vital port of Vladivostok, called Haishenwa in Chinese. So India is not the only victim of China’s historical revisionism.
Next year brings India’s Lok Sabha and the US presidential elections. The arraignment of former President Donald Trump probably consolidates his hold over the Republican Party. The possibility of his return as president, however remote, will affect global diplomacy. Russia may see him scaling back assistance to Ukraine. China may advance its Taiwan military option, preferring a rational Biden over unpredictable Trump. An Israeli government thwarted by popular protests from curbing judicial independence may use force to disrupt the Iranian nuclear programme if it crosses the red line. In India if BJP loses the Karnataka election it may swing to the extreme right, vitiating domestic peace. All told the world is on a knife's edge, with climate change ignored and food and energy security endangered.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs