The military “contact” on December 9, between an intruding group of over 300 Chinese PLA soldiers and a quickly-marshalled Indian counter-force, is still reverberating politically. The Opposition demands a debate. The Government denies it, arguing that the Defence Minister’s statement suffices. After the 1962 India-China military debacle, Parliament debated the issue with tens of Members of Parliament speaking.
The Government's pusillanimity is not difficult to decipher. The BJP has perfected nationalism, often degrading into jingoism, into a political art form. The Balakot attack by the Indian Air Force in 2019 boosted the BJP’s electoral performance. Any question about that operation was termed anti-national and pilloried by BJP’s cyber trolls. The Galwan incident and Chinese intrusions elsewhere across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), were similarly handled. The logic of hyper-nationalism undercuts debate within Parliament or outside it.
In Russia, criticism of the military’s performance in Ukraine has been criminalised and Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped his year-end interaction with journalists to avoid answering questions. India, a democracy, is not far behind, behaviourally.
Even though the Arunachal episode near Tawang occurred on December 9 the information emerged only two days later. Such delay in sharing information about a nation's security affects the government's credibility as it raises suspicion about a cover up. While some military details may be excluded from public debate, the basic information about serious confrontation between Indian soldiers and 300-strong Chinese troops should have been made public.
Why did the Chinese re-enact a Galwan-like encounter in the eastern sector of LAC now, when the post-Galwan Chinese intrusions are partially unresolved? At Depsang Plains the Chinese are still ensconced at the critical Yjunction, stymieing Indian patrolling. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ascendancy in 2013, China has more aggressively tried to alter the status quo in the East and South China seas as well as across the LAC.
With India, China uses the unsettled border to try to distract, punish or compel India. The aim is to contain India and keep it from partnering with the US or any combination of its allies. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue known as the QUAD, which commenced in 2007, between Australia, India, Japan and the US, qualifies as one such grouping that China resents. Contrariwise, India has failed to deter China by inflicting retaliatory punishment employing economic, military or diplomatic means. India has been mostly reactive, reverting after each fresh provocation to dialogue and diplomacy. Fortunately this time the Indian army retaliated promptly and countered the intrusion.
The timing of the Tawang intrusion may be due to a combination of factors. Firstly, the 18th Indo-US joint military exercise, named “Yudh Abhyas”, was held over November-December. It elicited a strong Chinese reaction with allegations that India had breached the LAC management agreements of 1993 and 1996. India retorted that no third country had a veto over India’s sovereign right to conduct joint military manoeuvres with whichever nation. The proximity of the exercise to the LAC was indeed noticeable.
Secondly, it could hardly be a coincidence that the intrusion occurred two days after China rolled back its zero-Covid policy after widespread protests. Due to lesser efficacy of Chinese antiCovid vaccines and patchy vaccination of the population, the virus is beginning to spread. Reports indicated that Beijing appeared like a city under lockdown as people kept off the streets to avoid infection.
The Economist magazine mentions a social media-based survey of 434,000 persons of whom 39% were infected. China may have now allowed buildup of herd immunity as the prevalent Omicron variant is less lethal than Delta, which caused havoc in the West and India. However, modelling by the same publication indicates that the spread will peak around end-January, causing deaths varying from 750,000 to 1.5 million or more. Thus the Chinese Government may be ratcheting up jingoism at home as a distraction, while a slowing economy combines with a health crisis in 2023.
The Indian Government has been chary of public fist-waving against China. This is restraint it does not display vis-a-vis Pakistan. There has been misplaced trust in relations improving with China and thus reluctance to rock the boat. It made sense to first build up economic and military strength before confronting China forthrightly. The self-deluding argument, which also misled the US and the West, goes that better commercial and economic ties will moderate Chinese conduct.
Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, growing proximity with Russia and continuing pursuit of China’s self-defined national interests negates this idealistic assessment of China’s orderly rise while respecting established norms of international conduct. India is better placed today to deter China than in years past. It is beginning to leverage its huge domestic market and military capabilities. But its fence-sitting is beginning to annoy friends and partners. India needs strategic clarity, economic prowess and above all consensus at home. Real enemies are not opposition parties at home. It is the dragon across the Himalayas and the Indo-Pacific.
The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs