When two countries have a 2,100 mile amorphous border aggregating 1,20,000 square miles, the world’s largest unresolved boundary dispute, confrontation is at least infrequently ineluctable. For the last 45 years, despite a tenuous relationship that was always precariously at the precipice, there were no deaths reported from either side. In fact, the last reported casualty in October 1975 was on account of an accident.
However, what happened last month between the two neighbours at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh was deeply disconcerting; it promptly captured global attention. Not only are the two giant Asian countries the world’s most populous (almost one third of the global population), they are both nuclear-armed. And in an unusual coincidence, both have hyper-nationalist leaders whose chest-thumping and muscular proclivities are renowned. China and India were not just having a military face-off in a treacherous mountain-top at 14000 feet above sea-level in the rocky Himalayas, they were questioning their global heft. 20 Indian soldiers were killed as per official government admission; there were Chinese casualties too, but as per the Beijing playbook, there was no public acknowledgement of the same. History teaches us that war never creates victors; both sides lose. The perceived presumptuous winner is the one who lost fewer people, arms, ammunition, tanks and fighter jets. Politicians usually leverage cross-border hostility to change narrative away from rising domestic disenchantment at home. President Xi Jinping is aware that there is simmering discontent within his own country following their most dubious export to an unsuspecting world; the coronavirus called COVID-19. Transient triumphalism against a formidable neighbour provides him palliative relief. But by betraying PM Narendra Modi (the latter’s faith in the Chinese premier corresponds to Pandit Nehru’s similar trust of Premier Zhou Enlai which proved fatal in the 1962 conflict) China may just have overplayed its military machoism. Forget the platitudinous rhetoric that both sides will utter in the forthcoming future; India and China have entered into an Asian Cold War. Let me elaborate.
Right now China is the world’s most reviled five letter word. Maybe the right-wing conspiracy theorists were outrageous in claiming that the Wuhan Virus (as they brand the deadly bat-induced pathogen) was a chemical weapon that was surreptitiously leaked out of a medical laboratory. In any case, Xi Jingping can always resort to plausible deniability. The “wet-market” theory appears more likely though given the gastronomic penchant of the Chinese to try offbeat meats of the endangered species for health purposes. There is however unanimous agreement on wilful Chinese deception; they hid the dangerous portent of the coronavirus from the world long after it had already burnt nations. President Jinping’s country had let loose an apocalyptic annihilation of the world. It was deliberate. A blundering pusillanimous WHO bought the Chinese propaganda without remonstrance. By the time Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director, WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the world was deracinated, upended. The latest data as of July 6, 2020 is revealing of the wreck; over 11.5 million infected and more than 5,30,000 dead. What was their fault?
The Chinese hegemonic adventurism is unlikely to stop; it cushions the global backlash (already curtailed by state-sponsored television) and manipulates local sentiments in China by boasting of usurping global superpower status away from the morally depraved, thoroughly corrupt and almost nihilistic regime of US President Donald Trump. China rejected the international tribunal verdict on the South China Sea and practically everyone succumbed to its dishonourable conduct that defied global conventions. Today bruised, badgered and bludgeoned for destroying world economies (even worse than the Great Depression), millions of innocent lives, and plundering societies into interminable turmoil, China seeks diversion by intimidating Taiwan, shoehorning freedom protestors in Hong Kong, sinking a Vietnamese boat, and threatening India. Chinese duplicitousness is shining bright. One trusts the Dragon country at their own peril.
For India, it will not be enough to ban TikTok; that is like punishing Trump for his Ukraine scandal by denying him a weekend of golf at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. India must join the global chorus of world leaders who are demanding accountability from China for its brazen opacity in concealing information on COVID-19, and a detailed blueprint on fool-proofing future pandemics from its shores. New Delhi also needs to break free from the old-fogey status-quoist silence on Chinese transgressions by including Tibet into the list along with the brutal extermination of Uyghur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps. The Chinese have got away so far because capitalistic democracies were so intoxicated by the globalisation sugar-rush that they overlooked human rights contraventions in favour of foreign investments. Post-COVID, we are entering a phase of economic autarky and slowbalisation. Most supply-chains will diversify production as part of de-risking; they have realised the incongruity of defying the age-old wisdom of putting all their eggs in one basket. Corporations and countries will need to recalibrate strategy. China’s political leverage will decline corresponding to its dissipating commercial clout and India must work aggressively on its diplomatic isolation. Of course, on the flip-side, a cash-starved European Union could just become easy pickings for Beijing. And China could still instigate Pakistan for a limited two-front war against India.
This may yet be India’s moment, ironically enough, to reset the China equation. India needs to become unpredictable, untrustworthy to the Chinese. It needs to keep them guessing. No more jhoola-diplomacy. A bit of frostiness will help. And a lot more of a Cold War.
The writer is a Congressman and a former National Spokesperson. Views are his own.