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The Coming India–China Conflict and a Higher Calling for India

A man walks inside a conference room used for meetings between military commanders of China and India, at the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, November 11, 2009. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
China may be a powerful adversary, but its bluffs can be called.

On July 3,  for the first time since Chinese troops killed 20 Indian soldiers in the Galvan Valley on June 15, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited the border region of Ladakh to rally the contingent posted there. And judging by China’s official reaction, the Communist Party didn’t see Modi’s response coming.

The prime minister was showing support for his troops, but also tapping into the growing anti-China sentiment that has been provoked by Beijing’s coronavirus-era brazenness. His visit placed the fighting in Ladakh in the broader context of China’s global expansionism. Speaking in Leh, Modi went for the jugular, admonishing Beijing for its expansionist policies. “The age of expansionism is over, this is the age of development,” he said. “History knows that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.”

Instead of calling out China’s advances into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Ladakh, Modi’s well-calibrated remarks made the broader point that China picks territorial fights with all of the countries that border it. In essence, India has sought to isolate China on the issue of border disputes, aligning itself with the 21 other countries that are victims of Beijng’s harassment.

For most of the day, China remained silent. But in the afternoon, it came out with a peremptory statement. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “India and China are in communication and negotiations on lowering the temperatures through military and diplomatic channels. No party should engage in any action that may escalate the situation at this point.”

Compare the nuanced and subdued tone of this message with what Chinese officials said the day after Chinese troops crossed the LAC, causing a skirmish in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. Zhang Shiuli, a PLA spokesperson for the region, said,  “The sovereignty over the Galvan Valley area has always belonged to China.” Similarly, Zhao was using language not generally heard in diplomatic circles, blaming the Indian army for its “adventurous acts” that breached “basic norms governing international relations.” He also demanded that India “strictly discipline” and “severely punish” its troops.

Such bellicosity was absent in China’s reaction to Modi’s visit. The foreign ministry’s response to India’s decision to ban 59 Chinese apps was also more calculated than its June 15 statements.

Zhao initially said that “China is strongly concerned” and was “verifying the situation.” But his full statement was shorn of China’s usual insolence. It was very measured: “We want to stress that Chinese government always asks Chinese businesses to abide by international and local laws-regulations. Indian government has a responsibility to uphold the legal rights of international investors including Chinese ones.”

One takeaway? China may be a powerful adversary to India, but its bluffs can be called. And that is what India has done in the last two weeks, making a host of decisions that, seen in the perspective of the stand-off with China, represent its resolve and constitute a sustained effort on several fronts — military, diplomatic, economic, social — to make China pay.

Previously, India had never taken sides with or against China on the Hong Kong protests. But this time around, it took a strong stand on the passage of the new security law, which is an attempt to stifle the city’s pro-democracy movement.

It has also blocked Chinese firms from investing in India under the free FDA route, taken several initiatives to force a global probe into the source and origin of COVID-19, and, as mentioned above, banned a host of Chinese apps.

That’s not all. India’s railways ministry has canceled a signals and telecom contract with a Chinese company for a mammoth freight corridor project in Uttar Pradesh. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) have decided to exclude Chinese firms from providing telecom equipment and cancelled their plans for upgrading 4G services. The roads department has announced that no highway projects will be awarded to China. The power ministry is looking to curtail imports from adversarial nations, including China. The move is aimed also at reducing the ability of adversarial nations  to cripple India’s power infrastructure through cyber attacks.

Several Indian states have followed up on the national government’s moves. A push to deny a Chinese firm, Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co Ltd, a contract for the construction of a critical section of the Delhi-Meerut RRTS corridor, is ongoing. The state of Maharashtra is on the verge of cancelling three agreements with Chinese firms. It includes an agreement with China’s Great Wall Motors (GWM) to set up an automobile plant near Pune and produce electric vehicles there. However, the state is going ahead with nine other agreements signed with the U.S., Singapore, and South Korea, indicating to China what’s to come.

Meanwhile, the military buildup at Ladakh continues. India has taken several steps to augment its military stance. On June 27, the Indian navy and the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force conducted a goodwill training in the Indian Ocean.

India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, returned from Russia in late June with a commitment from the Russians to speed up the delivery of five regiments of the S-400 Triumf anti-missile system, detailing agreements on new fighter aircraft and upgrades to older squadrons.

Modi had a telephone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin on July 2, reiterating “his commitment to further strengthen the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between the two countries in all spheres.”

India’s response to China’s brazen acts at Ladakh is a sign to the world that it is determined to take on China. But it should back up that stance with a comprehensive strategy. Military preparation and economic competition will not be the only components of that strategy, though they are very important ones. The very nature of China’s regime poses a threat to India’s interests and security. The Chinese Communist Party, with its strong economic resources and military power, implausible political conservativeness, and determination to maintain its “Red Empire,” is implementing, both domestically and abroad, a strategy of divide-and-conquer, intimidation and coercion. By contrast, forces for freedom are scattered.

These forces for freedom include the world’s democracies, and especially democratic countries in Asia. The continent may be nearing a tipping point, caused by an extensive list of security crises and transnational problems. For the time being, however, Asia lacks a multinational, democratic coalition to collectively respond to these crises, whose source tends to be political tyranny — just look at North Korea, and China’s territorial disputes.

Asian democracies should form an alliance to combat threats from authoritarian regimes. India, as the world’s largest democracy, should play a leadership role in the formation of this alliance. An integrated Asia dominated by the CCP would be based on a completely different value system. Once formed, it would become a nightmare for Asian democratic countries and a further setback for the entire free world. It is no exaggeration to say that we face a critical moment that will determine whether Asia is defined by democracy or tyranny, and India has a responsibility to act.

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