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What explains India's timid response towards an expansionist China?

By Sanjay Kapoor
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Olympics Thumbnail Photo Courtesy: olympics.com | website

It’s a very scared China that is hosting the Winter Olympics. It fears that the new wave of the pandemic would undo its impossible zero Covid policy and devastate the unprotected population. Hence it believes that even parcels from the West could carry the virus like Anthrax – so they have to ban couriers even. It also fears dissension and has warned foreign athletes not to engage in political activities. When it is scared of its own shadow, why should countries like India consider attending the games giving legitimacy to its claustrophobic authoritarian system and Xi Jinping’s schizophrenia? What is India waiting for?

Mohan Guruswamy, writer and policy analyst speaks on what went wrong in Galwan

The Western powers have chosen to have a token boycott by asking their diplomats not to attend the mega event, but India remains firmly supportive of China on this. And if the exertions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are anything to go by then the Indian PM Narendra Modi could even be seen as a guest at the games to confabulate with the Chinese President Xi Jinping for the much-anticipated trilateral meeting.

Indian concerns about China are many. For the past couple of years, China has increased its ingresses through an unmarked border into Indian territory. In June 2020, there was a messy scuffle in which 20 Indian soldiers died - China claims that it lost 4 of its servicemen. There are multiple reasons that China sought to show its aggressive intent towards India.

China watchers claim that Beijing was quite paranoid about the possibility of India having a military alliance with the US under President Donald Trump and changing the balance of power in the Asian region. The Indian government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and express resolve to retake Chinese controlled Aksai Chin deepened their anxieties.

Later, it found meaning in its apprehensions when the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, talked about militarising Quad - a body that included India. Through its ingresses - also called salami slicing - into areas perceived to be Indian territory and the furious construction of infrastructure, China wanted to challenge India’s attempt to protect its own turf and explore whether the US would come to New Delhi’s rescue if it redraws its own borders.

After Joe Biden’s accession, Chinese anxieties about India have been put to rest. Quad has no military role and has its mandate to produce vaccines and look at climate change issues. A new entity, AUKUS - an all West construct of Australia, United Kingdom and United States has been given the responsibility to be the military counterpoint of China. These developments not just reassured China but also made New Delhi vulnerable and ended its leverage over Beijing.

In the interim, India has been following a defensive strategy to deal with Chinese expansionism. Firstly, it is beefing up its presence of troops in Ladakh and the rest of the 3500-kilometre border and secondly, it is keeping intact trade ties with China. Not unexpectedly, the trade ballooned to $125 billion in 2021. The Chinese also benefited during the second wave of the pandemic when India desperately bought bulk drugs and colossal quantities of equipment like ventilators and oxygen concentrators to improve its decrepit health infrastructure. For public consumption, India has also made perfunctory moves to check Chinese economic expansion by banning apps (Tiktok), which have allowed Indian app makers to slip into their space (Sharechat, for instance), and also promote manufacturing. But this is too cosmetic. The truth is that the Indian economy has to still rely too heavily on Chinese goods to keep ticking.

Despite all these measures that the Indian government has taken, China continues to threaten Indian positions. They have come to some conclusion that PM Narendra Modi listens to the language of fear, and that is why he has not mentioned Chinese aggression even once in recent times. Perhaps he believes that by being silent on China, he can do business with Xi in the future.

During the recent bilateral summit between Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, it became clear that besides the sale of weapons, the discussions revolved around China. Sources claim that Putin, who is also against Indian membership of Quad, agreed to mediate between two of its allies. Since then, the possibility of a trilateral discussion has been discussed seriously. And there is a strong possibility that the three leaders could converge in Beijing. To show its strategic autonomy, the Indian government has extended support to the Winter Olympics, but this may not go down well with the Biden administration that has been threatening Russia with retaliation if it dared to attack Ukraine.

In fact, the Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, who has been engaged in talks with her Russian counterpart in Geneva, is learnt to have spoken with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, and sought New Delhi’s views on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Going by its past conduct and the manner in which the Indian government has defied US pressure and bought the anti-missile shield of S-400 shows that it is unlikely to criticise Russian President Putin or his possible actions against Ukraine.

This is an important moment in India’s foreign policy as it seeks to distance itself from the United States and endeavours to build bridges with Russia and China even if it means diminishing the importance it vests on values of democracy and freedom.

We have been caught napping on Galwan particularly. The biggest problem is that there is a breakdown of communication at various levels. For instance, in Galwan, ITBP should have told the army, but they didn't. ITBP reports to MHA. MHA tells MoD and then it comes down to the ground level. The Army, on its part, was also sloppy because the Chinese were exercising there as they do every year. Our Army also used to do matching exercises every year, mirroring their exercise. But we didn’t do it last year because of Covid-19. Our troops were sitting in Leh. Because of Covid, are we not going to secure our defences?

Mohan Guruswamy
Writer, Policy Analyst

For a while during the pandemic, India had joined other western powers to demand a probe on the origins of Covid-19 - usually an issue that irritates Beijing endlessly as it perceives it as an attempt by global forces to lay blame on China. Global Times, the Beijing mouthpiece, has been strident in its criticism of the West and instead demanded gratitude from the world community for creating its protocols in testing, tracing, masking and isolating communities from the rampaging virus. It really believes that it was China’s success in controlling the virus in Wuhan and other cities that provided the world a template of how to control this Covid-19. China shut down cities, tested millions, vaccinated billions and swears by zero covid even if it meant preventing international flights and turning ships back from ports. It believes that a million more would have died if the Chinese had not taught the world how to tame the virus.

Has China really smothered the virus in their own country? Latest reports from China suggest that 7 provinces out of 31 have a problem and are struggling with the virus. Hong Kong, which provides China with a window to the West, is also showing Omicron strain in significant numbers. The Chinese are hauling up the crews of Cathay Pacific, whom they blame for flying the virus to Hong Kong. There are many more absurd allegations that the authorities are levelling against all and sundry.

The bitter downside of the Chinese prescription for controlling the virus is that it has spawned authoritarian tendencies in democratic societies. Many of them in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and Asia have seen the Chinese lessons being applied to their own societies causing turmoil without really taming the coronavirus.

Every night the world finds thousands of citizens agitating against restrictions imposed by their governments that cite their actions on the spread of the virus and the efficacy of the vaccines. The agitators are cognizant of the limited protection of the vaccines from new variants when they find governments ordering four boosters on their citizens, as in the case of Israel. Till now, Chinese models have not worked for the people, but only for authoritarian figures.


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine and he is also the General Secretary of Editors Guild of India.