Facing internal pressure within the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping thought he could offset it by displaying global aggression. He ended up making a series of gross errors. He ordered his diplomats to resort to ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in Europe, hoping to replace the US, which was waning at the commencement of the coronavirus pandemic.
It failed and led to internal anger as Europe joined hands together to keep China at bay. As per recent reports, Germany, which takes over the EU presidency soon, has signaled a tougher EU line towards China. Simultaneously, EU’s minister of foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, stated that EU plans to start a bilateral dialogue with the US to deal with China’s growing assertiveness.
Europe is openly challenging China. Xi’s second error was attempting to browbeat his Asean neighbours in the South China Sea. The result was the US moving three aircraft carrier groups into the Indo-Pacific. It also led to a wave of anti-China protests. His third error was pushing economic actions against Australia, adding to greater unity amongst western nations and closer cooperation between India and Australia, increasing Chinese security concerns.
His final error was assuming that under pressure of the CCP, he could prove his power by regaining prestige which China lost in Doklam by moving into Ladakh. He was hoping India, battling the pandemic, would react slowly, opening doors for China to push through hard bargains. Xi moved in a rising PLA star, Lt Gen Xu Qiling, as the new theatre commander of the Western Theatre Command just prior to the first round of Lieutenant- General-level talks on 6 June.
However, the gift that Xi Jinping received from his favourite general on his birthday on 15 June was a collection of body bags, figures which China still fears to release as it would break the myth of invincibility of the PLA, domestically and internationally. The strong retaliation made China realize that India would stand ground. The final gamble of Xi had failed as India refused to bow down, compelling Wang Yi to initiate dialogue.
Talks between the two foreign ministers ended with two separate statements, both claiming that the other nation violated the Line of Actual Control. However, the only silver lining was a decision to implement agreements reached between the two top military commanders. The political channel had been opened by China. China is aware that the Indian armed forces are no pushovers.
They may not say so in discussions but an article in the CCP-owned website, sohu.com of 16 June, conveys a different perception. It stated, “India has built 12 largest professional mountain divisions in the world. The strength as of 2019 has reached 150,000. From a quality perspective, although the weapons and equipment of the Indian Army’s mountain troops are not as good as those of the US, Switzerland, and Italy, they have also reached the upper-middle level and must not be underestimated.”
Huang Guozhi, a senior editor of Modern Weaponry magazine and a China expert stated in an article, “At present, the world’s largest and (most) experienced country with plateau and mountain troops is neither the US, Russia, nor any European powerhouse, but India.” Evidently, China is aware that India is not a pushover and operations against it, if any, would be fiercely resisted. The Chinese site, Xinhua reported, after the June 15 Galwan incident, that the Chinese Western Command has suggested that India should return to the correct track of dialogue and negotiation to resolve differences.
Chinese bloggers on Weibo have been demanding answers on casualties from the government, which it steadfastly refuses to release. India began contemplating economic and diplomatic options against China, which could hurt it. The government has taken the first step and directed telecom and railway companies to stop using Chinese products.
Contracts with Chinese bidders are being re-evaluated. Internally, pressure is being built to stop purchase of Chinese goods. There are calls from various quarters for India to renege on its ‘One China policy.’ The Chinese mouthpiece, Global Times, in an article by Liu Xiaoxue, stated on 17 June, “The anti-China group is calling for India to launch frictions with China in ‘trade and investment’.
That irresponsible call has been echoed by a handful of Indian celebrities with large numbers of followers.” It added, “blindly associating border issues with investments and trade is illogical.” Global Times also commented that any Indian action to change its “One China policy” would be tantamount to “playing with fire.” China has missed the fact that when faced with a threat, every nation seeks to employ maximum national power, which is a combination of its economic, diplomatic and military power.
Nations initially adopt economic actions including sanctions, as imposed by the US on Iran, Venezuela and Russia as also boycott of goods as applied by China on Australia. Diplomatic power includes alliances while globally isolating adversaries. Indian proximity to the US and QUAD would increase, as would Indian engagement with Chinese adversaries in South East Asia.
There is unlikely to be a Wuhan III for a long time. India would not back China in any forum, whether it be the WHO or UN. Military force will remain the final resort. The violent incident at Galwan, displaying Indian ferocity as also India mirroring Chinese deployment, has led to China realizing that its gamble has possibly failed.
Its only option currently is to continue to display bravado and maintain its current positions, delaying movement back till forced by weather conditions in October/ November. It may enhance force levels; however, it is unlikely to plan any major offensive, costs of which would be high on both sides. In case of any operational failure or accepting status quo ante early, two heads could roll in China, those of Xu Qiling and Xi Jinping.
Once Xi has ensured continuity and consolidated power, there could be a face-saving resolution. Till then, the current situation is likely to continue, with some ups and downs. However, another Galwan could lead to a point of no return, which both nations would seek to avoid.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)