India-China border feud: Are the bargaining chips changing hands?

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China’s move to engage India at the border at a time when the world reels under a pandemic has intrigued the war theorist and the layman alike.

As military strategists try to make sense of the highly unusual timing of the current bout of Chinese aggression, clear hints have emerged that there could be more to it than just usual periodic adventurism by the PLA.

For the uninitiated, China a few days ago tried to engage and deter India from completing the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road, which — when complete — will give Delhi a major advantage in terms of access and military mobilisation.

Some experts said that the recent faceoff was a Chinese attempt to deflect global attention, as the demand for a probe into the origin of the novel coronavirus intensifies. China has been at the receiving end of a massive global backlash as the world struggles to contain the virus that purportedly originated at Wuhan. Lawmakers from eight democracies including the US have launched a new alliance to help counter what they say is the threat China’s growing influence poses to global trade, security and human rights.

Other analysts said the recent Chinese transgressions along several parts of LAC could be a continuation of the hardened border policy being pursued by Beijing for the past several decades against India.

For India, an ambush by its (often) troublesome giant neighbour is a familiar experience, playing out on predictable lines: Chinese troops breach LAC, India rushes troops to those locations, faceoff ensues, truce is reached, forces pull back, then there is a lull till the next border breach.

But while all earlier transgressions followed this standard script and ended with familiar outcomes, this time things may turn out differently owing to a few factors. There appears to be a growing feeling that China’s bargaining chips are getting fewer and the deck is being stacked in India’s favour.

Here are some of the factors that could put a limit on China’s capacity to drive a hard border bargain, and as a consequence, give India a bit more leverage in the post-Covid world order.

Leverage along LAC

There are several places along the LAC where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is militarily weak, giving Indian army an upper hand. Indian troops have an advantage at many places, and our strength has been bolstered over the past few years with more mountain forces and better equipment and infrastructure.

Shift in maritime balance

While China enjoys a continental superiority, the maritime domain is a weak spot in Chinese strategic formulation — in particular China’s commercial and energy interest to which maritime space is crucial. India is well-positioned to shift the conflict to the waters of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Groupings like Quad could also influence the maritime balance in East Asia.

A “collective whole”

Many nations across the globe are joining hands against China. This “collective whole” is already creating pressure to ensure that China be held accountable for its actions. Countries are also calling out China over the abuse and violation of human rights. The US Senate has approved a bill to sanction China over repression of Uighur Muslims in the country. The bill was backed by lawmakers on both sides.

The status quo factor

At the Lieutenant General-level talks last Saturday, Delhi firmly conveyed its demand to China for restoring the status quo as existed in April along the border. The military leadership has communicated that infrastructure development will go on in Indian territory as China has already undertaken developmental projects on its side.

At the meet, India stuck to a two-point agenda — restoring the status quo of April, and an immediate pullback of Chinese troops and equipment from inside Indian territory and along the LAC.

Rising discontent

Some reports have talked of the rising discontent in China owing to the failure of the government and CPC to evenly distribute economic prosperity. These reports have put the spotlight on Xi Jinping‘s pressing problem — the great Covid bungle, criticism of his policies and social instability caused by a slump in production. For the party, these are some of the biggest challenges it has faced in years.

New ‘balancing force’

With Delhi taking the early lead in forming the Saarc Covid-19 Emergency Fund, India did well in not only combating the coronavirus internally but also assisting nations in the region and beyond, including the US. This much-needed outreach increased its goodwill and linkages.

If the world order changes after the pandemic as is being widely expected, it could give India the heft to seek a fair, reasonable and acceptable solution to the boundary question.





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