Pathogens have a dangerous habit of invading with impunity any human body weakened from inside due to internal hemorrhages or dysfunctional organs, and which has possibly led to compromised immunity. Replace the pathogen with a state ruled by a rogue regime, and the human body with a challenger country, the pattern would still not be very different.
Last year when the world was besieged by the lethal and mysterious COVID-19 virus, and was grappling with means to counter it, analysts witnessed the uncanny consistency in the rise of one country, which amidst all these somehow maintained its economic growth rate, was completely unwilling to share any information about the origin of the virus, on whether it was lab-created or not, and never spared an opportunity to take advantage of an incapacitated world to alter the status quo to its advantage, and cement its own position of dominance, wherever it could.
This year, even as the world after having withered the storm of coronavirus last year is being tormented again with another wave of the same, and which is more fatal, can it so happen that the same very country, strengthened further in the last one year, would spare any opportunity to take advantage of the situation and settle scores with its prime adversaries, some of whom, especially India, might be going through an excruciating health crisis and battling relentlessly to save precious lives being snatched every second by coronavirus version 2.0?
India’s Moment of Déjà vu
India in many ways might be suffering from a sense of déjà vu. If in 2020, it was late January that heralded the unwelcome arrival of coronavirus in India, this year too, it was around February that the first tell-tale signs of the pathogen having emerged stronger, more fatal and contagious, were visible in certain parts of the country. If by late March last year, India was under complete lockdown, this year too, since April, different parts of the country have been under some or the other kind of lockdown to restrict public interface and congregations in order to contain the spread of the virus.
Yet COVID 2.0, allegedly a mutated version or even possibly a new one, continues to wreak havoc. Daily death toll remains around the 4,000-figure mark while lakhs are getting infected on a daily basis. The country is trying its best to enhance the supply of oxygen to hospitals, frontline health workers led by doctors are giving all they have to save millions, and domestic industry literally turning a messiah by diverting supply of industrial oxygen towards hospitals to take care of patients in dire need of oxygen.
Even as the Indian Armed Forces pitched in by setting up medical facilities, opening up defence hospitals for civilians, ferrying thousands of tonnes of critical medical supplies from abroad to India, the only silver lining remains that the nation somehow is slowly inching towards some semblance of small victories in the war against COVID. On a daily basis, recoveries have reached as high as 3.5-4 lakh mark, doctors now have a better understanding of the standard operating procedures to be followed while dealing with symptoms, and fortunately, nearly 85 per cent of COVID-infected patients are recovering after mild symptoms only. Yet, the daily loss of lives—orphaned children, widows and grieving parents—would leave behind a permanent scar.
Is Another Crisis along the Borders Looming?
The big question, however, is this: Is the wave of COVID 2.0 the only hazard that would inflict damage on India in 2021, or are more threats lurking in the horizon, waiting for the right time to strike? For India, the déjà vu moment perhaps does not seem to end with return of COVID alone. If the beginning of 2020 saw massive military mobilization by China in Tibet, under the garb of military exercises, which then was pushed towards the LAC (Line of Actual Control) to forcefully alter status quo in areas of Galwan and Pangong Tso among others, this year too, PLA’s continuous and sustained military exercises in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces continue unabated along with deployment of new arsenal of weapon systems.
If part of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) game plan behind massive training exercises in Xinjiang and Tibetan provinces is to hone the skills of their conscripts, woefully short of any experience in mountain warfare, exposed last year, the other aspect is invariably the psychological warfare China tends to unleash with constant barrage of news of deployment of newer types of machine guns, artilleries, rocket systems, helicopters, long-range combat drones and even combat jets.
However, none can dispute the possibility of all of these being used for a renewed offensive by PLA along LAC. For China, which had to disengage last year and move back from Finger 4 along Pangong Tso lake, it was a rare instance of Chinese retreat, not happening once but twice in quick successions, first in Doklam in 2017 and then in Ladakh in 2021. On both occasions, the protagonist to make it happen was India. Not that China has vacated from all areas of disputes illegally occupied by PLA along LAC, but nevertheless, on both occasions India made China realize the superiority of Indian Army over PLA in sustaining high altitude stand-offs. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that China would let go of any opportunity to get even with India at a time when India is severely afflicted by coronavirus. And given the experience of last year, India is not letting its guard down in spite of being ravaged by COVID 2.0.
How China Took Advantage of a Global Pandemic
To understand the reasons for the serious apprehensions surrounding a possible Chinese aggression in the coming months along the LAC, one has to look at the conduct of China over the last one year when the world was racing against time to grapple with an unknown yet lethal pathogen.
Throughout the last 14 months, not a single week went without China threatening Taiwan with invasions and deliberately sending its topline combat jets to breach Taiwanese airspace. Beijing also went a step further to amend its Coast Guard laws that allowed its Coast Guard to use offensive weapon systems against any vessel venturing into territorial waters claimed by China. This heightened tension with Japan in East China Sea over Chinese claims surrounding the Senkaku Islands. Likewise, China left no stone unturned to alter the status quo of South China Sea too. Apart from the frequent provocative military drills in the South China Sea, it also tried to capture Whitsun Reef in territorial waters of Philippines by sending a flotilla of more than 200 fishing vessels allegedly manned by Chinese maritime militia but had to subsequently withdraw when the Americans stepped in.
Further, for the simple folly of asking for an independent probe into the origin of the coronavirus, the Chinese went for an unprecedented assault on Australia through imposition of unofficial embargoes on a wide array of Australian exports ranging from wine, wheat, beef, timber, cotton, lobsters, barley, coal and several other items whose cumulative loss to Australia was in billions of dollars including loss of livelihood for millions, and which acted as a rude wake-up call for Australia and the rest as to why it is suicidal to have high level of dependence on Chinese markets because China now has mastered the art of weaponizing its markets to punish anyone who raises voice against Beijing and questions the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Not just that, China’s pro-government mouthpiece Global Times even went to the extent of threatening Australia with ballistic missile strikes after Australia cancelled some of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects of China in Australia.
Add to this, the fact that when the world’s attention was squarely on combating coronavirus, China pounded on Hong Kong through imposition of National Security Law, initiated brutal clampdown on pro-democracy protestors and consummated Beijing’s iron-fist control of the city state. Further, as a result of COVID-induced lockdown in several parts of the world, when companies world over were struggling to stay afloat with stock prices plummeting significantly due to a looming uncertain future, China went for hostile takeover of such companies through predatory acquisition of bulk stocks at heavily discounted prices in bourses that compelled several countries, including Australia and India, to impose stringent restrictions on foreign investment from certain states like China in its market during the pandemic period. This was followed by a range of cyber-attacks on India and Australia allegedly by Chinese-backed hackers.
All these, one has to remember, happened in addition to China’s provocative stand-off with India along the LAC and the violent clashes in Galwan where Chinese soldiers defied all kinds of global norms and protocols to use nail-studded sticks to assault Indian Army personnel when they were on a routine inspection to check the progress of disengagement agreements on ground. This resulted in casualties on both sides, which India acknowledged but China did not, even though the Chinese casualty figures were estimated to be more than twice of India’s.
What is the Chinese Strategy?
Therefore, one can say this with confidence that China certainly has not been a benevolent player in the last one year. Instead, it has tried to take advantage of the COVID-induced global predicament to alter status quo wherever possible, to its advantage. Also, China’s hegemonic behaviour compelled many countries like India, Japan, Australia and even the US to commit additional funds for shoring up defence preparedness, which otherwise could have been used for combating COVID.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
Now, if one looks at it from the perspective of the recent revelations which show that much before the outbreak of coronavirus, China was planning to use pathogens like coronavirus as a biological weapon, it makes quite a few things clear as to what China wanted to achieve and why it behaved in the manner it did in the last one year.
If Cold War ended with disintegration of the Soviet Union without a single bullet being fired from the outside, and which collapsed under the burden of its own economic failure, going by the bioweapon theory, China seems to be doing something similar in terms of devastating nation after nation from inside through the spread of COVID. Most nations have been forced to frequently shut down their industrial and commercial facilities to reduce public interface, thereby inflicting severe economic damage upon themselves even as China continued to reach higher echelons of industrial production to sustain its place as global production powerhouse along with massive investments in its armed forces. China curiously remained unscathed by any second or third wave. Was it a mere coincidence or something more?
There are strong reasons to believe that China could have stopped the spread of coronavirus in the initial stages but it did not do enough for the same. From severe persecution of whistleblowers to misleading the world initially by claiming there was no evidence to suggest the possibility of human-to-human transmission of COVID, from thwarting all attempts for an independent probe into the origin of the coronavirus in Wuhan, to even putting severe restrictions on WHO team when it visited Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China did all it could to possibly hide the truth.
All these certainly add more credence to the revelations regarding China having allegedly planned the use of coronavirus as a biological or rather a bio-economic weapon for almost five years before the actual outbreak. This is exactly what Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro mentioned when he stated, ‘It’s a new virus. Nobody knows whether it was born in a laboratory or because a human ate some animal they shouldn’t have,” followed by, “But the military knows all about chemical, biological and radiological warfare. Could we be fighting a new war? I wonder. Which country’s GDP has grown the most?” He was possibly squarely pointing towards China, which further bolsters the bio-weapon theory.
Developing Deterrence against Bio-weapons
Bottom line, therefore, remains that if history has an uncanny ability to repeat itself, then possibilities remain profound that China may attempt to take advantage of India’s present internal crisis to once again create disturbances along the LAC and it need not be in Ladakh this time. It can be anywhere along the LAC bordering Arunachal to Sikkim to Himachal or Ladakh going by the ‘Five Fingers of Tibet Policy’ of China.
When the storm someday settles down, it would be prudent for India and many other democracies to realize that the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army perhaps do not think in the same manner in which democracies do. Just because biological and chemical weapons have been banned does not mean they would not be applied by rogue Communist regimes to further their own nefarious agenda of controlling the world.
For India, especially, time has come for greater cooperation between civil and military institutions to foster enhanced strategic deterrence against all kinds of assaults, including biological and chemical. India has thousands of institutions that teach molecular biology, microbiology and biochemistry. Has the time therefore come for India to consider keeping an arsenal of biological agents in readymade state as deterrence from future pandemics spread by an adversary much on the lines of nuclear deterrence?
Also, capacity building to develop vaccines for inoculating the entire population at a very short period, including modernizing the entire healthcare infrastructure, has to be perceived as an investment in strategic capacity enhancement. If coronavirus is indeed a bio-economic weapon, then it has shown how it can devastate nations without a single shot being fired from outside, proof enough that it is just not enough to remain prepared for conventional and nuclear wars alone in the 21st century. However, for the time being, the threat along the Indo-China border looms large. One should not be surprised if a repeat of Chinese aggression happens in the months to come. Time to take a few leaves out of The Art of War to comprehend what China is up to.
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