In For the Long Haul: China’s Border Transgressions Not a Short Term Fallout of Covid-19

Representative image

Representative image

Wolf warrior diplomacy, a euphemism for aggressive behaviour by China’s diplomats, has been on display for a few months now. It can be clearly seen that Covid-19 or not, the aggressiveness is there.

Lt Gen SL Narasimhan
  • Last Updated: May 26, 2020, 4:33 PM IST
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From the beginning of this year, the entire world has focused most of its attention on Covid-19. When all the countries were suffering from the onslaught of the pandemic, China initiated border incidents along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. There have been many questions about the incidents that have happened along the LAC. The aim of this article is to analyse them.

There were reports that a scuffle had broken out between the Indian and Chinese armies in Nakula, Sikkim, on May 20. There were reports that troops from both the sides suffered injuries during that incident. Thereafter, that area seems to have returned to normalcy. Another incident was reported in the area of Pangong Tso in Ladakh. There was a face-off between both the sides there and it resulted in serious injuries to officers and men on either side.

During this period, there were reports of PLA helicopters flying close to the LAC. In response, Indian Air Force seems to have scrambled its own fighter aircraft. Later, a Chinese patrol tried to stop the construction of a bridge across Galwan River on the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road (DS DBO Road). In this incident, too, injuries have been suffered by both sides. As per media reports, the face-off is still continuing at both Pangong Tso and Galwan Valley.

Many questions have risen regarding these incidents: Why is China behaving in this aggressive manner? Is China trying to apply pressure when India and other countries are battling Covid-19? Is there a link between the Nakula incident and the incidents in Ladakh? Is the international situation a reason for these incidents? Is China creating the incidents along the LAC to divert the attention of its citizens from poor economy, party’s performance in handling the pandemic, questions on Xi’s leadership and deteriorating US-China relations?

The aggressive behaviour of China is not only against India. The increase in comprehensive national power of China seems to be driving this behaviour.

In order to find answers to these questions, we have to understand a few issues first. First, both India and China have differing perceptions of the LAC. Therefore, whenever both sides carry out patrolling up to their perception of the LAC, they run into each other thereby causing face-offs.

Second, the areas where the incidents have occurred are high altitude where the temperatures remain unbearably low for better part of the year. The summer season, as it is now, is the season when patrolling increases from both the sides. Therefore, there are more chances of patrols coming into contact with each other. Third, the degree of the face off lies between pushing and pulling at the lower end and below opening fire.

Fourth, there are enough mechanisms existing to resolve such issues. These start from a simple banner drill to flag meetings and diplomatic efforts. Fifth, infrastructure development is taking place on both sides. Therefore, it is easier for patrols to operate and frequency of patrolling can be increased.

Coming to the questions now. Deng Xiaoping asked China to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” in 1978. It appears that this dictum seems to have been given a go by some time ago.

Starting from the spy plane incident in 2001 in which China force landed a E2C Hawkeye aircraft of the USA on Hainan Island, her submarines entering Japanese waters in the early part of the last decade, her ships and aircraft carrying out exercises in Taiwan Straits, her developing the reclaimed reefs in South China Sea and making them Chinese districts, the Vanguard incident in August 2019, Chinese ships troubling the fishing vessels of Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are examples of this.

In fact, a Vietnam fishing vessel was sunk by a Chinese ship. Chinese PLA Navy has had stand offs with US navy ships in South China Sea and recently against US Navy ships and an Australian ship near the Malaysian waters. Therefore, the aggressive behaviour of China is not only against India.

The incidents in both Sikkim and eastern Ladakh have variations from earlier skirmishes. The number of PLA troops involved in these incidents seems to be higher and it appears that the face-offs have been more aggressive.

The increase in comprehensive national power of China seems to be driving this behaviour. Wolf warrior diplomacy which is a euphemism for aggressive behaviour by China’s diplomats has been on display for a few months now. Because of these, it can be clearly seen that whether Covid-19 or not, the aggressiveness seems to be there.

Secondly, the incidents in eastern Ladakh are in areas that have been in contention earlier as well. However, whether the People’s Liberation Army has changed its perception of the LAC in this area is not clear.

However, Nakula area has become a bone of contention only in the last few years. Chinese claim in that area seems to be an afterthought. Moreover, the Nakula incident happened first. Now that area seems to be back to normal.

The way the skirmishes happened suggests there is no link between the incidents in Sikkim and eastern Ladakh.

This time around, in both Sikkim and eastern Ladakh incidents, there are a couple of variations. One, the number of PLA troops involved in these incidents seems to be higher than previous occasions. Two, it appears that the face-offs have been more aggressive.

India has exercised restraint and reserved her reactions during Covid-19 and thereafter. The government has been careful and has exercised strategic autonomy as it has always been doing. It has not given a reason for China to act or react. Therefore, it does not appear that the international situation is a reason for these incidents.

China is among two or three countries in the world that is still capable of showing positive growth in economy this year. Looking at the way National People’s Congress of China is progressing, Xi Jinping’s position as President seems to be intact.

The work report while mentioning about reunification of Taiwan, did not mention the word “peaceful”. Hong Kong Security law is likely to be passed. All this can be showcased as Xi’s success stories.

As far as the US-China relations go, a tit for tat action is on. The bravado shown by the Chinese government can again be showcased positively. Even though there were some dissenting voices during the pandemic, none can be heard now. Therefore, the reason that the border incidents are to divert the attention of China’s people also defies logic.

Finally, if all these are not the reasons then why are the border incidents happening? It appears that PLA simply wants to assert its perception of the LAC. Therefore, India’s armed forces must be prepared for a long haul and ensure sanctity of India’s perception of the LAC. Also, efforts must continue to get the LAC clarified so that such incidents can be avoided.

Disclaimer:Lt Gen SL Narasimhan (Retd) is member of the National Security Advisory Board. Views expressed in the article are personal.

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