Whilst Pratap Bhanu Mehta has made the occasional error of judgement in the past (who hasn’t?), in this piece he is back to his level-headed analytical best when he says “…it is worth looking beyond the morality of the claims and counter claims, at the structural logic of the situation to see why India and China are now locked in this precarious embrace, where they might not want war, but will not be able to will peace either.”
He then makes a interesting point which should be a wake up call to those who see the Chinese actions merely as a breach of trust: “…rather than think of trust as an attribute of character, think of the tactical logic of trust. Was the “trust” that kept tranquillity at the border largely a product of a perceived asymmetric relationship? Keeping a measured distance and disengagement made sense when both sides could assume that the other side either did not have the capacity or would not rapidly deploy troops in strategic positions at the border. With the building of infrastructure on both sides, this trust was bound to break. The ground realities were shifting. So even if there is some temporary disengagement, both sides will now assume that the slightest diminution in military deployments could give the other side an opportunity to advance in a matter of hours. An infrastructure-thick environment will require permanent presence and closer deployments.” This basically implies that for the rest of our lives we will be going eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese.
Taking this line of thought further, the author makes an even more interesting point: China’s actions are actually more an acknowledgement of India’s accelerating infrastructure build-up the border (than a sign that China sees India as a weakling state): “Chinese capabilities are probably greater than India’s in this respect. But with India ramping up infrastructure and capabilities, this fear will be tangible on both sides. The fact that at the level of the army, we seem to have consistently misread the PLA’s intentions, both in April and May when the first deployments happened, but also in June and July when disengagement was supposed to have taken place, will make trust nearly impossible…Chinese aggression is a problem for the world. But India has also announced that it intends to break the shackles of the past; its growing power means it needs a new paradigm of foreign policy. This policy will supposedly safeguard India’s interests more assertively. It wants to exchange the allegedly placid submission of the past with a more sophisticated policy, where all options can be exercised. India may be right about its claims. But it does not take a genius to figure out that, if diplomatically not well managed, this posture also causes great uncertainty in the international system and makes it harder to assess motives.” Basically, the “Thucydides Trap , which focuses on how two great powers – one established and one on the ascendant – will end up clashing with each other, applies to ‘India vs China’ as much as it does to ‘China vs USA’.
And it is here that Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes his final telling point – China will be reluctant to take on the US in an armed conflict but with the US distracted by Covid and Presidential elections, China might want to take on India not just to send a message to India but also as one to America: “A distracted US gives an opportunity for Chinese assertion. But the very fact that we are not sure of Chinese motives means it is hard to know their endgame.
We may not know their motives, but we can think about their fears. These fears make the situation precarious. At a basic level, they will want to secure their interests in CPEC. But on the most important matter, Tibet, the situation may be as bad as the 1950s. China has always wanted an aggressive territorial and cultural consolidation on Tibet. In the Fifties, it felt vulnerable on account of fears that India and Nepal could be a staging ground of resistance in Tibet, aided by the Americans. The importance of this structural issue has not diminished…With China intensifying its cultural consolidation in Tibet, Sino-US tensions rising, the fear of India being ground zero for any resistance is high.
On Tibet, India is in an awkward situation. At one level, India does not have to do anything and China will still see it as a potential threat to its cultural hegemony in Tibet, because of the presence of the Dalai Lama. Ladakh and Tawang are also important pieces in that cultural consolidation. The Sino-India modus vivendi was premised on keeping the Tibet issue in check… But just as we are not sure of Chinese motives, they may not be sure of our motives either. There is an ideological shift to a deeper authoritarianism in China; and authoritarianism by its very nature will require an aggressive nationalism to shore up its power.”
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