Far from any signs of an end to the military stand-off between India and China, or that tensions between the two will ease, China’s mood towards India is hardening. The current confrontation could presage a period of sustained, protracted pressure on India. Well-informed Chinese analysts now suggest that the military confrontation in the Himalayas is likely to escalate.
China has meanwhile stepped up domestic publicity, albeit limited, of its narrative on the military stand-off in Ladakh. While reiterating its territorial claim on Ladakh, China’s official media describes China’s actions in Ladakh as a counter-offensive provoked by India’s aggressive “forward policy” which infringes Chinese sovereignty. It has been reporting the uninterrupted build-up of Chinese forces and mentioned the possibility of clashes as weather conditions ease in April-May.
Important for understanding the official Chinese thinking are two recent articles by Hu Shisheng, Director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). The CICIR is one of China’s most influential institutes and is directly under the Ministry of State Security (MoSS), China’s external intelligence establishment. Its close ties with China’s foreign intelligence arm were underscored in 2007, when CICIR president Geng Huichang was appointed the Minister of State Security. Hu Shisheng is CICIR’s leading expert on South Asian affairs, especially India and Pakistan.
In a 33-page article titled ‘The behavioural logic behind India’s tough foreign policy toward China’, in the latest issue of CICIR’s official publication, Hu Shisheng asserted the conflict in Ladakh was “inevitable” and a result of the “high-risk, high-yield” policy followed by the Modi government. He identified the main reasons for rivalry as “India’s long-term pursuit of absolute security and dominance in the regional order” and the Modi government’s ambition to “overtake China by taking advantage of India’s favourable external strategic environment”. Acknowledging that India’s international stature has risen to its highest since independence after Prime Minister Modi came to power, he attributed this to the intensifying China-US confrontation and efforts of the US and West to contain China. He claimed this has given Modi’s government “more courage and confidence to be tough on China”.
Painting a pessimistic outlook for China-India relations, Hu Shisheng said conservatives in India had
a “deep strategic mistrust and apprehension about China due to the structural problems existing between the two countries.”
The increased influence of
conservative forces had shrunk the space of the liberal groups — traditionally made up of diplomatic and business elites — and “even done away with the strategic culture of swinging between the sides of China and the US.”
Relevant for the future of India-China ties is Hu Shisheng’s assertion that the two “were doomed to have a serious collision of interests or even military conflict from the very beginning of their independence and since establishing frontier and regional order”. Equally frank was his observation that more complicated than border issues are the contention for influence and dominance and “order in the region involving relations among China, India and their neighbours”. He anticipated that as they grow in strength, “the two major regional powers would have an increasing overlap of interests in the same area”. Avoiding any mention of friendly ties, he said they nevertheless need “to design a stable and far-reaching path for the future development of relations”.
Stating that China-India relations have each year “witnessed a benign beginning and a sad ending”, he described the conflict at the Galwan Valley as “anything but the end”.
Hu Shisheng assessed that the contest over the border will move from “reconciliation through dialogues” to a new stage featuring “contention for control with real power”, which will inevitably lead to border clashes. Interesting is his observation that over time, “the bottomline of tolerance will become a redline lying between the border troops of both countries” — hinting this could eventually result in a defined line of actual control.
A subsequent article by Hu Shisheng in Global Times was more blunt. It accused India of a negative and obstructionist approach towards China. The article asserted that “India tends to disrupt China’s agenda in multilateral mechanisms” to prevent China’s rise and accused India of not promoting internal unity in the BRICS and SCO, but trying to dismantle them from within. He anticipated that as the gap between India and China widens, differences on regional and global governance issues would grow and “the favourable atmosphere for China-India cooperation” would fade. He added too that India’s political elite ideologically aligns with the US and West against China.
Among other articles warning of increased tension, one article on a PLA-maintained website on December 24 claimed the Indian Army is “waiting for an opportunity to cause trouble next year”. It said China and India “have prepared for a long-term confrontation in the disputed border area” and “it is expected to continue for several years”. It advised the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move more mechanised units into the area by the beginning of spring, averring that “military deterrence is always more important than negotiation”. It added, “India must be the one that pays the greater price. India will waste decades on the misjudgement of Modi and Jaishankar’s strategy”.
The publication of the articles by Hu Shisheng have obviously been approved at a high level in the Chinese leadership and are intended to give an insight into how China views its relationship with India. At the least, the articles reflect the views of China’s intelligence establishment. At the tactical level, he and other Chinese commentators anticipate higher levels of tension with the likelihood of clashes in the current year.
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