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Geopolitical Kerfuffle - China, proven regional bully, heading for d3s/dt3 military status!

TIOL - COB( WEB) - 717
JUNE 25, 2020

By Shailendra Kumar, Founder Editor

THE raging COVID-19 pandemic may have tethered the attention of the world to domestic turfs but it seems to have surfaced as a window of opportunity for China to lend wings to its irrepressible greed for territorial expansionism - land, air and maritime! Cornered by the global finger-pointing about the suspected lab-based origin of the Wuhan virus, China - albeit a prey of its own 'kung fu' virus in Trumpian lingo - seems to have nervously designed a new school of muscle-flexing security theory called "Pandemic Deterrence". The pith and substance of this new military philosophy is to downplay its frailties and undertake showboating and theatrics of its military prowess!

Let me now piece together a few disconnected instances of China's military adventurism to cash in on opportunities arising from geopolitically pandemic-distracted world. After Taiwan played the role of a whistle-blower for the world on Coronavirus issue, China used its economic might and sock-puppet diplomats to create a smokescreen of propaganda against Taiwan. And the WHO finally dropped Taiwan from its list of invitees for its Assembly Session. Australia joined the American voice seeking a probe into the origin of the Virus and invited invocation of tariff wall of China. Several of its products have been subjected to high import duty.

In January itself, the Chinese President Xi Jinping exhorted his armed forces to beef up for battle. Obviously, he was referring to territorial sparring in the South China Sea and the rising tensions with the USA over trade and the independent status of Taiwan. Mr Xi again urged the Chinese Army to minimise COVID-19 fall-out on national security in May-end. Given the fact that China is known to be a nation in thrall of its territorial expansion-based nationalism, Mr Xi's unencrypted message was hurriedly lapped up by the PLA Generals and Commanders in the Ladakh Sector on the Indian borders. A brazen conspiracy to stab India in the back was hatched with a reasonable bout of preparedness. PLA jawans had a free run on some of the Fingers in the Galwan Valley and by the time the Indian Army, nonplussed by such a daredevil act, sussed out the situation, a violent skirmish was almost in the making! Although some rounds of talks did take place and a broad understanding for a détente was arrived at with a status quo ante provision but no element of deceit, chicanery and subterfuge was factored in by India! This is what resulted in premeditated violent jostling with improvised weapons such as iron rods and clubs. Though the Indian Army was unprepared for such a melee but they eventually scored over the prepared PLA - 20: 40 dead!

Unfolding Chapter 2 of the 'Pandemic Deterrence' the Xi Government decided to liquidate the autonomous status of Hong Kong guaranteed till 2047 by an agreement with the British when they handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997. It has come up with a controversial Security Law to imprison pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong. Freedom of speech and other liberties of Hong Kongers are going to disappear in thin air as soon as the new law is notified. Given the future prospects of Hong Kong being altered to not better than Bantustan, the Trump Administration has decided to withdraw trade benefits bestowed upon it. And it has added one more dimension to the on-going trade disputes with the USA. Yet another dimension to the on-going tiff was added when the US Congress approved sanctions against China for documented atrocities against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang region.

Mainland China always talks about reunifying Taiwan. To deter any sort of aggression against Taiwan, America generally parks one of its Naval Warships in the region. But, thanks to COVID-19, many officers on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt got infected and the warship was docked in Guam base in Philippines. China quickly grabbed this opportunity and steamed its own aircraft carrier through Miyako Strait between Taiwan and Japan! Claiming its sovereignty over South China sea, on April 3, China's maritime militia, masquerading as a fishing flotilla, sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near Paracel islands. Barely a fortnight back, another one was rammed in the same area. In April and May months, the Chinese Coastguards troubled a Malaysian drillship which provoked the USA and Australia to dispatch their warships. Reacting to China's pandemic-riding tactical gambit, America has parked three of its aircraft-carriers close to South China Sea.

China has festering disputes with virtually all its neighbours. It has not taken off its eyeballs from Thitu island of Philippines which it has repeatedly claimed as its own! Similarly, its excessive maritime greed has pitted it often against Japan for one of its islands. China has clashed with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and others for their sandbars, reefs and atolls and has also succeeded in eating them up. Although it had committed to America in 2015 that it would not militarise islands in South China Sea but it has built ports, bunkers and runways. Much to the consternation of other littoral countries, China has set up an Air Identification Zone (AIZ). Although America angrily protested and its warplanes did fly across but passenger airplanes were advised to keep away - a tacit acceptance of China's bulldozing claim!

In a nutshell, China has increasingly emerged as a rogue military power with d³s/dt³ fancy of dethroning America as numero uno superpower. Riding the tiger of economic success and flexing its muscles of huge forex reserves, Mr Xi seems to be seized of his illusory belief that the time is nigh for China to assume the role of world's leader. With Mr Trump, roiled by domestic racial and economic issues and pangs of Coronavirus, taking a sabbatical from the mantle of global leadership, Mr Xi believes that China can fit into the shoes at its own will! True, China has tasted uninterrupted longer span of economic success to rise to the enviable status of being the world's factory and also a military giant but Mr Xi seems to be oblivious of the accompanying obligations of the world's leader to promote an international order based on rule of law, fairness, equity, mutuality of respect and peace. The mantle of global leadership is all about repudiation of temptation to territorial grabbing, back-stabbing and diplomatic skullduggery. Such almost unworldly qualities are too far-fetched for Mr Xi who seems to be in love with machete to be used not from front but behind! And the pain, clearly measurable from the wrinkles on the face of Prime Minister Modi, is a live example!

India today stands back-stabbed! And this is despite huge investment by Mr Modi in nourishing his personal rapport with Mr Xi. A bout of introspection over the recent chain of events may reveal that Mr Xi is relishing a frisson of schadenfreude at Mr Modi's misfortune! So, what should be India's future policy to deal with China? Clearly, there is a stark need for a new doctrine of military diplomacy to deal with China. The present 'wedge strategy' has not worked! It has neither checkmated Pakistan nor instilled respect in China's mind for India which often said that the 21st Century belongs to China and India! Mr Modi also needs to fathom that it is not the personal goodwill between two heads of the States but the long-term dream of a country that shapes up inexorable turns in bilateral relations. For Mr Xi, Mr Modi may remain a good friend but for China, being territorially grabby, is the backbone of its international military diplomacy. Till the time it needed support from ASEAN, it was good to all ASEAN members. Now, it has sparring differences with all of them as they need China more for their trade. History with India and others clearly reveals an unmistakable pearl of wisdom for Mr Modi - never fear military consequences of a neighbourhood bully, keep minimal trading relations and keep forging alliances with globally stabilising democratic political establishments! Although an agreement for disengagement of forces has been arrived at but do not trust and also do not compromise on the list of border activities which India is free to undertake as a sovereign nation. Such compromises in the past have given moral edge to the PLA and a scar in the mind of the millennial generation about the bravery of our armed forces and the correctness of our foreign policy!

Prime Minister Modi does need to realise that protracted humming and hawing over China would do long-term harm to India's interests. And good examples are China's influence over our SAARC members. China recently extended duty exemption benefit to over 800 tariff lines to Bangladesh. This is a clear attempt to bring Bangladesh under its ring of influence around India. It did the same with Nepal. Although Nepal has lost a good-size territory to China on its border but rather than protesting against such annexation, Nepal has done what China wanted it to do against India - put Indian territories on its map! The traditional relations of its bordering population with India are also turning bitter in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh!

The on-going momentum to minimise involvement of Chinese companies in critical sectors of the Indian economy would be a good strategy but it should not be a blanket arm's length policy. Since Chinese companies do enjoy economies of scale and price advantages, the bilateral trade may continue for consumer goods with a clear policy emphasis to replace the same over five to ten years period. For sensitive and tech-infra sectors, it would always remain a good idea to keep Chinese companies away as China has always been accused of arm-twisting its companies to share sensitive data with the State and its intelligence agencies. Zoom is the latest to be accused of notwithstanding the fact that it is an American company with its key developers and servers located in China.

Burning Chinese goods on the streets may be a good conduit for a common Indian to vent anger but for the Government of India, there is a need for a well thought long-term economic policy to regulate involvement of Chinese companies in non-sensitive sectors and also a definite plan to compete them out over a period of time! This is what most economies like EU and America are going to do unless there is a change in the political philosophy of perfidious China which is certainly going to plough a lonely furrow in the future recovery of the global economy. A good swathe of FDI is bound to move out of its borders, including Hong Kong, and a period of its economic downfall coupled with wobbly military paradigm has just set in for China. And it would get accelerated with the inevitable decoupling of the US economy post-polls in November, 2020! I sincerely hope that Mr Modi and his team of security and foreign policy advisers would remain unfazed by the prevailing smouldering atmospherics and focus on laying down a robust security architecture to deal with China in the coming decades!