Experts all over the world are wondering why China has become so aggressive, opening up many fronts at the same time, whether it is with Beijing’s ‘best enemy’, Donald Trump, or against neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, Australia …or India.
A few weeks ago, when France, which is not the most vociferous nation as far as China is concerned, was threatened, Paris bluntly told Beijing that it should focus on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
After having been at the origin of the virus which affects today more than 5.5 million on the planet while killing some 3.5 lakhs people, one could have thought that Beijing would remain quiet and introspect.
It is not the case, though. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in his address to the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing recently admitted: “At present and for some time to come, China will face challenges like never before.”
Coronavirus & Role of China’s People’s Liberation Army
One important factor in the present belligerence is the crucial role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the most contagious phase of the COVID-19 spread, particularly in Wuhan.
From Day One, a PLA unit, the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF) has been at the centre stage of what the Communist Party of China called the ‘People’s War’ against the ‘demon’ virus. It explains why many in the Communist leadership today see the PLA as China’s savior; there is no doubt that the Army played a vital role.
For all this, there is perhaps a price to pay for the Communist Party.
According to the statistics released by China's Ministry of Finance on May 18, on a monthly basis, the national fiscal revenue, including both tax and non-tax revenues, from January to April decreased by 3.9 %, 21.4 %, 26.1 %, and 15 % respectively. Despite the serious cash crunch, the PLA budget increased by 6.6%; at the same time, most other budgets have been drastically cut.
This was made public during the NPC’s first day; a couple of days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the Chinese army must step up combat readiness. According to The Global Times, Xi told the PLA officers on the NPC’s sidelines that the Army had performed well in helping to contain the Covid-19 outbreak, but should explore new ways of training: “It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions.”
Ladakh Incursions As PLA’s Reward?
The present incursions in Ladakh should be seen in this perspective; the PLA needs to be rewarded, i.e. given some free hand; even if not the only reason for the present intrusions, it is undoubtedly an important factor.
While Beijing fought diplomatic battles using its ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats in the Information Warfare’ field, the PLA was becoming more aggressive on the ground and not only in the South China Sea; the recent ‘fights’ in Northern Sikkim and Ladakh are part of this pattern.
First, the PLA tried to capture the area south of Naku La, a border pass with Tibet in Northern Sikkim, a place which was never disputed before.
Around the same time, worrying developments were reported from Northern Ladakh where the PLA opened new fronts; rather violent incidents took place north of the Pangong tso (lake) in the ‘fingers’ area where the PLA tried to grab one of the eight ‘fingers’ from India’s possession. Later, a large concentration of Chinese troops, camping in the Galwan valley, began intruding in Indian territory; here too, the area not disputed earlier.
India’s Actions Irking China?
This sudden recrudescence of aggressiveness could be explained by different factors; i.e. the present Indian government is serious about providing good connectivity to border areas, whether it is in Lipulekh, Takshing in Arunachal Pradesh or DBO in Ladakh; then China is unhappy with the maps of the new UTs of Ladakh and J&K, which show Gilgit-Baltistan, where Beijing has undertaken mega infrastructure projects, as part of Indian territory; to this should be added the fact that India has taken over the chairmanship of the WHO Executive Council (Beijing would not like the world organization to go in depth into the origin of the virus).
Though the present border incidents have been compared to the Doklam standoff in 2017, it is different in the sense that the trijunction between Bhutan, India and Tibet had never been agreed upon before by the concerned parties; further, the 2017 scuffle took place on a third party’s territory. In the present case, it is happening in earlier undisputed areas of Sikkim or Ladakh.
It is a fact that historically China is not on solid ground, this probably explains that Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs observed during his regular press brief: “The overall situation in the China-India border area is stable and under control, and the two countries are capable of resolving border issues through dialogue and negotiations.”
Delhi Should Force Beijing to Provide Maps
In any case, it looks as if China got what it wanted, hereafter, the diplomats of both countries can discuss the issue for years, but ‘undisputed’ areas would have become ‘disputed’, allowing the PLA to come back whenever necessary.
As worrying for India, are the mega infrastructure projects in Ngari Prefecture facing Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand; photos of a new construction site near the Ngari Gargunsa airport have circulated in the social media; the number of vehicles and people involved makes it a serious development. Then, the construction of a second road link between Xinjiang and Tibet (known as Highway G216) seems to be in process. This has to be watched carefully.
One thing that India should immediately do is to force Beijing to provide maps of its perceptions of the LAC, otherwise, every year, India will continue to face new intrusions, not even knowing where China’s ‘perceived’ LAC is located.
(Claude Arpi, journalist and historian, is the director of the Pavilion of Tibetan Culture at Auroville. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)