China's ‘Civilian’ Tents on Indian Side Reflect Obsession With Winning
The Chinese transgressions are likely to continue and Delhi will have to deal with them in a calibrated way.
Demchok is the resultant cynosure of the shadowboxing and competitive posturing besetting the Indo-China dissonance. The inconclusive game of “clear messages” is still being played out by both sides even as the situation hasn’t deteriorated to the eyeball-to-eyeball level of 2020. But the pawns and props in the guise of Chinese “civilians” pitching tents on the Indian side of the Charding Nala in Demchok are reflective of Chinese tact, beyond doubt. The unwarranted arrival at and refusal to vacate this hotspot by so-called “civilians” add to the pressure tactics in the protracted Corp Commander-level talks aimed at disengagement and de-escalation. Trust is the continuing casualty on both sides.
Clearly, the latest intrusion, despite the crippling COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing US-China tensions and other geopolitical preoccupations such as Hongkong and Taiwan, is indicative of the focus and high priority that Xi Jinping affixes to the Indo-China standoff.
The Chinese have resorted to an unprecedented deployment of up to 50,000 Chinese soldiers, sudden infrastructure ramp-up, and usage of “civilians” to do the tactical bidding. Disproportionate investment of people, material, posturing, and propaganda indicates that Beijing wants to bargain hard and assert itself consequentially.
The Tug Of War Goes On
Lack of restorative comments from the highest offices on both sides reflects the perception that some “gains” are still achievable on the ground, before putting a public stamp of a ‘pullback’ or finality. The tug of war is still not complete, and the silence of the leadership on each side is deafening.
The build-up to the “tenting” tactics started weeks ago, when Chinese soldiers and “civilians” arrived in five vehicles on either side of the Sindhu river in the same Demchok area and held banners asking the villagers to desist from celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6. The Indian side went ahead with the birthday celebrations, emboldened by the fact that for the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had publicly confirmed speaking to the Dalai Lama, despite being aware of the immediate reaction on the other side.
A week earlier, the Indian Government had given a miss to wishing the Chinese on their 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on July 1. Still licking their wounds from the brilliant counteraction by the Indian Army at Kailash Range in August last year, the narrative of the standoff was no longer in the favour of the Chinese. The dogged response of the Indian Army had tainted China’s ‘endgame’ and storyline. Nonetheless, the winning instinct in Chinese political posturing cannot settle for a stalemate, and it thus itches to inch, provoke and irate the other side with aggressive and relentless moves.
The Significance Of Tibet
In a reciprocal show of intent with the Dalai Lama/Tibet as the epicentre, Xi Jinping made his first official visit to the restive area since assuming Presidentship. The de rigueur propaganda machinery went on an expected overdrive, with reports of Xi being “warmly welcomed” by locals and officials of various ethnic groups. Similarly, the news of the recruitment and deployment of Tibetan youth militia, aside from the Special Tibetan Army Unit, in the strategic Chumbi Valley, was part of the ‘holistic’ Chinese reaction to counter the reality.
The valiant efforts of the predominantly ethnic Tibetan Special Frontier Force (SFF) last year and the enduring loyalty in Tibet for the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, despite the decades-long Chinese efforts to denigrate and vilify him, irritate the Chinese to no end.
However, the acute sensitivity to the Dalai Lama issue is not imagined just from the Indian side, but also from the United States, which recently upped the ante with a new legislation, the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA). Besides centring the Dalai Lama’s relevance and irreplaceability by providing for sanctions in case of unilateral attempts to name his successor, the law further denies the Chinese new consulates till an American consulate is allowed in Lhasa.
Pressure From the US
The notion that the pressure from both the United States and India is somehow “working in tandem” is presumably playing on the Chinese imagination. The India visit of the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in quick succession to the visit of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, would fuel assumptions of Sino-centricity in discussions, among other issues. Recurring conversations of initiating in-person discussions to take forward the Quad agenda further feed Beijing’s anxiety.
The enduring legacy of the Dalai Lama in the region (across the Chinese-held side) is at the heart of the one-upmanship, which results in an admixture of intimidation, usurpation, largesse and ‘buying-out’ in a concerted effort to secure the “emotions” on the Chinese side.
The winning instinct in Chinese political posturing cannot settle for a stalemate, and it thus itches to inch, provoke and irate the other side with aggressive and relentless moves.
In the Dalai Lama, there is an inadvertent trump card for Delhi and a contentious figure for the Chinese that is irreconcilable in their calculations to legitimise their claim over Tibet. As Delhi invokes the Dalai Lama card tactically, the Chinese react with their hybrid ‘military-industry-societal-political’ approach using multiple levers incrementally to ingress and vitiate discussions. Though that does not tantamount to full-blown militaristic transgressions such as in 2020, the messaging is the same.
India Won't Be A Pushover
India will have to deal with competing claims and sudden appearances of “civilians” or “villages” to tackle the Chinese aggression, even as it won’t, in all probability, amount to “clashes”, which proved costly and bloody for the Chinese as well. There is the additional complexity of having to initially disown and later downplay their casualties, as China did last year.
Delhi will certainly have to manoeuvre the Chinese intentions and reactions in a calibrated way to avoid escalations, albeit, with the demonstration of “holding the ground” and giving it back, as it did in 2020, even when the odds were loaded against India in terms of the balance of power.
The fact that India will not be a pushover militaristically is perhaps established, but the final verdict on the same in terms of political and diplomatic leadership is still not out. Till then, “civilian tents” on border flashpoints will be unsurprising.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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