• February 23, 2024

The dragon and the elephant

(First published on May 30th, 2020)

What happens if China and India go to war? Who wins and who loses in the end? How did we end up here? If a war begins will it suck in the United States and other great powers?

The answer to the first two questions seems fairly easy. The Chinese economy has survived Covid-19 and the country is in a better shape for a long-drawn war. Owing to the Belt and Road Initiative it has increased its circle of influence so much that its supply routes will stay open even during a protracted war. Except for Hong Kong and Xinjiang autonomous regions, the internal cohesion of the country is phenomenal. Militarily, China is already in big league. The dragon is ready to pounce.

The Indian economy’s outlook in comparison is far from sanguine. Six years of voodoo economics, eroding investor confidence and now the fallout of the coronavirus related lockdowns have all destroyed the dreams of becoming an economic powerhouse. The elephant seems to be doing what elephants do. Eat. Militarily, however, it is a different ballgame. It has acquired state of the art defence technology from some of the very best weapons manufacturers in the world. If the forces stay in high spirits, it can inflict some serious damage. But the morale is where things go awry. Indian armed forces were raised as a secular and merit-based system. However, the presence of a Hindutva extremist at the top and the rapid saffronisation of the military brass have seriously compromised the merit system and the secular ethos. Imagine what would have happened if Hitler’s army had Jews and gypsies in it during WWII. Owing to their military training and discipline perhaps they would have fought bravely shoulder to shoulder with their peers but their morale could not be very high. If India were to start a long war with China, initially it could have a unifying effect on the country and draw attention away from the domestic economic mess but in a very short while the internal divisions and economic misery would most likely raise their ugly heads like never before. Although the Indian ruling elite may think so (and populists are notorious for their myopia), this is not a good time for a war.

So, is it certain then? Is China going to beat India? Let us not get ahead of ourselves. Wars between nuclear rivals, if they do take place at all, would not result in clear victories. You can say that of the two India might lose more. If you can see one clear loser emerging out of the conflict it is the region. This is the most populated region in the world with a staggering level of poverty. It is in the interest of the region and the world beyond to ensure that a war between the two Asian countries never starts. The more likely scenario is that both sides may blow hot and cold, the status quo remains and from time to time skirmishes take place.

That is an outcome that India may favour. Why? Because it fits nicely with India’s attempts to sell Huntington’s clash of civilisation propaganda. If a war with political Islam and China is inevitable then India, being the West’s frontline soldier, is seen to be doing a nice thing poking the dragon in the eye. Except that is not how things will go. The world is tired of Huntington’s vile concoction. While the West’s frustration with China is quite evident, it no longer views India as the safe democratic bet it was once considered. So, except for the proverbial slap on China’s wrist and occasional angry outbursts, this strategy is hardly going to get a more coherent response.

We know that skirmishes are taking place in the eastern Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control but that is not the whole story. Between what went down in Doklam three years ago and what is happening now around Daulat Beg Oldie and Galwan River, there has been a dramatic shift in how China views India. Beijing for a long time has viewed India as a trade partner and potential strategic ally. This optimism survived the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between the US and India which seemed targeted at China and the renaming of the Pacific Command. But in the past couple of years China has seen with growing concern what it considers constant Indian sponsorship of anti-Beijing propaganda.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi’s policy choices one mistake has led to another. The decision to scrap Article 370, bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir and absorb Ladakh as a separate union territory has delegitimised the international de facto arrangement based on the status quo. As India has inhaled its own official propaganda it has sought to consolidate its position in Ladakh with more infrastructure and aggressive posture. This has irked China. The Indian government is already having a hard time maintaining the muscular image that it sells domestically. When it had claimed of carrying out surgical strikes in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, I had told you that this would create an unending domestic appetite for more outrageous acts. It was followed by the demonetisation debacle. And today there is no end to the series of unfortunate events.

Angering China and Pakistan may look like a page out of Huntington’s playbook. But a lot does not. Doklam incident took place because India does not want China to have anything to do with Bhutan. And the Bhutanese people are not chuffed about the idea that they are not allowed to let China open an embassy in their country. India is not crazy about Sri Lanka’s new government. It had demolished Bangladeshi goodwill because of the NRC exercise in Assam. Nepal is the only Hindu state in the world. You would think a Hindutva government would maintain a great relationship with Kathmandu. But alas, no! Twice during its rule the incumbent Indian government has made life difficult for the people of Nepal. And then it accuses China of meddling in its sphere of influence. How can you blame anyone else if one by one you gift wrap and hand over each country to China? Consequently, the allies India has are all virtual allies. They sit outside the region and will not participate in a war against China.

Perhaps, this is a timely wake up call. A change in posture is in order. A country at war with itself and its neighbours cannot progress much. India needs to take a step back and de-escalate the situation with China. PM Modi needs to seek counsel of experts and ensure that they express their opinion freely. Word has it that he trusts the judgment of his National Security Adviser and Minister for External Affairs. Perhaps they may give him some sane counsel. Revival of SAARC and a push for regional peace may go a long way in damage control.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2020.

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