Sino-India Standoff: A Big Embarrassment

(Ehtisham Amer, )

The Chinese board game Xiangqi is not only a game but a part of larger Chinese culture. It was considered an essential part of the training of men who aspire to rise to commanding heights in various walks of life. Kings, generals, people of letter, and high priests were expected to be well versed in this game. Xiangqi was considered to cultivate virtues like patience, forethought, resolve, and long-term planning. To a bystander, the game may lack action and thrill but to the players and an ordinary Chinese, this is the way of life in China. Every action must be forethought in every possible detail, though trivial, to avoid changing minds midway or to face some embarrassment as a result. This habit of overthinking is visible inactions of individuals and state functionaries in every day working of the Chinese.

Cultural habits influence our actions. The Chinese thus, as a matter of habit and compulsion, take a long time to react and they do so in such well thought-out manner that it is hard to find deficiencies in their conduct of statecraft. Take the example of Indian unilateral and illegal action of 5 August 2019. India repealed Article 370 of their Constitution and divided the state of J&K into union territories of Jammu &Kashmir and Ladakh. It was hailed as a monumental step by the Indian right-wing and extremist parties of various hues. Moderate Indians were shocked and expressed their outrage through various forums and ways.

BJP stalwarts made provocative statements of intent to take back Pakistan administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan with force, if necessary. Similar claims were made about the Chinese administered Aksai chin.

There is always a difference between addressing domestic audiences and handling a tricky trilateral issue of sovereignty over a piece of land. Amit Shah, the Indian firebrand and the go-getter home minister, made an incorrect assessment of the situation which was to cause India the embarrassment of the century in less than a year later.

China was put on the defensive for the first time when India compared the occupation of Aksai chin with that of Azad Kashmir. It certainly roused China’s fears of India falling too heavily in American, thus rival, camp. It is no coincidence that in the immediate aftermath of 5 August action, India went on to sign bilateral agreements with all 3 member states of quadrilateral dialogue, adding a military angle to the quad agreement.

India’s political leadership is badly drenched in their self-claimed economic miracle and have started to punch far above their strategic weight. India has always had the advantage of projecting its soft power through its world-class cinema industry and yoga and herbal medicines. The world’s fondness for Indian Ayurvedic medicines and yoga has been misinterpreted by the Indian strategic thinkers as a substitute for hard power. To give a further boost to self-intoxicating “victories over Kashmir” of Indian political leadership, the Chinese recorded their routine diplomatic displeasure over unilateral changing of the status of Kashmir. That was enough to give a fillip to the Indian leaders that they had humbled the Chinese dragon and are a force to reckon within the international arena. How easily can one fall prey to one’s propaganda!

17 June 2020 is the date of election of new Non-permanent members to the United Nations Security Council. India is contesting for the Asia Pacific slot unopposed. Election to this body adds to the prestige of any country. For India, nothing could have been more heaven-sent than to sit on this apex world body and resist any meaningful discussion on Kashmir for the next 2 years. But destiny has its ways to humble humans grandstanding exercises.

India has fared poorly in managing coronavirus. Hordes of migrant workers, walking, and dying in the road and train accidents have brought India into the negative focus of world media. The year 2020 began with the anti-CAA protests across India, including Delhi, that too during the visit of Donald Trump. The visit of American President attracts international media on a large scale and India found itself criticized for abysmal treatment of its minorities.

India had perhaps not consideredthe Chinese cultural factors while wargaming the consequences of changing the status of Kashmir, unilaterally. It’s here that the game of Xiangqi becomes relevant. India was about to learn this through the hard way that patience and self-control is a virtue and not a weakness. No Chinese response between August to April made the Indian leadership complacent and they thought that they had destined Kashmir to the dustbin of history. Then came May 2020.

The world woke up on a May morning to the news of Sino-India border skirmishes in the Ladakh region. Similar skirmishes occurred in 2017 in the Doklam area of the Sino-India border but were settled amicably. The Indian leadership was, however, quick to “claim victory” over China. The Chinese did not contest the Indian claims and went about with the business as usual. May 2020, therefore, was full of surprises for India. This time the Chinese came with larger numbers, better prepared and had dug in with heavy weapons in support.
While the Ladakh conflict has displayed an utter nonprofessional approach of the Indian military at the strategic and operational levels, and their failure in guarding their borders, it has also revealed the total bankruptcy of any possible solutions available to India. The Indian Prime Minister has not spoken a word in public about Ladakh in the last 6 weeks. Its media has received gag orders from the government to avoid coverage of the issue due to its sensitivity. No central leader of the ruling party has spoken of Ladakh and its possible solution. There is a deafening silence in media, government, and intelligentsia forums. The Indian military veterans have warned that there is no possible military solution to this crisis.

While the Indian diplomats were busy garnering support for their bid to the UN Security Council seat, destiny was laughing at their impending ignominy. Seat in the Security Council, where the fate of international disputes is decided, is not meant for a country that is unable to fend off aggression. If you cannot manage your border disputes, how on earth can someone trust you to resolve the global issues?

The Chinese have moved and occupied areas which are up to China Claim Line, and not the Indian territory. This area is disputed and both sides lay claim to it. The Chinese have advanced in four different areas spread from Ladakh in the west to far eastern border regions. Sources privy to Sino-India talks of 6 June have disclosed rival demands. India demands the status quo ante of April 2020; China demands the status quo before 5 August 2019.

While the Indians are quick to chest-thumping after making small and insignificant gains, the Chinese have displayed their cultural strength in handling intricate and demanding issues. No wonder the Xiangqi game has so aptly been internalized by the Chinese leaders for centuries.
(The writer is security analyst based in Islamabad)

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