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After a prolonged phase of playing cat and mouse, India and China last Friday declared a truce and the promise to end the brinkmanship. The obvious question is whether this promise will hold. To be honest the odds are stacked against it.

To be sure both sides have checked all the key boxes guaranteeing truce. The joint statement issued by both countries and inked by foreign ministers S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi categorically states “the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side," before adding, “the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions."

However, the Chinese history of perfidy, double-speak and relentless pursuit of Middle Kingdom status (or the centre of civilization) suggest otherwise. Making matters worse, China is gradually losing the perception battle.

Further, given the asymmetry between the two countries, India’s chutzpah against an economic and military giant must be hugely frustrating to its Northern neighbour. Worse it is denting the ‘tough guy’ image that Chinese President Xi Jinping has so assiduously cultivated; a win, even a pyrrhic one, will be helpful to sell domestically. At the same time the weather clock is running down and maintaining a forward post in inclement weather where temperatures drop to -40C is a daunting task for any army.

And on the other side an emboldened India is equally committed to holding its own in protecting its borders. It has been careful to calibrate its defensive responses to Chinese aggression, even while it has worked the diplomatic phone lines to tap into growing global disaffection toward China.

While the United States has already signalled this in no uncertain terms, what should worry China is that Europe, which at one time was economically dependent on China, has formally pivoted toward India and Australia. Last week Germany joined France—the presence of its defence minister, albeit for the induction of the first batch of Rafael fighter aircraft into the Indian Air Force, is in itself a very significant diplomatic statement; the optics will not be lost on China—to bolster this realignment. It is not that these countries are underwriting any future conflict, but the fact that they are in India’s corner must be worrying to China.

Adding to this is the fact that the situation on the ground in Ladakh is potentially explosive. On a razor’s edge as it were. With battle-ready troops, who have already had a few run-ins including the bloody confrontation in Galwan valley leading to fatalities on either side (though the Chinese have not officially admitted to losing personnel), ranged mere metres from each other, anything could trigger a violent conflict.

Ideally, wiser heads on both sides need to prevail. The opportunity cost of the current face-off is already apparent. China has all but lost a potentially lucrative market for its goods; and by burning bridges with India it has buried the powerful idea of an Asian Century. Worse it is in the middle of a global PR battle for its failure to alert and contain the spread of the deadly covid-19 virus which originated in Wuhan, China. Really not the best time to make more enemies.

On the other hand India, which is battling the worst contraction in its economy due to covid-19 induced lockdowns, has had to divert precious mind space and resources toward bolstering its troops along the border. Also playing at the back of its mind is the risk of a two-front battle—involving Pakistan on the western border—if the situation does worsen.

Hopefully this situation may never arise. But at the least the two Asian majors have formally declared each other as rivals. India needs to assume that it will be at the receiving end of Chinese aggression—overtly and covertly.

What next? China, desperate to understand a new India, should probably read-up V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilisation. Though written years ago it holds a light to a rapidly transforming India.

“The crisis of India is not only political or economic," Naipaul wrote, “The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilisation that has at last become aware of its inadequacies."

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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