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LAC face-off | Doklam was a game-changer for Chinese thought on India: JNU professor Hemant Adlakha

Satellite photograph provided by Planet Labs shows the Galwan Valley area.

Satellite photograph provided by Planet Labs shows the Galwan Valley area.   | Photo Credit: AP

There have been many different reasons attributed to China’s aggressive actions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to Hemant Adlakha, a professor at JNU’s Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, who closely follows commentaries in the Mandarin language, the change in Chinese thought towards India came after 2017’s Doklam standoff.

Also read: Age of expansionism is over, Narendra Modi says in Ladakh

How has the Chinese narrative on the LAC standoff developed over the past month?

We have been following whatever is being reported, commentaries and opinion articles in the Chinese media, of course, other than Global Times (as it is in English). In terms of the Galwan incident itself, we know from our media reporting here that China is being accused for this offensive action and the brutal murder of our soldiers. In Chinese media, all the blame and reasons are being attributed to the Indian forces, to what they call India’s “continuous, consistent, provocative act on the western border and belligerence for the past, especially recent years”. When you look at the recent commentaries more closely, the comment is that the [Galwan incident] is different, even compared to the Doklam situation. I think Doklam perhaps was the game-changer for them. I think post-Doklam, the Chinese started revising their strategy, and wrote that China now must reassess, re-examine and reformulate its India strategy, primarily because they thought that India is now becoming a bigger irritant as far as China’s overall national policy is concerned.

Also read: Ladakh face-off | Avoid miscalculation, says China

How was Doklam the “game-changer”?

First, one has to see the terminology that was used. The Chinese expression used for Doklam was crisis. Today, when they refer to the incident at Galwan, they speak very clearly using terms or phrases like clashes or confrontation. After Doklam, there were several commentaries that China was embarrassed during the crisis asking how could China let the Doklam crisis go on for so long? So that was seen as embarrassing and also kind of a failure for Chinese diplomacy or strategy. Now, post-15 June again, there is a divided opinion among China’s strategic affairs community whether to take problems with India, especially on the western border as a major contradiction for China’s national policy or strategy, or not.

Also read: China apps ban | PM Modi quits Weibo

Between Doklam and now, Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met so many times, including at informal summits. It did seem that there was a period of actual peace and understanding between the two leaderships….

Well, I mean, you’re right that in the period between the Wuhan spirit to the summit in Chennai, it looked as if you know, there is some kind of a very peaceful and very cordial person to person rapport in the relationship between the two leaders. But I think from the Chinese point of view, the strategy on India for a long time is that somehow India has to be kept under control. The discourse is much more than that, India has been under a very strong political party rule and a strong leader for the last several years and many commentators have written about it that, especially in democracies… [there is]…much more rhetoric, that they they try to project externally their image of the country’s status globally, etc, etc. And that is what many commentators have attributed to the current leadership in India.

Also read: China’s claim over Galwan is unprecedented, say experts

In your understanding, what really are the reasons for China’s actions at the LAC?

In this context they have a short-term strategy and also a long-term strategy, specifically with India on the western border (Ladakh). The long term strategies are one, to prevent India from building or repairing roads, especially for the war purposes in Kashmir; two, to expedite construction of the China-Nepal rail-link, and three, to step up building naval and military bases in the Indian Ocean.

Also read: Ladakh face-off | Chinese media lauds Modi’s speech

In the short-term tactics, they point out that China must have a focused approach and be patient, whether it is border conflicts with India and or Indian trade ban or sanctions against China, etc. They say China must not spare any effort to resolve a conflict like situation by working on political and diplomatic channels for China must not allow border conflict at hand to slip out of control and turn into an unavoidable war. What they mean is that they still continue to see the problems on the border as a strategic issue, which can be taken care of politically or diplomatically.

They also say China must ensure that the Sino-Indian border issue does not in any way influence or jeopardise the larger and crucial strategic ongoing struggle with the U.S., as well as in South China Sea. And that China has now reached a strategic implementation stage where they have to also send clear signals to Taiwan.

To your understanding, what really are the reasons for these actions at the LAC? 

Yeah, that's a very, very relevant and very interesting question. Now, I don't know how to sum it up in a short time. But I'll use a Chinese saying. Because of their culture and history, much of their discourse is full of idioms and metaphors and even the leaders are very fond of using metaphors. So, in this particular situation post Galwan, they have been using a Chinese saying, which roughly translated means that if you try to gain an advantage, sometimes you only end up worse off. An English language equivalent is to go for wool, and come back shorn. In Chinese it is “Tou ji bu cheng shi ba mi”: to try to steal a chicken only to end up losing the rice bowl.

Many Chinese commentators say they are puzzled, asking why India keeps doing it, or has been doing it over the years to indulge in border clashes, or this belligerent Indian attitude with the Chinese because China has never seen India as a rival or enemy.

Right. Interesting because that's exactly what the narrative in India is. India is worried and commentators are worried about why China is doing this? 

Exactly. So the Chinese are saying that India has, you know, thousands problems at home to deal with. Instead of that why are they wasting their resources and energies to scale up the Himalayas and keep on doing this

with China. What do they gain? Others have said you cannot just keep on ignoring the irritant India. As far as China's larger scheme is concerned, especially I'm referring to the BRI, and CPEc and all that. So at that time in late 2017 and early 2018, there were a lot of articles, which started talking about that, following the Sino-U.S. contradiction, which they see as a main contradiction. Next, the second main contradiction was between China and Japan. But, these commentaries, they started pointing out that Japan is, has been taken care of, I mean, Japan is no more a threat, that bigger a threat compared to the increasing belligerence on the western border from India. So, that is what I had written in early 2018 that China is now beginning to see India as a bigger potential threat.

That's as far as actually, you know, explaining to us what the standoff today means. What about the larger worry that most have, that in China's map-making exercise places have their names changed suddenly and the next thing you know, China has a claim on them, not just in parts of Ladakh, which earlier were not in contention. Very recently, we saw China claim a part of Eastern Bhutan. That was never a point of contention. There are other such claims that we hear about. Do you think that the sort of project that one sees of a kind of map-making, almost of reclaiming boundaries, or reclaiming many of Tibet's boundaries, as it were, with what are called the five fingers? Is that something that's driving the Chinese leadership? 

Now, you see, and this has to be seen from the Chinese point of view. I mean since 1962, even now, some of the commentaries on the Galwan Valley incident, they have written that, and they keep quoting Mao, for example, who had said even 10 days before the 1962 War, that 'I still don't understand, why do we have to go you know, at war with India, because India is not our enemy'. Many commentators have tried to draw a parallel between what is happening on the western border and what is happening as far as Chinese aggressive posturing is concerned in South China Sea since 2011. So we looked at it in this context,. It is only that Chinese one maybe because there's this new Cold War between China and the U.S., which has really made China feel very insecure from the security point of view. Many commentators have written also this time that they have to now do something to recover their lost territory to India. And, like they say that in 1962, the one-month war ensured peace on the border for next five decades. So time has come now to do something similarly so that the western border is managed and remains peaceful and full of tranquility for another long time to come. That is one narrative.

In this context they have a short-term strategy and a long-term strategy also, specifically with India on the western border or entire border, let's say.

So the long-term strategies prevent India from building or repairing roads, especially for the war purposes in Kashmir, second, to expedite construction of China-Nepal rail-link, and three, step up building naval and military bases in the Indian Ocean.

In the short-term tactics, they point out that China must have a focused approach and be patient, whether it is border conflicts with India, and or Indian trade ban or sanctions against China, etc. Many commentators actually have laughed about the use of the term digital strike. Many Chinese commentators have laughed. They're asking why doesn't India understand that actually it doesn't even hurt us? They say China must wait for the opportune time and the right opportunity, depending on the internal political developments and political dynamics in India.

Third, China must not spare any effort to resolve a conflict-like situation by working on political and diplomatic channels, for China must not allow border conflict at hand to slip out of control and turn into an unavoidable war. I also want to clarify that what Chinese mean by this is that they still continue to see the problems with India or the problems with India on the border as a strategic issue, and not as a, you know, geo war-like issue. It's still a strategic issue, which can be actually taken care of politically or diplomatically. China must also ensure that Sino-Indian border issue does not in any way influence or jeopardise the larger and crucial China's strategic ongoing struggle with the U.S. And China's most important strategic task at present. Given the current trends in Sino-U.S. I will read on Taiwan issue as well as in South China Sea etc. is that China has now reached a strategic implementation stage where they have to also send clear signals to Taiwan.

You are one of the few people in India who are trained in Mandarin and understand the phraseology as well as the Chinese thought behind it. Is this something that bothers you?

You see, actually India is perhaps the only country for whom China matters a lot, but India does not have the required adequate Mandarin facility. In all international conferences and seminars, academic seminars, I'm talking about whether it is International Relations (IR) related, whether it is political science, whether it is economics, whether it is history, that in the last 10 or 15 years in most of these academic deliberations, the foreign scholars or the foreign China experts. They all come and present their papers in Chinese and they participate in the deliberations in Chinese.

And I've seen in China, similar conferences, mostly the conferences are bilingual. There are parallel English and Chinese language sessions. It's very interesting that the Chinese language sessions will be overcrowded with foreign scholars participation. And the English language sessions are overcrowded with Chinese participants. You know the reason; because both are trying to improve their language. And that's something that's deficient in India. I must say I have not attended a single conference in the last 20 years in India on China, where the conference or seminar sessions have taken place in Mandarin.

So, if one has to say whether a country is a friend or an adversary, understanding them is the key to better relations so as not to be caught by surprise in relations? 

Yes. The problem is that we have always looked at China as India hyphen China. We never looked at China as China. That's number one. And number two, much of our discourse in China is only limited to India, China relations. As a hierarchy of nations, so if you look at the Chinese language, and I'm quoting the French psychologist who had said that in Chinese language more than the meaning of the word, it is important where exactly a character or a word has been positioned in the sentence.

And that applies to the Chinese perceptions of Chinese view of the world. And in that, India does not figure anywhere high up. But post Doklam, yes, the question being asked increasingly is shall we start paying more attention, more serious attention to what to do with India.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 9:22:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/lac-face-off-doklam-was-a-game-changer-for-chinese-thought-on-india-scholar/article31989759.ece

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