Ladakh stand-off is a signal to India against infrastructure construction in ‘disputed territory’, says expert

China will continue to deny India space on the global stage owing to widening asymmetries, experts observe

December 25, 2022 09:31 pm | Updated December 26, 2022 12:52 pm IST

Army vehicles move towards eastern Ladakh. File

Army vehicles move towards eastern Ladakh. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The 2020 stand-off in eastern Ladakh was a signal from China to India over how the situation is likely to play out if it continues to pursue infrastructure construction in the “disputed territory”, Isaac B. Kardon, Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval War College said. These observations also resonate with the recent clash between soldiers of the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Yangtse area in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh. At the same time, China will continue to deny India space on the global stage owing to widening asymmetries, experts noted.

“Indian military was building infrastructure in disputed territory and they (PLA) wanted to take steps to check that... That’s probably the acute cause,” Mr. Kardon said. He also referred to recent report of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress (CPC) held in October, which talked of resolutely countering threats that impinge upon their sovereignty.

End November, several China experts from India and abroad who speak fluent Mandarin, analysed and debated the outcomes of the 20th CPC, which consolidated President Xi Jinping’s power as well an unprecedented third term. The deliberations were held under the 5th edition of the ‘India Forum on China’ in Goa organised by the Delhi-based think tank Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) and the India office of the German think tank Kondrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in cooperation with Goa University.

Former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok K. Kantha noted that Mr. Xi’s dominance has become so much more pronounced, and it has implications for India and the world, on which Israeli scholar Tuvia Gering, who specialises in Chinese security and foreign policy, referred to Mr. Xi as not just China’s most powerful man but also its “storyteller-in-chief” propagating ‘Chinese style modernisation’.

The 20th CPC Congress has promoted hardliners in Chinese diplomatic groups, noted Chang Young-Hee, Research Professor, Sungkyun Institute of China Studies, Seoul. Giving the case of Madagascar as an example, Jabin T. Jacob, Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University said the CPC is testing out elements of a new foreign policy and exploits local circumstances to do so. Foreign policy is increasingly an ideological tool for the CPC, he remarked. The arrival of new China has had different meanings and depictions since 1949, said Professor Alka Acharya, Honorary Director of ICS tracing the evolution of Chinese policy with its leaders.

There was consensus among the experts that Mr. Xi has consolidated power even at the cost of undermining the party and under the clarion call to make China great again, which has also become the bulwark for the China-U.S. contest.

“In the ‘new era’ under Mr. Xi Jinping, ‘Crossing the river by feeling the stones’, a dictum of the reform era generally attributed to Deng Xiaoping, has been denounced completely, if we look into Xi’s criticism of a ‘weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership’ of the reform era, as well as the writings of China’s top scholars such as Wen Tiejun,” noted Professor B.R. Deepak with Jawaharlal Nehru University. The “stones” have been identified as “symbolic norms defined by the West”.

“In the ‘new era’, the deviation of the party has been corrected, and the ‘four matters of confidence’ suggests that since the bridge over the river has been built and the desired expertise to build that bridge has also been acquired and perfected, therefore, there is no need for China to feel the “stones” any more,” he remarked. Conversely, the bridge built by China is better than the ‘Western stones’, therefore, Chinese wisdom, approach and model should be more appealing to the international community,” he added.

Admist all the developments, technology has emerged as the most important frontier for the U.S.-China strategic contestation, Mr. Kantha added.

As for India, China will not be averse to do business, but will continue to deny India space, whether at the regional or global stage, owing to widening asymmetries and lost equilibrium, Prof. Deepak remarked. “China firmly believes that India is already in the U.S. camp to contain China, therefore, has been formulating its foreign policy choices accordingly, irrespective of how India interprets Chinese thinking,” he said.

In order to restore equilibrium and understanding, it will take a long time, and will depend on India’s economic resilience, relationship with major powers, as well as domestic social cohesion, he added.

On this, Avinash Godbole, Associate Professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University, said it’s a normative conflict between the two countries on Asian values, and China wants to challenge India as a system, to put it down in the community of nations. India is the only major power that can challenge the overall narrative of a rising China as a peaceful country, he and other experts noted.

In the report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC, Mr. Xi said that they had steadily improved the leadership, legal strategy, and policy systems for national security. “We have not yielded any ground on matters of principle, and we have resolutely safeguarded China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests,” the Chinese President said.

The recent U.S. Department of Defence China Military Power Report 2022 to the U.S. Congress had said that China seeks to prevent border tensions from causing India to partner more closely with the U.S., and Chinese officials have warned U.S. officials to not interfere with their relationship with India.

Among the key takeaways, the report said that over the course of 2021, and as seen in 2022, the CPC has increasingly turned to the PLA as “an instrument of statecraft in support of its national strategy and global ambitions” while also highlighting that the PLA has “adopted more dangerous, coercive and aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific region.

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