Letters from Peking: What Galwan Valley taught us this summer

Galwan, Huawei, Battlefield, Determination, Chinese Space, Atmanirbhar Bharat, Mandarin, App Ban, Escalate costs, misinformation, propaganda, Washington, Xi Jinping
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There are five major takeaways from the ongoing crisis in Ladakh that will inevitably shape India’s China policy significantly. The first is that Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.

Xi Jinping’s China is at a stage—and in a year—where it has simply ceased to care about global public opinion or parameters of reasonable conduct. It has little interest in healthy relations with India and considers the diminishing of India’s role, growth, weight and presence as a key foreign policy objective.

From its blatant support of terrorist infrastructure directed against India to its defence of terror states, the Chinese world view sees an India under siege as necessary and useful for its own strategic comfort. By seeking to grab territory by force, it has announced it considers India an adversary and will seek to harm it more directly. Some in India can continue to sink their heads deeper in the sand and avoid reading the letter from Beijing, but the message is clear—the “Hu & Wen” days of “partnership”, of an “Asian Century for all”, of “BRICS for a better world” are passé. This is Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics.

The second takeaway is that China is perfectly at ease with the coexistence of commerce and conflict, trade and war. It has perfected the ability of sleeping with its enemies and selling to them as well. Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies. With this experience, China believes it can attack India, abuse Indians and support violence against Indian interests, all while conducting economic statecraft and everyday business. The Chinese are smug in their belief that actions in Ladakh will not hinder trade with India but may even win it negotiating space vis-à-vis a diminished India. It is for New Delhi to puncture this notion.

Beijing has successfully done so with the Americans for decades. It has inveigled successive regimes in Washington to underwrite and create the biggest geopolitical risk to a world order crafted by the US and its allies

The third takeaway points to the Chinese strategic ability to manipulate and game democratic societies. China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so. Delegitimising the government and political system of the enemy is a central objective of long wars, and there should be no doubt that this is an epic struggle, which may have started in the Himalayas but will travel to maritime Asia and the Pacific. India cannot ignore the propensity of the Chinese to turn Indian democracy against India itself.

China creates dissent and discord through misinformation and propaganda. This summer, it has weaponised the openness of the Indian public sphere. And it will continue to do so

In the recent episode, if the Chinese attempt at information warfare was thwarted, it was only because of the inability of Chinese influence operations to overcome the domestic media/social media bulwark. This provided a teflon coating to the national leadership that the Chinese found hard to breach. But such dynamics cannot be taken for granted forever. They have to be future-proof and individual-agnostic.

The fourth takeaway is simply: “No way, Huawei”. India must attach costs to Chinese ambitions. Even though there is stark asymmetry between the economic and military capabilities of the two countries, the defender has the advantage of being able to deploy specific tools that even unequal realities. Banning Chinese apps and making this tendency viral globally must be an Indian priority.

We must also draw lessons from recent history. India was the lone significant absentee when the nations of the world presented themselves at the court of Emperor Xi in 2017, at the Belt and Road Forum. Today, India is no longer alone and there is a considerable coalition against BRI. Similarly, India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing.

India’s app ban and digital wall against China must be evangelised and turned into a global endeavour, particularly in the developed world—the key geography that matters to Beijing

The final takeway relates to the unpredictability of the actions of the 16 Bihar Regiment, their dogged resistance and their fierce aggression. Besides economic costs, battlefield costs must also be imposed. Towards this, 16 Bihar and its brave soldiers inflicted costs that the Chinese are still assimilating and factoring into their land grab programme. Causalities in the battle theatre were the ‘unknown unknown’ even for the Mandarins in Beijing. As the defender of sovereign territory, India will need to be ready to escalate costs for Chinese adventurism.

Battlefield grit and determination will be of utmost importance in the dark days that may define the Himalayan relationship. Similarly, interdiction and disruption capability in the oceans will be crucial. To count on others to intervene and assist in these objectives may be a bonus but must not be our core strategy. Atmanirbharta to handle China across terrains and domains is what India needs. To this end, it is time to shed inhibitions and build capacities and partnerships—where feasible—that will deny China space, literally and figuratively. Politics of presence is the essence of sovereignty. India must be present through roads, infrastructure and potent force in the mountains and in the seas, which may well be the next theatre of action.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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