Xi’s shadow looms larger over India

The two-pronged military threat from China and Pakistan has become an urgent issue for India. New Delhi’s response will ultimately determine its standing in the global community

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) and other senior members of the government at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 22 October (Photo: Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) and other senior members of the government at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 22 October (Photo: Getty Images)

Sarosh Bana

Xi Jinping’s ascendance to a historic third five-year term as China’s president, at the conclusion of the 20th congress of the Communist Party of China CPC) on 23 October, was on expected lines but is daunting nevertheless for New Delhi.

The 69-year-old leader has been a bugbear for India, with cross-border threats surging ever since his rise to presidency in 2013, and especially since May 2020, when over 50,000 PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops breached the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—the Himalayan frontier that divides the two nuclear-armed neighbours—to clash with Indian soldiers and overrun vast tracts of the eastern sector of the border with the Union territory of Ladakh. The PLA also killed 20 Indian jawans in the area a month later.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Rishi Sunak, the (supposedly) Indian-origin leader of the Conservative Party, upon becoming the new UK Prime Minister, neither he nor his BJP-led government commented on Xi’s ‘election’.

India has reason to fear a progressive deterioration in its security environment, as President Xi consolidates his political standing to near supremacy by stacking key echelons of the CPC with loyalists, and by inscribing his name and political ideology in the party’s constitution. He is adroitly positioning himself as a possible Leader for Life, having cemented his place as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong who founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

Curiously, Xi presided over the CPC Central Committee’s plenary session that re-appointed him general secretary of the party. The Committee’s 203 members and 168 alternate members also endorsed him as chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission (CMC).

While visiting Kargil, Ladakh’s second largest town, on 24 October, to celebrate Diwali with soldiers of the Indian Army, Modi chose to ignore these developments across the border. More conspicuously, while addressing the soldiers, he referred to developments on this side of the border in some cookie-cutter strongman remarks to the effect that anyone who cast an evil eye on India would get a fitting reply.

While also not commenting on India at his post-plenary session press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi remarked, “We will work with peoples of all other countries to champion humanity’s shared values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom to safeguard global peace and promote global development, and keep promoting the building of a human community with a shared future.”

Observers weren’t quite sure what to make of those remarks by both leaders, given that two-way commander-level talks to de-escalate and disengage in Ladakh have proved largely ineffective.  

There has been little political effort to resolve the impasse, though Modi claims a close rapport with Xi built up over his nine visits to China—five as Prime Minister and four previously as chief minister of Gujarat. He has also hosted the Chinese leader in India on three occasions, between 2014 and 2019.

Xi manifested his reticence on the issue when he imperiously disregarded Modi when the Prime Minister stepped up beside him at the photo-op of leaders attending the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, in Uzbekistan.

In another sharp rebuke of the Modi government, Chinese troops waded into the Demchok and Chumar areas of Ladakh exactly when the Prime Minister was holding a summit with the Chinese President in Ahmedabad in 2014—their third incursion over the previous 10 days. The effrontery of that Chinese attack while Xi was being hosted in India must have been deeply embarrassing to Modi and his government but they had to lump it.

A month after the PLA incursion, Modi appeared on national television to deny there had been any. He simultaneously declared that the sacrifice of our jawans would not be in vain, and that India had not ceded an inch of its land to the Chinese. Many former army commanders, as also military analysts, said these assertions would at the very least be confusing for forces facing off against the PLA. Also, some Indian soldiers involved in the face off had made known that the situation along the LAC was far worse than the government was projecting.

There has moreover been a series of setbacks in preventing and countering Beijing’s aggression. Foremost, several analysts have suspected a military intelligence failure on the Chinese intrusions, despite an Indian Army patrol having been challenged by PLA soldiers at Pangong Tso prior to the May 2020 transgression, on 11 September 2019.

Beijing had besides been staking its claim on parts of Galwan valley ever since the boundary talks of 1960. Two years later, it had gone to war with India in the same region, in which it annexed the 37,185 sq. km high-altitude desert of Aksai Chin adjoining Galwan which India claims as part of Ladakh.

Despite the agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 to maintain peace and tranquillity, and to adopt confidence-building measures along the LAC, Beijing has consistently disputed the demarcations, capturing a cumulative 640 sq. km of land through multiple previous infiltrations into the Ladakh region. The 2005 pact had, in fact, enunciated political parameters and guiding principles for settling the boundary question.

The Modi government also did not convene a special Parliamentary session to take all political parties, and the public at large, into confidence on the danger lurking at the borders, and for forging a consensus on the response to it. It instead denounced the main opposition Congress party as “anti-national” and “pro-Chinese” for raising questions on the events at the border. Media coverage of the conflict was also discouraged, leading to avoidable and unhelpful speculation on the issue.

A video grab of the clash between Indian and PLA troops in Galwan Valley in 2020
A video grab of the clash between Indian and PLA troops in Galwan Valley in 2020
Xi’s shadow looms larger over India

China has in the meantime been trying to diminish India’s influence in its neighbourhood by buying influence with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Apart from its 3,488 km Himalayan frontier with China, India shares another 3,323 km border with Pakistan, 1,751 km with Nepal, 4,097 km with Bangladesh, and 1,643 km along Myanmar, while Sri Lanka lies a mere 27 km away across the Gulf of Mannar, and the Maldives, 623 km away from India’s southernmost tip called Kanyakumari.

In pursuit of its ‘string of pearls’ policy, China has built the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s largest province of Baluchistan which is linked to Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, via the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that both the partners hail as a monument to Pakistan–China relations.

The CPEC is a flagship component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion sequence of infrastructure projects spanning 70 countries, which many believe is a tool of geopolitical influence with Beijing handing out loans and then assuming control over the infrastructure it built when countries cannot repay those loans.

Though Beijing insists the BRI is largely a commercial rather than a military initiative, naval basing appears very much an unspoken part of its agenda. Gwadar will give China a maritime gateway to the Arabian Sea on India’s west coast and on to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and the gulfs of Oman and Aden. India opposes the CPEC, as the project runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The CPEC obliges Pakistan to pay $40 billion to China over 20 years by way of debt repayments and dividends. In August 2017, Islamabad forged a $5 billion deal for the purchase from China of four modified Type 041 Yuan Class submarines and technology transfer for the assembly of four more. The first four were to be delivered by 2023, and the rest by 2028, with this fleet designed to form the core of Pakistan’s offshore nuclear second-strike triad.

Pakistan also exploited India’s predicament with China in eastern Ladakh by mobilising two of its army divisions—over 20,000 soldiers—along the Line of Control (LoC) in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan that it occupies, but India considers part of Ladakh. This administrative territory borders the Kargil district where deep intrusions by Pakistani forces had sparked a war with India in 1999. Additionally, Pakistan had in 1963 gifted an area of 5,187 sq km of Pakistan-held Kashmir, abutting Ladakh, to China for building the Karakoram highway.

In overt collaboration with China against India, Pakistan made available its forward air force bases in Skardu and Gilgit in Gilgit-Baltistan to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). These airfields can enable Chinese warplanes to reach India far more quickly than from the PLAAF airbases at Hotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, and at Gonggar/Kongka Dzong, Hoping and Gargunsa in Tibet.

The two-pronged military threat from China and Pakistan has become an urgent issue for India. New Delhi’s response will ultimately determine its standing in the global community and its alliance positions. 

Sarosh Bana is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai, Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific Region, of Germany’s Naval Forces, and India Correspondent of Sydney-based cyber security journal, Asia Pacific Security Magazine

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