The emerging view in the US is that PRC poses the greatest threat to democracy and freedom. It intends to dominate the US and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically. The view emerging from the EU through NATO is that the scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country’s trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions. In recent times, China shifted blame from itself to all others for the spread of the virus, sought public expressions of gratitude for aid rendered, suppressed democracy in Hong Kong by flouting international commitments, undertook aggression against India, and threatened to invade Taiwan. All this assertion resulted in negative sentiments about China which spiked to 86% in some countries.
For India, the current situation in eastern Ladakh is only the tip of the iceberg. Chinese support to the ‘nuclearised beggar’ Pakistan is unabashedly expanding. The Brahmaputra diversion plan is disastrous for India’s Northeast. Militants and extremist groups of the Northeast are sheltered in China. It has reignited the Doklam issue. It is hyper actively driving a wedge between India and Nepal. It wants an entry into the Bay of Bengal by actively destabilising and coercing Myanmar. As it strives to surpass the US as the undisputed numero uno, it suppresses India, its main competitor. It is now widely propagated and discussed that Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers—Nepal, Bhutan and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh- that China was also meant to ‘liberate’.
The common thread: China poses a great threat to almost everyone through economic, military and technological domination and territorial expansionism. This needs to be tackled.
In the early 20th century, China was busy fighting civil wars and taking disastrous ‘Great Leaps’ all round. It was totally internalised. In the latter half of the 20th century, China consolidated through internalisation. However it quarrelled with all its neighbours including India. In the last quarter of the 20th century, China reformed its economy and sharpened its politics to gain clout. However it still remained in the shadows, biding its time as per Deng Xiaoping’s ideas. China under Xi Jinping is now an ambitious, outward looking expansionist state. If this greedy expansionism is to be capped, China must be made to look inward as before. An inward looking China will get automatically contained. China cannot be made to look inwards economically or militarily. It must be done politically and diplomatically. Pakistan is a parallel for better understanding. Despite sporadic spikes in violence in Kashmir, the threat from Pakistan is far lesser than it was last year. Why? The political axe of Abrogation of Article 370 left Pakistan crying hoarse on the side lines. Further the ongoing PDM has taken Pakistan into uncharted territory. The internal political muddle reinforced by a weak economy, ensures Pakistan is less of a worldwide nuisance than before. Kinetic action would not have achieved this effect. Similarly, Xi Jinping and the CCP represent an ideology which must be handled politically. If China has to look inwards its politics, propaganda and PLA must be enmeshed in problems within. One has to politically and diplomatically target the five instabilities of China—Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjian, Mongolia and Hong Kong.
Taiwan: China wants to gobble up Taiwan to realise its ‘One China’ dream. Look back into history. Long after Chiang Kai Shek, the original Chinese nationalist, retreated to Taiwan (Republic of China) with Kuo Min Tang (KMT), it was known as the real China. If ever CCP becomes shaky, the democratic alternative has to come from Taiwan. Hence, Taiwan threatens PRC and CCP as nothing else. Taiwan is a fully democratic system with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in power and the KMT now in opposition. Keeping this island of democracy alive and strong at the Chinese doorstep largely contains China. Despite fundamental political differences, cross strait investment, businesses and economic ties are strong. Economics, commonality of culture and language provides Taiwan a conduit into China. Overall, expanding political connections and diplomatic relations with Taiwan force PRC and CCP to act irrationally. Presently only 14 countries have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and 57 have informal arrangements. This needs to be enlarged. More democracies must establish full relations with Taiwan. On its part, India definitely needs to enlarge the relationship. In a very implicitly explicit manner China needs to be conveyed that the ‘One China’ principle is under de-recognition. The moment ‘One China’ is not acceptable unconditionally, China will recalculate.
Xinjiang: Xinjiang or East Turkestan was never integral to China. Its autonomy waxed and waned as the Chinese power varied. The people are different and their culture is more Turkic. The region has been restive and unstable for long with sporadic eruptions of violence. Xinjiang is strategically important since it borders the CARs, Afghanistan and Pakistan with the CPEC running through it. Presently it is under the vice like grip of Chinese repression. The US government estimated the PRC has detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as some Uighur Christians, in specially built internment camps or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, psychological and physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. Strictly speaking, this area is ripe for a serious rebellion if it gets some outside support through its porous borders. The US has already imposed economic and visa-based sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Supply chains involving Xinjiang forced labour are being curtailed. There is scope to formally investigate Human rights and genocide related abuses in Xinjiang. It is time to stop talking and start acting.
Tibet: For long Tibet was considered as the weakest link of the Chinese firmament. However, Dalai Lama’s Middle Path approach, Indian recognition of Tibet as part of China in 2003 and other religious, socio cultural and economic issues have given China a relatively upper hand in the past few decades. China is now embarking on a massive program to solidify Tibet in the communist mould, tinker with Buddhism and replicate the Xinjiang model here. The Tibetan Government in exile in India and a change of strategic calculations could catapult Tibet into centre stage to bring China to heel. However, the US and India must take a conscious decision to do so. The US has already initiated action by appointing a special representative for Tibet. How that will be followed up will depend upon the incoming Biden administration. On India’s part the hesitation is twofold. Firstly there is apprehension that any meddling by India in Tibet will lead to China returning the favour in the North East, J&K, Bhutan and Nepal. However, China is already meddling in our affairs in these areas and beyond in our innards. The degree of nuisance can go up only by a notch. On the other hand the relative instability increase in China – spatially and temporally will be extensive. The second aspect is legal. There is an Indian opinion that raking up Tibet will tantamount to nullifying the 2003 agreement and it will lead to Sikkim not being recognised as a part of India by China. Well. For China, the 2003 agreement has no value like all other agreements. That explains the aggression in Eastern Ladakh. When we recognised Tibet as part of China there was no South Tibet claim. Their claim on Arunachal Pradesh started after that. In doing so, the 2003 agreement stands violated as it is. Also Mao’s palm and finger theory, which is actively propagated and discussed now (surely by the Chinese propaganda machinery) suggests that China wants Sikkim, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh one way or the other: The 2003 understanding be damned. Hence it is perfectly legal to rake up Tibet as not part of China. Once that step is taken, the rest will follow and options open up. The political decision is first. In my opinion it is inevitable. How to incrementally play it up and the methodologies to be adopted are a matter of detail.
Inner Mongolia: Restiveness in Inner Mongolia is a recent phenomenon. China is actively suppressing native languages and culture in ethnic Mongolian regions of China and trying to destroy Mongolian culture. Its new education policy envisages replacement of the Mongolian language with Mandarin as the medium of instruction in schools. Mongolian will be relegated to just a language subject. Huge protests erupted in Inner Mongolia against this with thousands of students and their parents undertaking a region-wide civil disobedience campaign. Heavy deployment of PLA was resorted to. This sentiment found resonance in Ulan Bator too. Secondly, Mongolians resist conscription and do not want to join the PLA. This view has not surfaced officially. It very clearly indicates that Mongolians and other minorities do not identify themselves as Chinese nationals at the core. So, is there a movement for a larger Mongolian region on the cards in future? Worth exploring.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong and democratic protests are publicised enough and well known. China has politically subverted democracy and usurped Hong Kong when the world was busy fighting the Wuhan Virus. Prising Hong Kong out of China’s grip is well-nigh impossible now. However, it can be made the symbol of Chinese oppression and a testimony of Chinese scant regard to an international rules based order. It will be very useful in Lawfare against China.
THE WAY FORWARD
International Action: While the instabilities are known, the question is how to keep China busy with these instabilities? First and foremost there has to be intent. The recognition that China is going to be an international nuisance has dawned. The intent to stop it from being so will have to crystallise and signalled. It has to be done collectively. USA, EU, India, UK, Japan and Australia will have to come together in some forum to execute the intent. Can Quad be the base for this? Worth considering. Secondly, all five instabilities are different and need a different approach but have to be tackled simultaneously in a sustained manner outside the UN fold. A subverted UN is incapable of any action against China. Then there is the old adage that a strength is often a weakness. Hence China’s economy will have to be leveraged and used against it. For example, despite China embarking on a Dual Circulation plan, its exports will have to be increasingly curtailed incrementally. Alternately imports from China need reduction on a time bound basis. Linking Chinese sourcing to these instability areas and blocking them will send a strong signal. The BRI must be turned into a bleeding white elephant. Overall, China must enter an overstretch. Next. It is now established that China will hereafter be perpetually short of two essentials—food and energy. Leverage them. There are methods to do so. Weaponise religion if push comes to shove. There are many other options which have been already discussed and many more will emerge.
Indian Response: Ideally, all actions to make China look inwards should be done on a collective basis since it is not within one country to handle all the issues. If collective international action is not contemplated India has two choices. Go alone or with the US. Why the US? India and the US have the maximum stake and ability in making China look inwards. If it is not possible with the US then be prepared to go alone. In all cases, India will have to seriously think on these issues and come out with a plan of its own sooner or later. In my opinion, sooner the better otherwise we will be only reactive. Also as we delay the issue and procrastinate, Pakistan and China will continue to ramp up the whole business collusively. It is in their common interest to sort out India. By itself India has terrific leverages in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. We need to have the political will to tread this path. Either way it will be forced on us. It is a matter of time.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on www.gunnersshot.com.