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Resetting India-China Relations – Dance of the Black Swans?

by Dr. Veena Ravikumar - 1 June, 2020, 12:00 685 Views 0 Comment

It is said that if facts of the virus were known, the world could have been better and it would have been 90 percent safe. Enough to say, that the Chinese leadership, because of their conference of the Communist Party in Wuhan, January 2020 kept it secret for two major reasons: they did not want the world to know; also the Chinese leadership at this time was not feeling and even now is not too secure. There was a lot of protest against the Communist Party President Xi Jinping in particular.

Giving the Chinese the benefit of doubt, they may not have really known the hugeness of the problem. This is being generous at best. Because of this, about 7 million Chinese fled Wuhan and the Hubei Province. One has to contend conflicting theories whether China used dictatorial means in the lockdown (every country now does) but far more horrendous and petrifying as sealing buildings or putting up barricades in an inhuman manner. China projects that it had contained the virus and now there are cases only of foreign imports. It is now getting back to near normal.

Two binaries make their way – firstly the idea that China was testing bioweapons of terrorism, not 20 kilometres from Wuhan; secondly, it was holding back itself till the trade deal with the US would be signed and in place.

Both are calculated measures because the latter did have an exit clause in the US-China trade deal i.e. if something like this occurs the US could not back off.

The lurking underlying aspect being that the US was being thoroughly compromised. How could the US have been completely unaware of this? An important question is that with in-built structures of national security like the FBI, the CIA and other agencies, how could the US be innocent of all this. This is very hard to fathom. But with the high number of deaths in the US, it cannot be accused of complicit relations with China.

With nations having no idea of lockdowns coming later it was but a matter of time that these nations in any kind of relations with China got the COVID-19 virus in a frightening way. The Italian fashion industry was closely linked to the sewing sweatshops in Wuhan. Two major conferences took place in February in Milan, one for textiles and the other for leather. COVID-19, deadlier than the SARS spread like wildfire. The last death count was 33,229 and Italy is still reeling under it.

Shanghai and Beijing were, in fact, closer and not allegedly that badly affected.

The fact remains that because of rampant air travel and delayed closing of borders all other countries got it. The US numbers hit a new high. The fact remains that in the US, New York has the highest body count, but again demographics show that it is the poorer, African American population most affected who did not have healthcare facilities in the first place. President Trump did not seem to care as there were more democratic states affected in the US, but now it is even affecting swing states. It has gained political momentum.

Mentioning India, the most populous nation after China with 1.2 billion people and a tremendous lockdown to contain the virus brought of course containment but also the important effects of it – hunger, unemployment, the stuck migrant workers who said they wanted to go to their respective states to reach their families and might even die of starvation but it would be better before the COVID-19 infects them. A sorry plight indeed. Having no soap or water for the mentioned sanitization nor clean toilets nor social distancing as they stayed close, many to a room it became terribly difficult to monitor their safety and health by the central and state governments. Kerala with one of the highest deaths was able to bring it down best with many measures in place.

In effect, India was fighting its own battles to get seriously into the post-COVID-19 pandemic world scenario. But maybe because of this India will have more of a chance, the main reason being that the rest of the world is anti-China pulling out its companies since China kept the spreading of the virus secret. Both Western and Southeast Asian nations have never been too close or fond of China because of its trade dominance and nuclearization. Currently, the US and the European nations are reacting violently towards it to the extent that President Trump has announced diktats against China.

Hence the global scenario in the post-COVID-19 world seems to show up a weekend United States unless they resolve their leadership issue going for a strong rational leader; a closed pax Europe; a weakened Middle East and a clustered South East Asia. India stands a good chance provided this crisis is dealt with and democratic norms are taken up again along with the lost diversity of people and culture.

India’s foreign policy could have been put on the back burner for a longer time except that among other nations China became an important nation begging attention.

In an urgent sense, the background of the Chinese role in the pandemic is necessary to understand China’s current aggressiveness. As the isolation of China took root with connivance with the World Health Organisation laid at its door, China seems to have become even more aggressive in its stance towards India, a sign of its own weakness clothed now in anger with the result that tension is building up between Indian and Chinese armies in several areas in Ladakh and North Sikkim along the undemarcated Sino-Indian border with both sides bringing in additional troops days after both were involved in violent skirmishes.

The areas are in sensitive locations like Demchok, Daulat Beg Oldie, and areas around the Galwan river as well as Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh it is said. Troops were deployed around these places where clashes took place with even iron rods and stone-pelting. In a separate incident, another face-off near Naku La pass in the Sikkim sector took place on 9 May 2020. It was said that ten soldiers from either side were injured. Both the Army and the Ministry of External Affairs were discreet and said they were committed to maintaining peace along the border with China.

Yet it is known that India has rushed troops as an answer to aggressive posturing in fact against distance safety norms in the true style of the current safety situation.

The Chinese bolstered their troops too. In the Aksai Chin area. This happened to also begin a row with Nepal over a road linking Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand. General Naravane, Indian Army Chief objected to this, fueling Nepal’s row with India with both claiming Kala Paani as their territory.

In 2017 India and China were engaged in a 73-day standoff in Dhoklum which portended even a nuclear war between the two nuclear powers. The India – China border dispute covers the 3,800-kilometer-long Line of Actual Control, the de facto boundary between the two. Moreover, China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of Southern Tibet while India contests it. Yet both nations agree that it is imperative to maintain peace and security in the border areas being responsible powers.

Two summit meetings were held to bring peace and give strategic guidance one in April 2018 in Wuhan after the Dhoklum incident; the second one was held in Mamallapuram, Chennai to strengthen communications among the respective militaries to further build trust and understanding and broadening bilateral ties.

So why this and why now? It goes back to the fact that China is blamed for the virus not being revealed to the world at large for the reasons already mentioned i.e.

1. China did not perceive the danger as really huge at that time;

2. Chinese leadership felt unstable and wanted to steady their position;

3. Chinese wanted to keep the trade deal with the US;

4. Chinese wanted to assert their superior position in world politics and for all these reasons and more it connived with the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and lost its own credibility and position which will be harder to regain under the present circumstances. Even its medical aid is looked at us askance.

The trust deficit even showed in its relations with India which was trying to have restrained and quiet diplomacy despite China’s doubtful position in the world, contrary to the thinking that China won the world war without firing a single shot. The major reason for the so-called standoff is that China wants to primarily assert itself again as a world power giving the US competition for its position. Also, the same motivation vis-à-vis regaining position with India and Line of Actual Control. Furthermore, China perceives the US as pushing it to the brink of a new cold war and India not giving it the position it deserves pandemic or not. This skirmish on the border whereby 3800 kilometres of land is already in question; the 1962 Sino-India war having taken place and the joint talks to resolve some of the issues taking place since 1988 does not seem to have assuaged any of China’s apprehensions, unfortunately. Moreover, the showing of its muscle power seems to reiterate its second position in world power politics or presumably even the first. This aggression seems to arm-twist India in not opposing its decisions during the pandemic that is to appear not to be in connivance with WHO and not have India voting with other nations to confront or oppose China.

In essence, China losing the world’s trust following its cover-up has shaken its own capability. Beijing failed to go public with the true scale of the pandemic hampering other nations’ ability to respond in time; it lost China the goodwill of the rest of the world. It also led to the insecurities of other nations and their path towards self-reliance as a way of economics in the future. In the case of America, Europe, and India. This may weaken China’s position even more. As Taleb had used the phrase “the black swan” as a metaphor to cope better with random mounting events. His arguments are in-depth and not random at all except for the fact that one should be able to preconceive the crisis which is what China seems to be doing. With India, as one of its closest neighbours China has made it fair game.

Getting away from this for a bit China’s and India’s competitiveness historically emerged from the establishment of the two nations. Both were newly independent, India in 1947 and China in 1949. Both had strong leadership, Nehru in India, Mao in China. Both nations had competing political systems – democracy in India, communism in China. And herein begins the tale of wresting Asian dominance.

2018 and 2019 Prime Minister Modi’s efforts at conviviality with Xi Jinping, China’s President in his visit to India gave tenuous indications of a gentle wave of good relations. It almost came to nought very quickly.

China has always considered Pakistan an all-weather ally. Arising from this, it is mostly suspicious of India’s intentions. The latest incidents in the upper reaches of the Himalayas shows this. It is China’s way of putting India in its place, waving its own flag of declaring hegemony in this region threatening India to travel beside China and very consciously trying to sabotage India’s friendly relations with the US.

Since international relations are a panorama of these involved nations, the motivation of different players needs to be emphasised. India must reset its priorities. It needs to restructure its foreign policy norms, have a friendly but firm menu to deal with important nations. There is no denying that under the Modi government India was aspiring to world leadership, and the pandemic is but one obstruction and economics the other. However, even the after-effects of this will be felt politically for a long time. India would need time to recover and in this regard, China has a comfortable lead. Already European nations are talking about the dawn of an Asian century. They definitely mean China. They are planning to have a strategy to deal with it, so should India. The dance between the elephant (India) and the dragon (China) must not turn into the dance of the black swans.

Dr. Veena Ravikumar
Dr. Veena Ravikumar
Author was a senior faculty member in the department of political science at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. She taught international relations, India’s foreign policy and comparative politics. She holds a PhD from JNU and a MA from Columbia University.

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