In 2022, China’s geopolitical aims and global ambitions are not a secret anymore. President Xi Jinping desires to make China the preponderant power in Asia and, eventually, the world. The Chinese Dream is closely associated with President Xi Jinping, having first sounded it in November 2012, shortly after he became leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Chinese Dream is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The prime question is how China is redeeming itself towards its past glory? What role will China take on the global stage?
Superpower status is China’s desired destination, and the run starts at China’s periphery – both land and maritime. With Chinese expansionism evident in the South and East China Seas, intrusions into Taiwan ADIZ and the infringements across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, it’s obviously creating regional primacy as a springboard to global power. China is also focusing on building a position of unassailable strength beyond Indo-Pacific to outflank the US alliance system. Further, it’s enhancing its global presence by developing economic, diplomatic, and political influence on a global scale. The defence spokesperson of CMC, Senior Colonel Wu Qian in a regular press conference on 27 January 2022 stated that China’s neither “coerces” nor is “coerced” by others! This view is open to serious contention, as it is apparent, China has resorted to political, economic and military coercion with regularity.
Events along China’s periphery have been unfolding over the last two decades which have been indicating that China is attempting to establish global influence by first establishing regional hegemony. As yet, it has not meant physically occupying neighbouring countries, except the potential threat to Taiwan. It, however, implies that China is making itself the dominant player in its territorial frontier and Indo Pacific, up to the first island chain (which runs from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines) and beyond. It’s uneasy about America’s alliances in the region and the increasing push to QUAD and AUKUS. As long as the US retains a strong military position along the first island chain, China suspects that regional powers – from India to Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan – will resist China’s rise. Put simply, China cannot be a true global power if it remains surrounded by inimical land territories, US allies and security partners, military bases, and other outposts of a hostile superpower.
China has hence been increasingly speaking of sovereignty issues. In early 2013, President Xi linked sovereignty with the accomplishment of his “China dream,” proclaiming that “no foreign country should expect us to trade away our core interests” or expect China “to swallow the bitter fruit” of encroachments on its “sovereignty. “In 2018, President Xi more pointedly told US Secretary of Defense James Mattis that China “cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors. “In practice, President Xi’s renewed emphasis on sovereignty is evident in China’s actions in its neighbourhood. The image of China that emerges is of an ambitious revanchist power – one determined to make China whole again by “reuniting” Taiwan with the mainland, turning the East and South China Seas into Chinese lakes, and grabbing regional primacy as a stepping-stone to global power.
Coming to the LAC, the last decade-plus has witnessed significant face-offs, some with fisticuffs, and stand-offs between the patrols of the PLA and Indian Army. Despite agreements being signed in regular periodicity, the situation at the LAC was gradually leading to some anxiety, though both sides were exercising abundant caution to deny any opportunity for escalation. Contextually, hence, two years ago, in May 2020, with the pandemic raging, China attempted expansionism with mechanised/ motorised divisions surreptitiously side-stepping from training areas to Aksai Chin, followed by multi sub-sectoral aggression in the Aksai Chin area of Eastern Ladakh. The fact of these moves were premeditated by PLA was obvious. Galwan Valley incident was a tactical issue, but it had strategic and, in fact, global ramifications. The incursions also clearly indicated coercion and intimidation being integral to Chinese methodology for realising geopolitical ambitions. The Chinese stance over the last two years convinced India that belligerence, revanchist and expansionist policies are ingrained in Chinese methodology, and the challenge emanating cannot be soft-pedalled!
A major consequence of the multiple rounds of talks at Chushul-Moldo has been the creation of patrolling moratoriums in disputed areas in Eastern Ladakh, which, willy-nilly created buffer zones and a Belt of Actual Control, in Aksai Chin. Though resolution at PP15 at Kurang Nallah (a tributary of Cheng Chenmo River) and CNN Junction off Demchok is yet under prolonged negotiation, PLA has assumed that Aksai Chin has a benign line with both sides maintaining lateral separation. This benign peace seems to benefit China/ PLA as it obviates the threat of routine fisticuffs at disputed portions of LAC. It also creates effective patrolling gaps and hence protects Aksai Chin along access routes, a situation that suits China in creating a safer border. Further, while negotiations would continue, demarcation and delineation are unlikely in near future.
Simultaneously there have also been very significant changes in the strategic arming of the Tibetan and Xinjiang geography. The strategic assets include underground silos, blast pens in airfields, missile sites, positioning of PLAAF aircraft, new road-rail structures, and attempts to change the demographics of border areas. These speedy and militarily focussed infrastructural upgrades cannot be without motivation and are all challenging the notions of peace on the border.
China is constructing the so-called moderately well-off border defence villages for over three years. They are also intended to create a buffer and serve as surveillance posts. A total of 628 model well-off border defence villages are under construction in 21 border counties along the Tibetan frontiers stretching from Ngari (Ali) district to Nyingchi (Linzhih), involving 62,160 households with a total rehabilitation of 240,000 people.
Dramatic changes are being brought about in the proximate regions of the Indo-China border and in Tibet and South Xinjiang Military District, which must be taken as a form of coercion and compellence. Upgradation work on G219 and G318 highways running parallel to India-China borders in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh is on. By 2021, Tibet had 1,18,000 km of the road network. Preliminary work has started on Hotan-Shigatse, Gyirong-Shigatse railway lines and Chengdu-Wuhan-Shanghai high-speed railway lines. The 14th Plan will witness Chengdu-Chongqing world-class airport cluster and 30 more civilian transport airports. Currently, Tibet and South Xinjiang have 12 airports operating/under construction. The 739km long oil pipeline from Golmund to Lhasa will have a new 1076km long parallel Snow Mountain Oil Dragon Pipeline with an increase in oil depots in Tibet to ten. China has already installed a central power grid connection across all 66 counties and eight districts in Tibet.
The obvious implication is that China has in the last three years negotiated a benign and relatively peaceful border by attempting to fixate the LAC creating buffer zones at Aksai Chin and by settling in population in newly constructed villages. It’s essential to state that though Aksai Chin may now be comparatively protected from patrol clashes, the military formations that had been side-stepped from Xinjiang to areas opposite Eastern Ladakh, have now seemingly firmed in. Hence, it may be assessed that with habitat and infrastructure ready, de-escalation does not seem to be on the cards. Accordingly, in one of the readout post WMCC talks by the Chinese, it stated the need to “further ease the situation in the border area and strive to switch from emergency response to normalized management and control. One can infer that where the forces exist today must be taken as firm dispositions, and normal border management control should start.
In sum, the Chinese plan at Eastern Ladakh was part of its much larger onward march towards the Great Rejuvenation and Global ambitions. China was not ready to allow its global ambitions to be impeded by regional peripheral territorial problems with no end in sight. China has hence found measures to temporarily close the issues of regional territorial periphery issues with India, without any give or take. Now China can focus on its major challenges on the maritime frontier, the pressures being brought in by the US and its alliances in the Indo-Pacific, and of course Taiwan!
A shallow disengagement has been willy-nilly achieved through a temporary moratorium on patrolling. Chinese, apparently do not contemplate de-escalation, though! The continuance of the current status retains geostrategic pressure on Indian Armed Forces! On the Indian side, despite the temporary moratorium on patrolling (or buffer zones), PLA’s presence of larger reserves in proximity and military infrastructure development, demands caution and vigil that comes naturally with the trust deficit between the two nations and their forces.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (Retd)