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Aggressive China tries to keep India in check

Border standoff has geopolitical ramifications mainly linked with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: May 29, 2020 03:58 AM GMT
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Aggressive China tries to keep India in check

A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the Chinese side of the ancient Nathu La border crossing in this file photo. Tensions on the border are running high. (Photo: AFP)

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The India-China standoff on their disputed border threatens to kill peace in the region, causing protracted geopolitical repercussions affecting millions of ordinary people.

Indian and Chinese soldiers have tried to stop each other’s movements since May 5 in the disputed border area, particularly in Ladakh, a Buddhist-majority area at high altitude on the foothills of the Himalayas.

The troop build-up escalated in recent weeks when the Chinese army reportedly brought in trucks with arms and ammunition and intruded on the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between the countries. Indian troops responded with similar mobilization, reports said.

The standoff hit international headlines as Asia's most massive armies stood eyeball to eyeball. It forced US President Donald Trump on May 27 to offer to negotiate.

"We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!" Trump tweeted.

Skirmishes on the India-China border, which stretches for a whopping 3,480 kilometers, are nothing new as much of it has been disputed and undemarcated ever since India was formed in 1947 from British India.

Why is this latest clash significant? It has wider geopolitical ramifications mainly linked with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the criticism China has faced over its handling of the virus, experts say.

New Delhi has been growing close to the United States. With the Covid-19 crisis affecting geopolitics and the global economy, Beijing fears India will attract investments from global corporations at the expense of China.

China's problems are truly complex. It is running out of money and patience over the US monopoly on trade and politics. World Health Organization (WHO) developments have shown it could be left isolated, licking its wounds.

The latest adventure comes as the World Health Assembly — the WHO's highest policy-making body — was about to take up a global resolution for a probe into the underlying reasons that led to the rise of the coronavirus pandemic.

India is among the 190 member states of the WHO. It has backed the resolution for an international investigation into the origin of the pandemic, which was first reported last December in China's Wuhan city. Besides India, those supporting the resolution include the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

"In all this, we count on China to play its full role, in line with its global weight and responsibilities," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

The Indian government has never officially blamed China for Covid-19. But among Indian leaders, federal minister Nitin Gadkari said in a television interview that the virus came out of a laboratory.

"This virus is not natural. It is an artificial virus," Gadkari said in a comment that was seen as a veiled attack on Beijing. Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, is a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the federal government.

While the international WHO move has piled the pressure on China, the other issue bothering Beijing is purely business.

India is trying to win over international companies who are moving out of China following the Covid-19 crisis. India is developing a land pool twice the size of Luxembourg to host companies leaving China, according to a Bloomberg report.

Officials said an area of 461,589 hectares had been identified across the country, including states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

Moreover, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has tightened investment rules for companies sharing a land border with India. The move is largely targeted at China.

China's domestic compulsions also guide some of its actions. In the 1970s, China faced severe domestic political turmoil in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Thus, according to security analysts, the Chinese leadership is not ruling out a similar revolt now despite the bravado.

China's foreign policy is guided by its policy towards India and Pakistan, and it would make absolute sense to say that Beijing is motivated by its strategic interests, not ideology.

Relations between China and India have been characterized by border disputes resulting in military conflict, including the Sino-Indian War of 1962 when India was humbled.

In early 2017, the countries clashed at the Doklam plateau along the disputed Sino-Bhutanese border. However, relations later improved, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping holding two informal summits at Wuhan in 2018 and near Chennai in 2019.

In 2008, China became India's largest trading partner, but in 2019 India walked away from the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement, largely because of the China factor.

For China, military strategies are a way to keep India in check.

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