Howsoever unusual it may sound, Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for war even though the Covid-19 threat is not clearly over. Prabhash K Dutta specially for the India Today.
Xi Jinping, as quoted by state news agency Xinhua, said, “It is necessary to explore ways of training and preparing for war because epidemic control efforts have been normalised.”
“It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions,” said Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the week-long sitting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national parliament of China.
This follows a decision to increase the budget for the Chinese military by $178 billion — or 6.6 per cent — over last year’s allocation.
Xi Jinping’s direction to the Chinese military to be battle-ready has come at a time when tension is growing between India and China in Ladakh and Sikkim sectors, and also at the Lipulekh tri-junction with Nepal.
China is understood to have played a role in the recent assertion by Nepal over Lipulekh, Kalapani and Lipiyadhura areas of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand.
The situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh is tense. Indian and Chinese soldiers are locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball face-off in Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie.
The tension began on May 5, when around 250 soldiers from the Indian and Chinese sides engaged in a face-off. Over two days, some 100 soldiers from both sides received injuries.
Reports also suggested that the Chinese had “detained” some Indian soldiers for a few hours. The two sides agreed to disengage after a meeting between local commanders.
China has opposed Indian construction on its side of the LAC, calling it a violation of the agreement to maintain the status quo in the region till the boundary question is settled. China claims parts of Ladakh as its own territory. It occupied Aksai Chin during 1962 war and has refused to vacate it since.
China has been posturing aggressively since Ladakh was granted Union Territory status in 2019 following the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir.
India is undertaking road construction and infrastructure building activities in villages near the LAC as development work as well as to boost its strategic position. China has already built heavy infrastructure on the other side of LAC.
Currently, both sides are ramping up their presence in Ladakh in what looks like a replay of Doklam in 2017 at a tri-junction with Bhutan. Doklam had seen a message being sent following a meeting between Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the militaries of the two countries from their leadership to take all efforts to avoid confrontation.
In Sikkim, Chinese troops engaged in a physical brawl with Indian soldiers near the Naku La pass. This happened on May 9, four days after the face-off in Ladakh. Around 150 Chinese and Indian soldiers were engaged in the face-off, leaving 10 soldiers injured on both sides.
On the Lipulekh tri-junction, India is likely to step up its military presence to secure its interests in case China turns aggressive directly or by fronting Nepal. The ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) has been guarding the Kalapani and Lipulekh areas.
China has also protested two MPs from the ruling BJP sending congratulatory messages to Tsai Ing-wen, who recently won her second term as the president of Taiwan. China does not recognise Taiwan, emphasising on the One-China policy. Its stated goal is to unify Taiwan with China, even by force if necessary.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has chosen a pro-independence leader — Tsai — for the second consecutive time. Under Tsai, Taiwan has been focusing on strengthening its defence against suspected Chinese aggression.
To boost its military preparedness, Taiwan conducted an ambitious test-fire of a missile in the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak in April. The missile, when developed, can hit targets deep inside China.
Under Tsai, Taiwan has struck defence deals with the US, purchasing F-16 fighter jets worth $8 billion and also over $2 billion pact for missiles for its army and navy.
There have been reports that China is preparing to forcibly occupy Taiwanese islands in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims at its sovereign water territory. A simulation video released by China recently heightened the speculation that it is planning to seize Taiwanese islands. China has planned a massive naval drill in nearby sea waters in the coming months.
The US has been standing with Taiwan solidly. That flies in the face of the Chinese assertion that no country should engage diplomatically or militarily with the island nation. The US-China relation is at its lowest in the years under President Donald Trump.
Trump’s policies have led to an intense US-China trade war since 2018. The US’s refusal to acknowledge the Chinese claim of the South and East China Seas have prompted China to claim that it faces a security threat from the Trump regime.
The war of words over the Covid-19 outbreak has further aggravated the tension between the US and China. Trump has openly accused China of spreading the pandemic to whole world, and feels it should be held accountable. Trump went on to say he does not feel like talking to Xi Jinping, and even poking China over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
US air force bombers have conducted about 40 sorties over the South and East China Seas this year. They had run only about a dozen flights through 2019. The US navy has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation operations” four times already in the two seas, drawing an angry reaction from China.
China says it faces real security threats from countries engaging in unilateral action to challenge its sovereign interests. This is the same argument that China uses against both India and the US to justify its assertion on contested territorial claims.
Against this backdrop, Xi Jinping has left many guessing his real intention behind making public through a state-run news agency his message to the Chinese military to be combat-ready. Does China really want a war? If so, against whom? And, why in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic?