Modi noted that India and China were global economic powers during most of the last 2000 years and were returning to stage gradually. (Photo: MEA | Twitter) Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The recent clash between India and China in Ladakh highlighted that these two Asian giants are growing increasingly abrasive even in the midst of a global pandemic mainly because of the offstage presence of the USA. M A Niazi specially for the Pakistan Today.

The pandemic has constrained both countries. China is the Ground Zero for the pandemic, the place where it all began. And while it has managed to bring the initial outbreak under control, there has been at least one other outbreak, in Beijing itself, which means that the pandemic will have to be a consideration during any conflict. India is even worse off, for it has already exceeded the number of Chinese cases. It has nearly reached 1,000,000 cases, and is already behind only the USA and Brazil. It has had 20,000 deaths

There is the additional constraint that both are nuclear powers. This implies that any conflict between the two could escalate to the point where it crossed the nuclear threshold. It is perhaps not understood how important a restraint this is. It is the biggest difference between the present and the 1962 War. At that time, neither country had a nuclear weapon. That conflict certainly played an important role in making both countries obtain nuclear weapons, with China conducting its first nuclear test in 1964 and India in 1975. Not only is nuclear war a strict no-no, but China has twice recently taken the lead in keeping the peace between Pakistan and India. That it did because it agreed that the world could not have its peace risked by a nuclear war between the two. All the more less will it be able to resist any pleas that are made to preserve the peace. Also, it should not be forgotten that the Indian nuclear deterrent was made operational in 1998 to counter the Chinese capability. The powers that worked so frenetically to stop an Indo-Pak conflict will be that much more exercised about the possibility of a Sino-Indian conflict. True, both sides have a no-first-use policy, but how long such policies survive conventional reverses on the battlefield is not just anybody’s guess, but is academic. The Ladakh clash was an isolated incident, but it was the kind of reverse which could cause a panicked commander to have nuclear weapons used.

India is not let by rational calculators, but by saffron hotheads. Unfortunately, the lesson they learnt from last year’s war scare, fake surgical strikes and all, was that Pakistan-bashing gets votes. Only Bihar goes to the polls this year, but the BJP wants control of this state. The electoral calculus does not look good

Part of the problem is that both countries have political leaders out to make a point. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a leader with a difference, who sees himself as defining an era, not just forming part of a chain. One sign is that he has abolished the term limit for the Presidency, thus making it possible for him to remain in office for longer than the five years that has been standard between Deng Xiaoping and himself. One sign of his rule, which is more personal than collective as in the past, has been a new assertiveness about Chinese borders. That is reflected in the maritime disputes that China is developing with the USA in the South China Sea over the Spratly and the Senkaku\Diaoyu Islands north of Taiwan over which Japan claims sovereignty, in turn underwritten by the USA.

This is perhaps the nub of the US-China confrontation, for the essence of being a great power is power projection far beyond one’s land boundaries, such as the USA is carrying out. Another essential part of being a great power is having secure coasts, which China does not have, because the US Navy retains the ability to operate off its coast. China has a more practical issue that it wants to guarantee oil supplies from the Middle East. This is eerily reminiscent of the Japanese compulsion, before Pearl Harbor, of guaranteeing oil supplies, which the USA would not allow it to do, having imposed an oil embargo on it, with respect to oil it was importing from the Dutch East Indies, as Indonesia was then.

The USA and China are presently in the process of competing for leadership of the world. The USA is in the process of giving way, but it is not giving up without a fight. It has taken advantage of the collapse of the USSR to win over India, but this has caused its formerly ‘most-allied ally’, Pakistan, to be driven towards China.

The present situation is thus fraught with problems for Pakistan. There is apparently no choice between China, with which it has so many decades of friendship, and India. At the same time, it has to ask itself whether it wishes to say goodbye to the US alliance. Pakistan played a significant role in the initial US outreach to China, when Richard Nixon visited it. However, as that halcyon moment of Pakistan proving its worth was followed by 1971, and US acquiescence to the creation of Bangladesh, it seems that loyalty was not rewarded.

It should not be forgotten that Sino-Indian problems predate the Partition, and the 1962 War was caused by a boundary demarcation dispute that took place between the British Indian Empire and the Manchu Empire of China. The dispute was kept quiet when China became a Republic in 1911, when India gained Independence in 1947, and China became a People’s Republic in 1949. Initially, with India growing closer to the USSR (under the influence of the Fabian Socialist Jawaharlal Nehru), and Communist China a firm Soviet ally, the countries were friends enough for Nehru and Mao Zedong to co-found the Non-Aligned Movement at the 1955 Bandung Conference (along with Nkrumah of Ghana, Sukarno of Indonesia and Nasser of Egpyt).

However, an important factor was China’s increasing distance from the post-Stalinist USSR, with which India however, seemed comfortable, as symbolized in the exchange of visits between Nehru and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1955 (straddling Bandung). This meant that the USSR would not support China in its border problems with India, and it did not in 1962.

It should perhaps not be forgotten that that war allowed the USA to get friendly with India, because when it was faced with a horrible defeat in a war which had seen the Chinese get the better of the Indians, it was only the threat of US intervention that held the Chinese back. Again, it is US support that is behind Indian cockiness.

That cockiness is part of an Indian attitude. Pakistani policymakers do not want to have to choose between China and the USA, but they might have to. If taking the US side means being on India’s side, then the decision makers will perhaps be left with no option. That is not a good place to be. As the African proverb has it, when two elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled.

India is not led by rational calculators, but by saffron hotheads. Unfortunately, the lesson they learnt from last year’s war scare, fake surgical strikes and all, was that Pakistan-bashing gets votes. Only Bihar goes to the polls this year, but the BJP wants control of this state. The electoral calculus does not look good.

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