Is China on throes of Cultural Revolution 2.0? What will be political effects of an economic slowdown in China, and near-term pain propelled by strong headwinds? Does this shifting dynamic and internal discourse in China matter to India? With the Taliban regime in the saddle in Afghanistan, is Pakistan on proverbial pig’s back to refocus on J&K? Are there significant, palpable changes in the national security environment in India, or are these over-hyped? Many, many such questions create serious anxieties.

By Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.)

The Chinese government recently put in place strong pioneering regulations and curbs on many aspects of ideology and culture, like the entertainment industry to curb the influence of celebrities, suspension of blockbuster IPO Ant Group, fining of Alibaba, all to pursue common prosperity (gòngtóng fùyù), and bridge the yawning gap between the poor and the rich, the rural and urban areas, a kind of egalitarianism! In China there is property slump, energy crisis and weak consumer sentiment and attempts to make amends on the severe demographic pressures have yet to gain foothold. It is anticipated that China’s third quarter economic growth in could drop to as low as 4.9 per cent. The sacking of four vice ministers of public security, ostensibly for corruption over the last few years, shows internal anxieties. It is instructive that the recent one, Sun Lijun, was expelled under a raft of accusations from corruption, extremely inflated political ambitions, very poor political integrity, abandoning his post amid the COVID-19 outbreak, superstitious activities, selling official posts, displaying extreme greed, accepting large amounts of money and property and leading decadent lifestyle!

The strong economical regulatory measures indicate tough structural changes. Why then does President Xi Jinping look determined to press ahead, towards a seeming national course correction that could inevitably lead to near-term pain? The CCP has a critical run-up to the National Party Congress in Oct/ Nov 2022, in which President Xi Jinping will most certainly seek a third term as general secretary. China’s run-up to the quinquennial event will also entail shake up in the top echelons of Chinese politics – like Politburo and foreign policy establishment. To stay on for the unprecedented third term, President Xi Jinping has to ensure that the environment facilitates continuation. There can be multiple scenarios for China’s political, social, economic, foreign, security and geo-economic policies in the coming one year. This one year hence will be an era of proving, as also next term period of 2022-2027, to modulate the decision of NPC! Hence imperative it will be for Chinese hierarchy to ensure that there are no reverses in the next one year, or thereafter in the next five, that could rile CCP or enrage the might of people’s power.

As part of the above is evidently very “aggressive” foreign and security policies, by which China is ostensibly showing its ambitions and intentions against India and with other neighbours. In our neighbourhood, intensive investments planned under BRI apart; there is an assiduous attempt by China to take India’s neighbours under its wings or domain of strong influence. On 08/09 July 2021, China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve and China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center was officially launched in Chengdu and Chongqing respectively for Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In Bhutan, there have been reports previously of China having occupied 495 sq km of Bhutanese territory. Lately a new village, called Gyalaphug (Jieluobu in Chinese), south of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was established. The Sino-Bhutanese border dispute has traditionally involved 295 square miles of territory in Jakurlung and Pasamlung valleys in northern Bhutan and another 104 square miles in Western Bhutan that comprise the areas of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe. Inexplicably, Chinese had also announced claims over Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Trashigang district in June 2020! Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks and 10 expert group meetings in the past 37 years on the boundary dispute. The latest is Bhutan and China signing on 15 Oct 2021, a three-step roadmap “for expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations.” Though detailed modalities have yet to be publicised, the two sides will apparently have “more focussed and systematic discussions” on boundary dispute. A deep-thought Chinese plan seems in the offing!

In 01 July 2021 speech, President Xi clearly threatened that “no one should underestimate” the will of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Contextually hence China’s over 150 incursions over last few days of military aircraft to Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and well publicised amphibious landings exercise, have been displays of its joint combat capabilities and propaganda. At demonstration to Taiwan (and United States) were day and night capabilities, of PLA’s ability to quickly assemble assets from different units/ squadrons, testing of joint combat and communication capabilities, electronic warfare airplanes and signal jammers to disable enemy radar, missile guiding systems and wireless communication. China also upgraded its coast guard to quasi-military status on 01 Feb 2021, allowing it to fire at foreign ships in its waters, which has relevance on maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.

In context of India, China well understands the deep exposure and overdependence on its markets and manufacturing, with Indian firms engaged in sectors from automotive and home appliances, to pharmaceuticals and chemical industries. Case in point is Tata Motors with 80 percent of revenue from a subsidiary that has China as key market. India also imports over 63 percent of its total APIs (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) imports from China. The trade between India-China in 2021 is likely to cross $100 billion – attempts at reduction of which will be at tremendous costs and discomfort to Indian economy.

On matters of border dispute in Eastern Ladakh, whatever happened since April 2020 was nothing akin to any previous happenings (except the 1962 War). This is a game-changer in furtherance of the coinage “new era” by President Xi in the 19th People’s Congress of 2017. After impasse of 13th Round of Talks in October 2021 in Moldo, it is apparent that the incursions were so premeditated that there was “deep geo-political messaging” for India, by repeatedly threatening with military-economic strength and cautioning to distance from relationship with US. China, in acknowledgement of having risen, is now ready to take geo-strategic risks, even at the cost of geo-economics!

Western Theatre Command spokesperson, post the 13th Round of Moldo Talks, had referred to border dispute as sovereignty issue, raising new ante. Previously, the border disputes had been linked by President Xi to sovereignty, proclaiming that “no foreign country should expect us to trade away our core interests” or expect China “to swallow the bitter fruit” of encroachments upon its “sovereignty.” In 2018, he had told US Secretary of Defense James Mattis that China “cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.” In actuality, President Xi’s renewed emphasis on sovereignty is evident in China’s actions in its periphery. China has reclaimed large swaths of land atop reefs to build military bases in South China Sea while instituting patrols by its coast guard vessels within territorial waters of Japan in the East China Sea. CCP bases its concept of state sovereignty on selective and historically doctored territorial claims. The border issue hence is reaching an overarching level, essential for CCP’s monopoly for control and exercising power in the country!

The Chinese fraternal cousin, Pakistan, has acquired the status of a ‘soliciting state’, and a nation of gross contradictions! Pakistan has failed to satisfy the IMF on $1billion loan tranche, with differences of macroeconomic policies and good bill of economic health. Though the deal is critical for Pakistan, with the prospective 2023 elections in sight, unpopular measures proposed by IMF are not acceptable. Pak Rupee is at all time low of Rs172 against a dollar. The opposition parties have kick-started an anti-inflation campaign. And though PM Imran Khan had loudly proclaimed that Afghans have broken free from chains of slavery, it has yet not recognised Taliban regime. Even at entry gates, fruits and vegetables of Afghan growers are barred and forced to rot in trucks! And yet there is great glee that Taliban are at the helm! To add to it is the seeming controversy on appointment of Lt Gen Anjum as new ISI Chief between the Army Chief and the PM. Such ‘disobedience’ of the Army Chiefs, has been to detriment of elected Governments in Pakistan, historically!

While in this mired state, Pakistan has lately, unleashed and pumped a reign of terror in J&K, that aims at spreading the conflict South of Pir Panjal, further targeted ethnic cleansing, renewed infiltration attempts, supply of weapons and ammunition and drugs. Much of it is also being attempted with drones along the International border, through ports across the high seas or by commercial aircraft.
That brings the issues to a proactive and far-sighted response by India, as the challenges to national security are indeed grave. A six-point formulation is proffered:

The concepts and character of future wars are evolving, and China has moved by leaps and bounds ahead in military technology. However, the Chinese formulations of sovereignty, the intransigence in the 13th Round of Talks and the transgressions in Barahoti and Yangtse all indicate continued pressure on the LAC. Future wars may be fought in multiple technological domains, the territorial frontier in its super high altitude reaches, cannot be left under-defended. By its wont, the PLA, finding voids, will transgress at will. If Eastern Ladakh of 2020-2021 is a case in point, LAC must be held in such strength to deny any undue opportunities, while preparing technologically.

By the tone and tenor, Chinese spokespersons and official media have taken a tone of stridency, of arrogance. While we do not have to match the same in language, it may be prudent to accept that currently the Chinese regime does not seek ‘peace and tranquillity’ or to follow the past Agreements and Protocols. Our formulations must then be pragmatic and understanding of the realities.

The PLA/ PLAAF are making massive investments closer to LAC – Tibet and Xinjiang, in constructing military infrastructure at a fast pace. Deployment of ground-based air defence systems, development of new fortifications, heliports, road and rail infrastructure, new runways, hardened aircraft shelters, underground emplacements, habitat and support facilities indicate ominous preparations. There is need for remaining 24×7 abreast of the intelligence of these two provinces, and analysing/ enhancing capabilities.

The local population, like the Ladakhis staying closer to the LAC, have been totally supportive of Army’s efforts in war and peace. We need to change tack and approach the border management differently. A welcome step has been erection of Reliance Jio communication tower at Demchok. There is need to seriously reconsider grazing and nomad movement rights, tourists at villages with home-stays in proximity to LAC (like religious tourism to Kailash OP in Demchok), enhancement of porter rates, transformation to model village infrastructure and the like. Security concerns will continue for very long time and that must not be an excuse for placing undue restrictions.

On maritime frontier, the Chinese port-park-city (PPC) model is making deep inroads. These are coming up in Gwadar and Karachi PPCs ($3.5 billion investment), Hambantota Port and Free Zone and Colombo Port City in Sri Lanka, Kuantan Port and Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park, Kyaukpyu SEZ and deep-sea port in Myanmar, Dara Sakor international airport, deep-water seaport and industrial park in Cambodia, Djibouti-Doraleh Container Terminal and International Free Trade Zones. Park includes special economic and/or free trade zone and enables connectivity to global supply chains, with substantial presence of Chinese workers. These are very important hubs with intrinsic military value that require focussed monitoring, and inclusion in the planning processes.

Pakistan with its innate anti-Indian-ness will keep the control on the terrorism levels in J&K, and the supply chains that support it. At this juncture over-examination of Taliban-hordes, relieved from internal Afghanistan turmoil, marching on towards J&K, is uncalled for! While combating the terrorism, there is need to ensure technological planning to provide continuous eyes in the sky, terrorist communication monitoring/denial including social-media and dark web and denial of drone-delivered support along the international border.

In sum, the external environment with two adversaries, is characterised by refusal to abandon extreme positions and attitudes, is in fact becoming more virulent and as if in symphony and synchronized. Time hence for pro-active measures to locate and exploit the adversaries’ Achilles Heel(s)!

This article first appeared in and it belongs to them.