At the turn of 2020, no geopolitical soothsayer could have predicted the course of the next 18 months. The cumulated sprint of events of 2020 and four and a half months of 2021 have been simply catastrophic. On 31 Dec 2019, when China alerted WHO to several cases of unusual respiratory ailment in Wuhan, in the central Hubei province, there were no predictions that Covid19 will turn out to be so devastating. As the world progressed thick into combating the scourge, key decisions – right or wrong, timely or delayed – were arrived at by national Governments, as the anguish was felt within the national boundaries.
By Rakesh Sharma
The Chinese propaganda overworked to create a narrative designed to distance itself from questions of origins of the virus and the global public health catastrophe. India too had her share of the pandemic which after the first strict lock down of March 2020, had been in some measure brought in control by the turn of 2020. April 2021 brought a calamitous second wave of the pandemic that is still raging (in May 2021), now expanding to rural areas and Tier 2 and 3 towns.
Meanwhile new China, as a ‘Responsible (sic) Great Power’, showed muscularity, aggressiveness and determination to force its way in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020. The Dragon was vigourously seeking to establish Pax Sinica, and this was not an impetuous act! Four years ago, during the Nineteenth National Congress, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had already laid down two objectives for China, one, to be “…a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence’ and, two, “recover sovereignty over Chinese territories…” The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) got active during the pendency of the pandemic on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) exhibiting intransigence, muscle and offense with cunningness. The events of May, June 2020 (Galwan with 20 fatal casualties for Indian Army)) and consequent tense military stand-offs in Eastern Ladakh were indicators of a changing paradigm between India and China.
Though comparisons are odious, there were three different waves of Spanish flu pandemic of March 1918 that subsided by 2020. The pandemic peaked during the second wave, in the latter half of 1918. The third wave of illness, which occurred during the winter and spring of 1919, added greatly to the pandemic death toll. An estimated 1/3rd of the world’s population was infected with the 1918 flu virus – resulting in at least 50 million deaths worldwide. In India it was also referred to as the Bombay Influenza or the Bombay Fever. The outbreak most severely affected younger people in the age group of 20–40, and India bore a considerable burden of death – it lost 6% of its people. It is believed to have killed up to 17 – 18 million people in the country, the most among all countries, more than all the casualties in World War One.
The first four months of 2021 have been the most difficult National Security challenge for India since Independence. The current pandemic is challenging survival and well-being of peoples; it has become the primary national security threat. Learned scientists have warned of continuing and may be an accelerating pandemic, as also the likelihood of third wave later this year.
The serious situation on the borders with China continues unabated. In the current scenario case when India is stretched beyond compare, there is apparent stalemate post the Tenth Round of Talks at Chushul/ Moldo and the disengagement in Eastern Ladakh – North and South of Pangong Tso, and the heights astride Spanguur Gap. To say the least, there is severe trust deficit across the LAC, and though the Rules of Engagement had changed post Galwan, the forces on both sides have retained poise and there have been no casualties by firing. Though this of course does not guarantee continuation of peace, it is apparent that failing another aggression by PLA, the current status will persist.
This year, in 2021, China already had the Two Sessions, or Lianghui, meetings of two of China’s major political bodies – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) that bespoke of the long term ambitions. In the next nine months China has two very major events – the all-important Centenary Celebrations of the CCP in July 2021 and the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022. Though for the Olympics there are often calls for boycott based upon Human Rights issues, both events have immense geopolitical underpinnings for China, and its place in the world. In an era of heightened nationalism, in no way, China will permit a loss of face in conduct of these events.
India is in the throes of a two-front ‘war’ already – the continuing tense situation on the LAC and the raging pandemic. There is hence need for correct, timely and bold assessments and prognostications, and thereafter endeavour course-corrections. No nation will be able to successfully combat these two fronts simultaneously, and our energies must be to focus on how to disaggregate and contemplate. There is a fear that we have misunderstood China in the past, and there is a danger that we may continue to misunderstand China in the future. Thus, we need to comprehend the underpinnings of Chinese behaviour, for China might prefer to depict itself as status quoist responsible power that supports largely a benign relationship, it is however portraying revisionism to promote and shape an environment favourable to its geopolitical ambitions.
It is evident that the pandemic is devastating and greatly demoralising in the nation, and this must be our primary challenge. Hence, all efforts must be undertaken to back-burner the LAC imbroglio and focus all our energies in the pandemic’s way. Taking on from the solution of disengagement found in the Tenth Round of Talks, creating a buffer between two perceptions of LAC without diluting claims of both sides, a similar methodology could be followed in other problematic areas. Alternatively, a schedule based systemic of dominating respective claim lines could be created, to avoid clashes.
More importantly, it is necessary to approach the Chinese Government both diplomatically and militarily. The CCP, as is apparent through State controlled media, is intimately following the course of the pandemic in India, and the enormous stretch and anguish the nation is feeling. In case a solution is not forthcoming, at this juncture it may be prudent to freeze the situation on the LAC, and recommence negotiations once the pandemic as a malaise abates. It is necessary to impress upon China that India at this juncture requires the necessary space to focus totally towards amelioration of the suffering of her peoples and be prepared for even a worse third wave of the pandemic. We could also utilise the good offices of friendly countries who can exercise the influence with China. However, with trust deficit, the border situation must be kept under surveillance, and managed by the forces deployed and employed therein currently. Within existing resources, there must not be any opportunity given to turn the tables, and place us under embarrassment again.
On the Western Borders, the aftermath of 9/11 withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan and its likely fallout with Taliban gaining ascendancy, will have to be constantly analysed. However, our Western adversary is itself reeling under severe pressures on multiple fronts.
Contextually, hence, socio-economic priorities will far out-weigh other conflicting scenarios. Human security will be the focus, and in this Pandemic-PLA scenario, our undivided attention towards the former is imperative. Indian Armed Forces are instruments of national power, and have essential responsibility in national security, which has the welfare of our peoples as an imperative. While managing borders, the well-honed capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces must be directed towards supporting the nation and the peoples in every which way.
In the greatest test of our times it is essential to appreciate the challenges that face the country today and tomorrow. It is opportune time to live up to the expectations of the nation, which always places the armed forces on the highest pedestal and has implicit faith in. Rest of 2021 is the opportunity for Indian Armed Forces, on multiple fronts, but maximally on the Pandemic!
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.