Thursday, June 25, 2020

Affray in Aksai Chin, all eyes on South Asia

The recent scuffles between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley along the border of Aksai Chin at the line of actual control, which have resulted in the first deaths since 1975, have been the subject of some interest in the Anglophone press. As usual, the best possible response to this seems to belong to Larison at The American Conservative, who rightly argues that the scuffle is none of our business and we’d do best to stay well clear of it. There have been a lot of far worse takes, most of which involve the kneejerk anti-Chinese sentiment which is currently en vogue on the American right, as well as some portions of the centre and centre-left.

The timeline of events seems to bear out the wisdom of Larison’s cautious approach. Not only does this spat have little to do with us. But it is also far from clear – despite the unthinking consensus among Anglophone mass media and the unverifiable assertions of the usual ‘intelligence’ – that this was an act of unilateral and unprovoked Chinese aggression. Dustups like these have been occurring regularly over the past few years, and much of them have to do with ‘infrastructure projects’ which are in fact logistical military concerns on either side. The disputed territories have in fact been matters of contention for decades.

The recent Indian revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, and administrative division of the territory into two separate provinces, also seems to have played a role here. This is a move that has appeared threatening to both Pakistan and China, and seems to have aligned Pakistan with China in an informal strategic formation against India.

It appears that the immediate spark for the recent escalation, though, had to do with the D-S-DBO road running north-south along the western side of the Galwan Valley, which is one of the strategic ICBR projects that India is using to shore up border defence.

What has been interesting to see is the response from India’s neighbours – in particular the plucky little dragon kingdom of Bhutan, which has traditionally been strongly aligned with Indian gæopolitics. As I noted before, even though Bhutan does not want to lose territory to China, there are more critical strategic considerations for them right now. Bhutan wants to preserve its diplomatic independence from India. And most importantly: they don’t want a war between India and China. And so, Bhutan’s response to the brawling between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Ladakh has been a water strike that critically affects tea and rice farmers in India’s Assam region. Gentle reader, if this strikes you as bearing a certain redolence to the plot of a Veit Helmer comedy, rest assured you aren’t the only one – though, granted, the stakes are indeed a trifle higher.

Intriguingly, Bhutan is not the only country which has begun using fresh water politics as a foreign policy tool. Nepal, too, has begun using its sources as leverage when dealing with India’s foreign policy, cutting off water to Bihar Province. It is not by any means an accident that Nepal’s government made this move the week after the standoff with China in the Galwan Valley – and Nepal’s partnership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative has actually given them a bit of a stiffer spine when it comes to asserting themselves vis-à-vis India.

And it’s not just in the Himalayan Plateau that this is happening. Bangladesh – also a signatory to the Belt and Road initiative on the maritime route – has recently signed a trade deal with China, and at that just four days after the Galwan standoff. This raised several eyebrows in India, it seems. Sri Lanka, too, has signed onto the ‘Maritime Road’ project initiated by Xi Jinping as part of the Belt and Road in 2013. Since then there has been a flurry of investment in Hambantota on the southern coast, where Chinese firms have been busily constructing transit and shipping infrastructure. And we can bet that Sri Lanka is keeping a close eye on the developments in Galwan, and that they are learning how much strategic leverage they have in the growing contention between India and China. As Dr Dayan Jayatilleka put it, writing for the Sri Lanka Financial Times:
In the new historical period that has just been inaugurated, Sri Lanka’s destiny will not be ultimately determined by the internal dynamics as decided upon by narrow nativists, petty autocrats and the local military machine—as their intrinsically circumscribed consciousness presumes—but by the global, continental and regional dynamics of Great Power rivalry and the alignment and role of Big/Pivotal/Emergent Powers within that Great Power rivalry.
The Belt and Road Initiative – that is to say, the attempts of China to rebuild the two southern routes of the traditional world system – is still something that small states like Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka need to be approaching with caution. Not for nothing is it connected with the term ‘debt trap politics’. Informal œconomic imperialism is certainly something to be wary of coming from China, though it’s necessary to understand that China still looks at its southern neighbours through the same lens as Wei Yuan did, in a defensive way. At the same time, Nepal and Sri Lanka both appear to be using their BRI involvement as part of a toolkit for asserting a certain degree of œconomic and gæopolitical independence for themselves, such that they are not aligned in a unipolar way with Indian strategic interests. The alignment of these new relations appears to be for the benefit of these small countries, when considered from a blunt realist perspective.

The new formation of two developing blocs of œconomic and gæopolitical partners, one over the old Silk Road and one over the old Maritime Route, is something to watch with interest. At present it appears that India’s strategic options are limited. To be blunt, Modi’s government hasn’t done itself many favours by antagonising both Pakistan and China at the same time over Kashmir, and the disputed territories on either side. And the fact that many of the small nations appear, for the moment, to be drifting into China’s gæopolitical ambit, is further reason to continue to observe carefully.

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