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China appears to have miscalculated New Delhi’s response to its attempt to change the status quo at the tri-junction. It believed that a ‘weak’ New Delhi would back out of a confrontation
The best form of defence is attack, believed Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist. This probably explains the new diplomatic offensive undertaken by China which would like to convince the foreign diplomatic community in Beijing that India was in the wrong to ‘occupy Chinese territory’ in the southern tip of the Chumbi Valley.
According to a national English daily, officials of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had closed-door briefings, giving their version of the events to several foreign diplomats posted in Beijing. A diplomat from one of the P-5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) told the daily, “They have told our colleagues in Beijing that the Indian side has trespassed into Chinese territory and changed the status quo.”
In actual fact, the opposite happened. On June 30, the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi clarified that, in 2012, it had mutually been decided that status quo would be maintained in the disputed area: “The two Governments had in 2012 reached an agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points, is in violation of this understanding”, explained South Block’s statement, which asserted that it was essential that “all parties concerned display utmost restraint and abide by their respective bilateral understandings not to change the status quo unilaterally”.
This raises a serious question. Despite the noise emanating from Beijing, it does appear that, by starting a conflict which will take months or years to cool down, someone, somewhere, in China has serious blundered. Whether it is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the civilian leadership which miscalculated India’s resolve to militarily defend Bhutan, is irrelevant; but it has triggered a vicious circle (though India had a measured and mature response).
Nevertheless, it is a huge intelligence blunder on the part of Beijing which took India for granted. Of course, the deciders in Beijing had previous historical cases, particularly that of Tibet in the early 1950s, when India refused to defend ‘small insects being eaten by big insects’, as the 13th Dalai Lama termed an earlier Chinese invasion in 1910. This time, India did not hesitate to defend Bhutanese interests, especially in an area which is so strategic for New Delhi.
Could have the central Chinese leadership have taken such a risky gamble without a green signal from the ground — their representation in India? Though nothing will immediately change, in the months to come, we may see some heads rolling. Did the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi report that the ‘weak’ Indians would not react to the construction of a road? We may never know. But there is no doubt that the preparations for building a road in the disputed area started several months ago, if not earlier.
One issue which is usually not mentioned by commentators on the current stand-off is the tense situation in China, before the Communist Party’s 19th Congress, which will witness a significant change of guard. Could serious differences within the party have influenced the situation at the tri-junction Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan?
It is possible.
The case of Sun Zhengcai
Last Saturday, Sun Zhengcai, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, and a Xi Jinping heir-apparent, was removed from the scene. Sun was one of the top contenders for a seat in the Central Committee’s Standing Committee of the Politburo; serving as party boss of Chongqing megacity, Sun is apparently investigated by the anti-graft agency.
Quoting a source in Chongqing, The South China Morning Post wrote: “Sun Zhengcai, at 53, the youngest member of the party’s 25-strong Politburo, is suspected of serious violation of party discipline.”
After Sun lost his job, the Hong Kong newspaper commented: “The development could have a significant impact on the upcoming leadership reshuffle in the autumn... The internal briefing did not state whether he had been placed under official investigation.”
Sun was immediately replaced by Guizhou’s party chief, Chen Miner, a Xi Jinping protégé. Earlier in the day, on Saturday, a video footage on state-run CCTV showed Sun attending a high-level finance meeting in Beijing: Impermanence is the way of life in communist China.
The case of 1962
One can recall the deadly infighting during the first months of 1962. At a meeting known as the 7,000 Cadres’ Conference, in January 1962, President Lui Shaoqi stated: “…man-made disasters strike the whole country”. He was targeting Mao, who was sidelined for a few months. In the summer of 1962, Mao decided to stage a comeback against ‘Left adventurism’ and ‘capitalist roaders’.
One person stood up and supported Mao: This was Lin Biao, who had replaced Marshall Peng as Defence Minister. Lin, who would lead the attack on India a few months later, asserted: “The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct.” This new-found alliance between Mao and the PLA Chief was, no doubt, one of the most important factors in the 1962 conflict.
In September 1962, at the 10th Plenum of the party’s 8th Congress, Mao took back the fate of China into his hands, denouncing “the members of the bourgeoisie in the party ranks”. He even attacked his mild Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi, who were accused of trying to rehabilitate intellectuals and scientists: "The bourgeois spirit hangs over like a ghost over their heads.”
Nine years later, the heir-apparent, Lin Biao was ‘eliminated’ in mysterious circumstances in an air crash.
The present power struggle
There is no doubt that times have changed, and it is difficult to conceive today a full-fledged conflict between India and China, but the fact remains that the Chinese leadership tends to become irrational when there is an intense power struggle within the party.
Recently, when Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong, unprecedented security measures, including a last-minute decision of shifting hotels, was due to fierce in-fighting in the party, according to Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second best selling newspaper: “The threat to Xi’s safety is, for sure, not from Hong Kong demonstrators, the non-existent Hong Kong separatists, or the overseas extreme religious or separatist forces. Rather, it is from the communist party’s power struggle.” It was at the last minute that Beijing decided to change hotels, creating utter chaos for the media and the Hong Kong police. “This arrangement let the outside world realise that the communist party’s power struggle has come to the point of life or death for its leaders” commented Apple Daily.
Presuming that the tension on the border will continue till after the 19th Congress (when the winter will set over Dokala), it may become more and more difficult for China to extricate itself from its own rhetoric, which is not based on facts. In any case, this makes the situation dangerous. Incidentally, China will celebrate the 90th anniversary of the PLA on August 1; other crucial date.