Hakka Noodles, anyone?

With two and a half adversories on its borders, the best option is to build on the prevailing international discontent with China, not act alone

derekIllustrated by Derek Monteiro

Is India in a Chinese soup? Defence experts seem to attribute recent incursions on the border to careless statements in India about reclaiming disputed territory and to creating new union territories. And that China wants to assert its force and might to proactively ward off any adventurist approach from India. If this is so, does India have non-military options to push back?

Banning  or curbing trade with China

International trade is roughly a third of China’s GDP. It is also 15% of world trade. US imports from China are a fifth of its global imports. India imports roughly $70 bill worth of goods from China, and exports only a fifth of that. So India’s import from China is only 3% of China’s overall exports, but is as much as 12% of its own. Vital to India’s economy is its crucial dependence on China in technology, telecom, pharmaceutical and automotive sectors. Even more insidious is its investments of nearly $10 bill, in the last 5- 7years, in the start-up technology sector. Clearly India’s attempt to curb business with China, if done hurriedly and thoughtlessly, may only end up in causing itself grievous injury.

China is no Iran, North Korea or Iraq,  that it can pushed over through sanctions or even restrictions. Nor have recent US led trade wars helped. Trade wars, while scoring local brownie points, almost never make long term economic sense. They invariably have harsh effects on consumer pockets and may even distort interest and exchange rates further. India’s ban on Chinese apps is symbolic, and with negligible harm to itself. While, it will do little to make a dent, with the help of some multilateral diplomacy on other fronts, its impact can be far reaching.

The Hong Kong Protests

HK for a while best represented the “One Country, Two Systems” way of governance. When UK ceded control over HK to China in 1997, there came into being the Hong Kong Basic Law, where the economic system of HK, its legislative system, its people’s rights and freedom would remain unchanged for 50 years until 2047. HK would remain a “Special Administrative Region”. In 2019, a controversial extradition law on HK residents resulted in mass protests, that led to the roll back of the law and victory for “pro-democracy forces”. A recent security law, that gives sweeping powers to police to arrest dissenters, is meeting with the same fury of protests. HK residents seek sanctity of the “two systems rule”, universal suffrage and HK’s special status. Moreover, they seek the citizen’s right to express peaceful dissent against a totalitarian regime. As a leading democracy, with historic trading ties with HK, India has grounds to support this cause diplomatically.

The Taiwan question

China believes that Taiwan (RoC) is a renegade part of China. Taiwan disagrees. Since its 1971 expulsion from the UN, it has forged influential relations with US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It is perceived to be a “generous but less manipulative”  donor of development capital to less privileged countries of Africa and Central America and has evolved into a vibrant, functioning  democracy. This is in contrast to the OBOR related fall outs in countries that are now unable to pay China back, and may end up losing control of strategic assets. Isn’t there merit for the global order to seek Taiwan’s re-entry to the UN?

The Uyghurs 

Xinjiang is the special administrative region that is now famous for the “re-education camps” – that some say are allegedly to reorient the Uyghur minority people of Muslim faith to the Han (majority ethnic group of China) way of living. To achieve social, cultural, religious homogeneity. To some, these may be pre-cursors of the way Nazi Germans dealt with Jews pre WW2. All these abuses are violations of the 1992 UN Minorities Declaration and there is a merit in dealing with them at a multilateral level. The issue should find support in the powerful Arab world, if it has US backing.

China and Regional disputes

China has territorial disputes with Vietnam in South China Sea over Paracel islands, with Philippines over the Scarborough Reef, with Malaysia over Spratly Islands, with Japan over Senkaku islands. There are also border disputes with North Korea and Russia, the former is an all weather friend, the latter is the hedge against US, and an ally in the UNSC. Japan and the ASEAN countries have strong alliances with US that cut across trade and security.

China cannot be isolated economically. The Quad alliance may be able to make these fault lines a fulcrum of  global and UN attention. China is losing friends due its alleged role in the current pandemic, that shows no signs of stopping. It may find its newly emerging image of a “global bully” a handicap, and just a means of elongating the Premier’s hold on the country at the expense of the country itself. Their ruling Party may want to relook at its options.

India must not do anything on its own. It cannot. It now faces two and a half adversaries on the border, who may act in concert to inflict wounds with surgical precision. Led by an opponent with asymmetric strengths. The experts, as they mull over the strategic options, will be further confounded by a conundrum “Does India have the moral high ground to highlight gross human rights abuses in another country anymore?”Given its recent track record on Kashmir, on crushing dissent, on normalising the use of regressive sedition and anti-terrorism laws, on the new citizenship laws, it would need to pause and reflect on whether  it can throw stones on others while it continues to live in a glass house. Countries like US when they take up your cause, almost always extract a high cost. It could be through disproportionate arms purchases or even having their security forces on your territory. Something that may make India look more like its North-Western neighbour! Is this local muscularity coming at a high international cost and could it risk the type of isolation we are hoping the world will impose on China?

(The author, a former alumnus of the Powai based IIT, Mumbai, he has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for decades and [according to himself] remains clueless about medicine)



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