Indo-China conflict: A Renegade’s Reading

Indo-China conflict has a long history and many dimensions. The latest face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Ladakh border has roots in history

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Biswajit Roy
Biswajit Roy
is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

Can a student of history afford a sense of sadness, a subjective feeling over the past and its present spillovers? Knowing very well that counterfactual history hardly helps in understanding realpolitik at home as well as global geopolitics over resources and defense, the question still comes to my mind in the context of the latest Indo-China border clashes in Ladakh amid a global pandemic. The brutal mutual murders of uniformed youths of missile age with spiked clubs and iron rods, the weapons of iron age on the icy roof of the world reminds me how hollow are the claims of two neighboring ‘Civilizational States’ of Asia and two most populous countries of the world.

Going through the exchange of hatred in social media and mainstream media in India and Pakistan— hysteria over injured pride of the first and wanton glee of the latter over the humiliation of Hindustan as well as glimpses of cold but arrogant Chinese assertion of their arrival on the world scene as the superpower of 21st century – I won’t attempt a wistful requiem for the five thousand years of exchanges of knowledge and culture, trade and technology across the ancient Silk Route, frosty Himalayas and tumultuous waves of Indian ocean that Tagore, Iqbal and Nehru were so fascinated about. Tibet, which was the meeting ground of Buddha and Lao Zsu, Fa Hien and Shilbhadra, has become the bloody killing ground for their great-great grandchildren again. The hegemony of hard nosed national security strategists and military-industrial deep states in all three countries will never allow the popular discourse to widen their horizon beyond jingoist nationalism.

So it will be also preposterous to the children of post-nineties India to remind the Indo-Chinese mutual solidarity during our freedom struggles when they are clamoring for ‘Badla’ from our Mota Bhai on their cheap Chinese smart phones while missing TikTok. Same will be the likely responses of their Pakistani counterparts who are congratulating their proxy avengers on the same devices and the post- Tiananmen Chinese youth who have now lined up behind their ‘Xi Dada (Papa)’ to assert the centrality of the ancient ‘Middle Kingdom’ in today’s world. Nevertheless, I hope that the irony of our shared word ‘Dada’ across the misty mountains will not be lost on all of them.

It would be rather easy for me to address my generation of late fifties and sixties who were euphoric about the essential unity of Afro-Asian-Latin American liberation struggles against Western colonial and neo-colonial powers and our collective marches towards the dream lands of political and economic democracy by the name of mixed economy, new democracy and socialism. But it will be also risky for me to trace the trajectory of the current Indo-Chinese border clashes from the era of Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru and what went wrong, although I don’t intend to present a linear history to the days of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi as the difference is between the cheese and chalk.

On the other hand, neither Ashoka nor Akbar’s Indian armies ever tried to cross Kailash or Karakoram ranges while extending their realms to eastern Afghanistan close to Hindu Kush. Ladakh was conquered by the army of Jammu’s Dogra king Gulab Singh in 1834 before British forces dismembered the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and awarded Kashmir valley to the vassal of the Sikh ruler for his service to the colonial power in 1846. The Baltistan and Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu valleys further north, now under Pakistan were nominally parts of pre-1947 Jammu and Kashmir but effectively in British control. All these areas were the parts of the Himalayan geo-cultural landscape that created the mosaic of Greco-Persian, Buddhist, Islamic and Saivite Hindu practices.

What provokes me immediately is the hypocrisy of my fellow Liberal and Left milieu in India, mainly represented by the Congress and the likes of The Wire online portal. They know well that patriotism/nationalism has been the last refuge of all rascals/ scoundrels in the modern age and both Modi and Xi are far more adept in using that weapon for their respective political and personal purposes. Even then, they are trying to outsmart Modi and Sangh Parivar in their game by nitpicking over the perceived or real loss or gains of a few meters or kilometers of desolate land in the Tibetan plateau along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.

Neither country can afford a full-scale border war for political-economic reasons. But eventuality of another war or brinkmanship a la 1962 will be more disastrous for Indian Liberal-Lefts and resistance against global neo-cons and neo-Fascists Trump- Putin-Salvini-Orban in the West and Bolsonaro – Netanyahu as well as Xi and Modi in other parts of the world. Yet, the desire to score brownie points over Modi, the 56-inch chest-thumper, appears to be irresistible in the ranks of peaceniks. Outside the mainstream political parties, Liberal-Left and ultra-Left opinions are still largely divided between Nehruvian and Maoist legacies. But I think it’s time to call a spade a spade.

Chinese Indian indo-china conflict sino-india border china india stand-off face-off xi jinping Narendra modi Ladakh Himalayas
Courtesy: inventiva.co.in

Neo-liberal Resource Wars on the Himalayas

My readings of history and current affairs tend to accuse both Indian and Chinese expansionisms in Western and Eastern Himalayas at the cost of Buddhist people of greater Tibet including Ladakh and Aksai Chin and neighboring Muslim East Turkestan or Xinxiang Uighur region close to central Asia. Both were in the outlying areas of great ancient Indian and Chinese, Greco-Persian, Mongol as well as post-Columbus European empires. Heavily pregnant with water, oil, gas and mineral resources, both regions which were mostly annexed to China were only tenuous and temporary parts of earlier Chinese empires. People here are ethnically, linguistically and culturally different from the Han majority of mainland China.

On the other hand, neither Ashoka nor Akbar’s Indian armies ever tried to cross Kailash or Karakoram ranges while extending their realms to eastern Afghanistan close to Hindu Kush. Ladakh was conquered by the army of Jammu’s Dogra king Gulab Singh in 1834 before British forces dismembered the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and awarded Kashmir valley to the vassal of the Sikh ruler for his service to the colonial power in 1846. The Baltistan and Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu valleys further north, now under Pakistan were nominally parts of pre-1947 Jammu and Kashmir but effectively in British control. All these areas were the parts of the Himalayan geo-cultural landscape that created the mosaic of Greco-Persian, Buddhist, Islamic and Saivite Hindu practices.

The nomadic and tribal peoples of this veritable paradise on earth with snow-peaked mountains, pristine emerald lakes and blue rivers came under the political control of sub-continental, Chinese and central Asian mainlanders only intermittently, though religion and culture flowed through trade almost freely. Even modern-age British army and officialdom could not subdue them totally. But their strategic locations and natural resources have put them in the vortex of political and military avalanches by regional and global powers since the 19th century.

This is the main backdrop of Indo-US-UK-Australia-Japan axis for Asia-Pacific cooperation to contain China while Russia is aligned to China and EU major France and Germany playing cautious. Not only the major regional and global powers, many of China’s small neighbors in south-east Asia and around South China Sea as well as larger Pacific-Indian ocean regions are apprehensive as the new behemoth is flexing its economic and military muscles to control the onshore and offshore oil and gas reserves while aggressively pursuing its OBOR project. Independent studies have also revealed the huge flow of Chinese money as investments, loans and bribes from Sri Lanka to Solomon Islands, Gabon to Greenland.

The Partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947 and subsequent Indo-Pak and Indo-Chinese wars as well as proxy wars between India and China-Pakistan axis have only added to the woes of these Himalayan people. Warmongers in distant plain-land cities will never understand how the growing militarization has made daily life miserable for these frontier highlanders.

The recent Indo-China border clashes can be partly explained by the intensified resource war between India and China with a crucial role of Pakistan. The control over the Himalayan glaciers (including Siachen, contested between India and Pakistan) that give life to major rivers in China and south Asia across Tibet is crucial for all three contenders. Also Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have their legitimate worries. The construction of massive hydro-power projects in the Chinese side of the plateau to serve the water-starved mainland did not stop even during the peak period of Covid-19 Pandemic. Neither did the exploration of minerals, oil and gas reserves in Xinxiang which were crucial for gigantic Industrial- urban-military ‘development projects’ in other parts of the country.

Heavily militarized and repressed under Beijing, these two‘autonomous’ provinces of China, which are crucial for its energy security are also connected by Chinese-built highway runs through the Aksai Chin part of Ladakh which has long been contested between India and China. However, the ongoing extension of the massive Karakoram highway not only runs through Gilgit-Baltistan in the north contested by India and Pakistan but also pierces across Pakistani mainland all the way to Baluchistan in the west giving China access to the port of Gwadar on Arabian Sea. Officially known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, it has heightened the India-China resource and strategic contest. Earlier, Pakistan has acceded some of its mountainous but strategic territory to its ‘all-weather friend’ to contain their common enemy. India too has retaliated by helping Iran which has border disputes with Pakistan to develop Chabahar port on Gulf of Oman close to Pakistan’s Makran coast. Iran’s opening to the ocean will provide an alternative route of oil supply to the world and India as well as maritime trade linked to new railways and road projects in Iranian Sistan.

The Galwan river valley is also strategic both for India and Pakistan as the river joins Sheyok river to become a tributary of the mighty Sindhu river system that is also the lifeline of Ladakh. Farther north to Galwan, the volatile Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan runs through the area up to highly contested Siachen glacier and India’s highest airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi is located close to both the LOC and LAC. The region is not far off Karakoram highway, the main artery between Chinese Xinxiang and Pakistani seaports that runs through India-claimed Gilgit-Baltistan.

The latest flare up in the Himalayas apparently has been triggered by the Narendra Modi government’s decision to abrogate the constitutional special status of Jammu and Kashmir and its division into two Union Territories with Ladakh being centrally ruled more. Further, the new maps of two UTs have shown Pakistan-occupied parts of Kashmir in J&K while Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin in Ladakh that connect Chinese Tibet and Xinxiang. Both the UTs are resource-rich with Gold and other precious minerals as well as fossil fuels as they are parts of the larger Tibetan plateau. Both Pakistan and China have protested vehemently. Though India had never accepted the Pak claims on the POK and Chinese claims on Akshai Chin, the contest has been largely dormant, more diplomatic than military in the last few decades. But the advent of two ultra-nationalist regimes across the Himalayas which love to flex military muscles with Pak generals always ready to serve as mercenaries of greater powers hasled to bloodshed on the icy desert again.

The latest Flashpoint

The latest flashpoint, Galwan river valley is situated on the Karakoram pass that runs between China-held Akshai Chin and India-held Ladakh close to contested LAC. Both sides have constructed strategic roads, bridges, feeder roads as well as airstrips and fortified their forward posts for troop and artillery at places parallel to the undemarcated frontier on the dizzy heights. However, the inhospitable terrain is favorable to China since it occupies Tibetan flatland at his rearguard. The Chinese highway between Xinxiang and Tibet also runs through Aksai Chin.

The Galwan river valley is also strategic both for India and Pakistan as the river joins Sheyok river to become a tributary of the mighty Sindhu river system that is also the lifeline of Ladakh. Farther north to Galwan, the volatile Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan runs through the area up to highly contested Siachen glacier and India’s highest airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi is located close to both the LOC and LAC. The region is not far off Karakoram highway, the main artery between Chinese Xinxiang and Pakistani seaports that runs through India-claimed Gilgit-Baltistan.

The China-Pakistan axis wants to hold on to Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin in order to secure both the highways and adjoining areas crucial for their natural resource extractions, trade and military movements against India. If India gets closer to these areas, aggressively pursues its claim to both regions and succeeds in putting a wedge between China and Pakistan borders at the current tri-junction, the geo-strategic axis will be at great peril. At the same time, India fears that Ladakh and Kashmir will continue to be vulnerable to Chinese-Pak attacks and proxy wars unless New Delhi increases the pressures on the axis by bolstering its claims on Aksai Chin and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The power alignments over New Silk Route

India has become more alarmed as the Karakoram highway is a crucial part of the mammoth Chinese New Silk Road or One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. This project not only aims to connect Xinxiang to Europe through central and west Asia across the lands of 65 countries but also old and new ports across oceans in Asia, parts of Africa and Europe. China claims that this trans-continental complex land and sea connectivity project for global trade, unprecedented in human history, is the cornerstone of international cooperation in 21st century. But its regional rivals India and Japan as well as its global adversary and post-Cold War sole superpower USA and its Anglo-Saxon allies, UK and Australia perceived this project as the quintessential infrastructure for Chinese ambition for global hegemony, both economic and military. India has refused to join the OBOR project fearing it would tighten the Chinese noose around its neck.

Modi’s call for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is only aimed at strengthening the cause of Ambanis and Adanis, not those poor millions who have lost or risked their lives in their desperate journey to home during the lockdown. Nevertheless, smaller border clash, preferably with China’s proxy, Pakistan little later would have suited him better in view of the coming Bihar and Bengal polls at his bravado at Balakot had helped him in last May. He could have tried to be the spokesman for the smaller kids in the bloc against the new big brother on water and other resources and market issues had he not squandered the chance by playing a bully himself.

This is the main backdrop of Indo-US-UK-Australia-Japan axis for Asia-Pacific cooperation to contain China while Russia is aligned to China and EU major France and Germany playing cautious. Not only the major regional and global powers, many of China’s small neighbors in south-east Asia and around South China Sea as well as larger Pacific-Indian ocean regions are apprehensive as the new behemoth is flexing its economic and military muscles to control the onshore and offshore oil and gas reserves while aggressively pursuing its OBOR project. Independent studies have also revealed the huge flow of Chinese money as investments, loans and bribes from Sri Lanka to Solomon Islands, Gabon to Greenland.

World’s old hegemons are threatened by the awakened Dragon after centuries of its slumber. But I find nothing to rejoice about despite its call for a multi-polar world since it’s not aimed at fundamental and radical change in global labour and wealth division in favor of the toiling poor and marginal multitudes as Che had once dreamt of. Umpteen independent reports have pointed to the fact that today’s China is only interested in mere redrawing of neo-colonial power centers for markets and materials control at the cost of further destruction and plunder of natural resources, rape of environment and cheap labor in global South after testing its heady but highly toxic success at home.

The new elephant in the room is running amok through thousands of community economies and cultures, bulldozing them with its homemade economy of scale. Personal or clan fortunes of ruling elites of smaller nation-states are being stashed with Chinese money to ensure their backward bending at the max. Both stick and carrots are being used to tame the local doubters as the old powers had done earlier.

The timing of the escalation of border conflicts have suited Xi more as he has wanted to rally domestic opinion around him following criticism over the current pandemic and emerge as a strong leader without risking a major war. But our home-grown holy cows are no innocent victims of Chinese resource war and Jingoism but active players in the same game but in the rival team. Nevertheless, they are the parts of global neo-liberal template, locally represented by filthy rich billionaires and their wannabe clones in the middle class completely cut off from the millions of their compatriots at the bottom.

Modi’s call for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is only aimed at strengthening the cause of Ambanis and Adanis, not those poor millions who have lost or risked their lives in their desperate journey to home during the lockdown. Nevertheless, smaller border clash, preferably with China’s proxy, Pakistan little later would have suited him better in view of the coming Bihar and Bengal polls at his bravado at Balakot had helped him in last May. He could have tried to be the spokesman for the smaller kids in the bloc against the new big brother on water and other resources and market issues had he not squandered the chance by playing a bully himself.

But the problem is that our rulers, populist at exterior but elitist at corer, be they are of red and saffron, for that matter, tricolor and green hues are seeking legitimacy in the name of our civilizational continuity and national pride. These pretenders would have been less privileged today had the statesmen like Mao and Nehru not allowed the historical tragedies to happen in their times. I will deal with them in the next part.

Biswajit Roy
Biswajit Roy
is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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