China’s assertion also reveals its fragility | Analysis
The obsession with nationalism, and its desire for respect even as it lacks substantive, strong allies, show insecurity
The clash between Chinese and Indian troops that resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers marked a new low in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship. While there have been many skirmishes on the border since the war in 1962, this was the first time since 1975 that there had been casualties. As is widely known, the clash took place in the Galwan River Valley in Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — a slight misnomer since the two governments fundamentally disagree not just on where the historic borders lie, but even on LAC itself. Indicating the seriousness of the nosedive in the bilateral relationship, the minister of external affairs, S Jaishankar, and China’s minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, scrambled to hold talks over the phone to try to cool down the situation, and this has been followed by other military and diplomatic talks.
The Galwan clash has been seen by many as yet another example of China’s rising belligerence. Indeed, in a recent article in the Foreign Affairs journal, Kurt Campbell and Mira Hooper argued that China’s “confidence” and willingness to “court… open hostility” is one in a long line of recent behaviours. China has enacted laws impinging on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, insisted on its claims in the South China Sea (SCS), stepped up its patrols of the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, increased violations of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), and harshly condemned western countries for calling its post-pandemic exported medical supplies substandard. While it is true that China’s behaviour on the world stage is beginning, under the powerful leadership of Xi Jinping, to be more active and assertive, in the rush to worry about a rising China and apply assertiveness as a singular label across all foreign policy issue areas, there has been less focus on the fragilities revealed by China’s behaviour.
To begin with, there are issues that matter more to China than others which pinpoint the government’s uneasy relationship with its public. The category of territories that China sees as historically integral, for example, is different from other territories. Accordingly, its behaviour is different. China has settled most of its territorial disputes with its neighbours — the ones it has failed to settle are those that it sees as vital to its goal of “national reunification” (guojia tongyi). This includes Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and, yes, Aksai Chin (which links Tibet and Xinjiang). There can be no backing down on these territories because they are linked to aggressive Chinese nationalism. Chinese nationalism is a problematic area for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — on one hand, it tries to control and direct it, but on the other, it is key in the absence of any other ideology (the word “communist” in its title being entirely redundant), to its domestic legitimacy and support. The CCP government, therefore, constantly worries about Chinese nationalism becoming anti-CCP nationalism, and assiduously protects its claims to these territories.
China is deeply insecure about its image and reputation on the world stage. This has been the case since at least the 1990s with the emergence of what has been called “China threat” theories after the events of Tiananmen. This has arguably intensified since the pandemic — China venting about the global backlash, and demanding praise, are examples of its insecurity not assertiveness.
Related to these, China not only does not have formal allies but it also does not have deep bilateral relationships with any heavy-hitting states or coalitions which it could lean on for vocal international support to defend it in a crisis. The United States (US) aside, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), Japan, South Korea, and Asean are all suspicious of China while its relationships in Africa have been dubbed “neocolonial”. Thus, when the border clash occurred, anti-China global sentiment, already heightened by the pandemic, was almost uniformly negative. US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, called China’s actions “disgraceful”. The Chinese government is aware of this fact, and has moved, for example, to rein in the social media posts of domestic nationalists making aggressive territorial claims, which could further damage its reputation.
Finally, China is not a monolithic government. While Xi Jinping is an extremely powerful leader, and has moved to sideline critics with a ruthlessness that has been compared to Mao, the Chinese State remains fragmented. Even its assertiveness is not monolithic — research shows that a strategy such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has no coherent central ideology, and it is left to individual provinces to improvise with flimsy central directions. This means that even with regard to border transgressions, it is difficult to say with certainty when directions have been centrally coordinated in advance as opposed to being the responses of local commanders or even senior army leaders.
There has not been a Nixonian moment in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship since 1962. In the absence of such a game-changing breakthrough, India needs to formulate a long-term strategy keeping these nuances about China’s behaviour in mind. Failure to do so will be costly.