To send a message, it is time to ban Chinese firms from India’s 5G trials

Updated on Aug 23, 2020 06:58 PM IST

China wants diplomatic normalcy, while being militarily aggressive. For India, that is entirely unacceptable

India-China relations cannot be business-as-usual. The ban on Chinese mobile phone apps, changes in the public procurement policies aimed at weeding out Chinese companies and an added level of scrutiny in India’s investment apparatus are welcome(REUTERS)
India-China relations cannot be business-as-usual. The ban on Chinese mobile phone apps, changes in the public procurement policies aimed at weeding out Chinese companies and an added level of scrutiny in India’s investment apparatus are welcome(REUTERS)
ByGautam Bambawale

It is now obvious that the moves by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh this summer were premeditated, planned and smoothly executed. This comes through when you consider the strength of the troops involved as well as the multiple locations where action has been seen. There were certain military objectives set out for PLA and at least some, if not all, of those have been achieved. In the process, China has violated many of the agreements with India on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the border. Having done so, China has indicated that it is neither going to vacate its military aggression nor restore the status quo ante. Several rounds of diplomatic as well as military negotiations aimed at de-escalating the situation in the western sector of the India-China border have proved this.

From the statements of Chinese diplomatic envoys as well as other interlocutors, with whom this writer has had the opportunity to interact virtually, China’s diplomatic game plan is also becoming apparent. Having accomplished much that it had planned militarily on the ground, China intends to make these positions permanent and amass the gains. Simultaneously, it will do all it can to ensure that the rest of the India-China relationship continues its normal course and that it is business-as-usual in economic relations, in people-to-people exchanges and in multilateral engagements. That is its game plan. Chinese diplomacy fully intends and hopes to reach this goal. If it is allowed to do so, it will truly be a win-win for China.

If China accomplishes this diplomatic objective vis-à-vis India, it will be able to show the world that India has accepted the new military realities on the ground in Ladakh. By extension, other countries should not worry about the implications of China’s moves on its border with India and about aggressive Chinese behaviour. It will also cement China’s pre-eminent position in the Asian pecking order.

Incidentally, this has also been China’s playbook in the South China Sea and has been pursued with finesse and success there. It is only now that the United States (US) is beginning to challenge such obviously unacceptable actions, even as countries in the region continue to be diplomatically bogged down with negotiating a code of conduct while China merrily continues with its armed military aggression.

A further implication for India if it were to quietly acquiesce in this Chinese game plan is that there will be nothing to stop PLA from repeating its actions later this year, or next year or the next. This will merely be in line with Chinese activities elsewhere. We must be clear-headed and practical to see through Beijing’s military-diplomatic manoeuvres.

Former Chinese ambassadors, retired PLA officers as well as international relations experts that I have had occasion to interact with, repeatedly stated that China does not view India as a strategic enemy. Hence, the argument goes, the rest of the India-China relationship should be normalised as soon as possible, particularly as this is the 70th anniversary year of the establishment of diplomatic ties. In response, when they were told that if this was indeed the case, then China should find it easy to restore the status quo ante in Ladakh, there was stony silence from them.

For all these reasons, it is of utmost importance for India to send a clear message to China, that we view PLA’s actions in Ladakh as a serious test for the relationship. The tactical inference that India has drawn is that China desires to unilaterally decide where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies. The strategic implication is that China is clearly exhibiting that it is the regional hegemon in Asia, that it can do as it pleases in its neighbourhood, and that the 21st century is not an Asian century but solely a Chinese century.

Through the military action in Ladakh, where the Indian Army fought bravely and heroically, New Delhi has conveyed that it does not accept any of these propositions and that it shall stand up to Chinese bullying. Now, New Delhi needs to ensure that China’s diplomatic playbook does not succeed. India-China relations cannot be business-as-usual. The ban on Chinese mobile phone apps, changes in public procurement policies aimed at weeding out Chinese companies, and an added level of scrutiny in India’s investment apparatus are all good first steps.

While China is worried, especially because India’s actions have had a snowballing effect, for example, in the ban on TikTok, it still appears that our message has not been heard loud and clear in Beijing. If peace cannot prevail in the India-China border areas, then the rest of the relationship cannot continue as before. India-China relations will be negatively impacted.

Therefore, New Delhi needs to reinforce this clear-cut position by taking some more steps and measures to amply clarify the revised Indian policy toward China. One of the loudest signals that we can send is to ban Chinese firms from India’s 5G trials and roll-out. New Delhi needs to announce this decision soon.

Gautam Bambawale is a former Indian ambassador to China and high commissioner to Pakistan. Currently, he is trustee, Pune International Centre
The views expressed are personal
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