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Ladakh standoff and China's Middle Kingdom Trap

Observers monitoring the tense standoff between India and China the world over, do not see the military build-up between the two nuclear powers in Ladakh in isolation.

In a cyber-connected globe, simmering tensions in the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges are echoing strongly in the South China Sea, the Taiwan straits — in fact, across vast swathes of the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific. The ripples driven by prospects of a massive conflict in Ladakh, can also be felt in other parts of the global system, including neighbouring South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, West Asia and Africa — the core of the Global South.

Across geographies, a strong undercurrent of opinion is building up that turbulence in several areas of the globe has been triggered by a single primary source — China, which has decided to embark upon a 360 degree muscle flexing exercise, especially after the Covid-19 outbreak.

Coupled with the adoption of in-your-face Wolf Warrior diplomacy, as well as the combative marshalling of Twitter and other social media platforms, China is attempting to steamroll any resistance to its narrative of international events. But Beijing's overkill and recourse to hard power on an industrial scale may be igniting a tectonic revolt along several land borders and oceanic fault lines. A long and complex frontline is fast emerging as passive resentment to Beijing's threats, ultimatums, and crude muscle flexing is mutating into plans for an active and coordinated riposte.

Around a month before its convoys drove through Tibet into Ladakh threatening the Darbuk Shyok Daulet Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road heading towards the Karakoram pass, the Chinese coast guard had sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel, in the SCS. Within 10 days of the April 3 event in the disputed Paracel islands, Beijing had redeployed Haiyang Dizhi 8 — the notorious geological survey ship, which, last year, had hounded international drilling in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by Vietnam. A few days later, China unilaterally announced that that it had stamped its administrative control over the Paracel and Spratly Islands of the SCS.

The proud Vietnamese have repeatedly protested, but with their exhortations falling on deaf ears, a plan-B, with an active military component also appears to be sprouting. That is where Vietnam is connecting with India, already facing off with China in Ladakh.

During the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vietnam had joined what has been called the Quad+ mechanism, partnering India, Japan, U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Israel. The formidable Quad+ constellation could now become a natural bridge for Vietnam to enter the Quad security core, built to deter Chinese military assertion in the Indo-Pacific.

<img class="alignnone wp-image-4896 size-full" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/india-china-talk.jpg" alt="China's state media propaganda will not win it a war with India" width="782" height="500" />

Vietnam's possible military recourse, especially in dialogue with India, United States and Japan, worries China deeply. It evokes memories of a historic feud, which has bruised the Chinese national psyche and ego. The depth of animosity between China and Vietnam, which have, as recently as 1979, fought a full-fledged war, glares from the woodwork of the History Museum in Ho Chi Minh city. The Diplomat magazine has reported that one of the posters at the museum emotively captures the defiant spirit of Vietnam's successful and enduring 1,000 years resistance to Chinese rule.

"After the defeat of King An Duong in the resistance against Trieu Da (179 B.C.), Vietnam was ruled, exploited and assimilated by Chinese feudal groups. During more than 1,000 years, Vietnamese people struggled firmly to preserve cultural tradition, national language, received and Vietnamized elements of Han culture; rose simultaneously in more than 100 rebellions against aggressors in order to get sovereignty with the first revolt of two Trung sisters (40-43 A.D.)," it notes.

China's muscle flexing from the Galwan valley to the South China Sea and elsewhere has reaffirmed that Beijing has moved firmly to its default position— of reviving the core of an imperial Middle Kingdom, assuming that even in the 21st century, Beijing can be surrounded by pacified tributary states.

Under the "Zhongguo" or Middle Kingdom imagination, Chinese imperial dynasties, had combined trade and commerce with ruthless military force, enabling them to forge a tributary system that intruded into parts of Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and throughout Southeast Asia, with the intent of consolidating the central heartland.

But the Middle Kingdom mentality, supreme in its sense of superiority, ailed from an inherent malady—Xenophobia. "Xenophobic contempt for foreign cultures became a standard part of China's long-conditioned response to the power of the (so called) Inner Asian barbarians," wrote John Fairbank in his famous July 1966 Foreign Affairs article, pithily titled "The People's Middle Kingdom."

Fairbank pointed out that utter contempt for outsiders brimmed when China quarreled with the United States soon after the 1949 revolution, and then in the sixties with the former Soviet Union. He nailed the Middle Kingdom mentality when he spotlighted that “…the vehemence of Peking's denunciations of the two outside worlds that now encircle the embattled People's Middle Kingdom (Jen-min Chung-kuo) seems more than 'ideological' in the usual sense of the term. Such impassioned scorn, such assertive righteousness, also echo the dynastic founders of ages past."

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's abrasive multi-front gambits appear to relay the rise of a resurgent Middle Kingdom mentality, where brazen projection of force is rapidly edging out the more traditional recourse to commerce and diplomacy as instruments for influence.

"It now seems evident that the Chinese president is essentially seeking to return China to the traditional position it has exercised in Asia through much of its long history as the dominant regional power, to which other countries must defer or pay tribute," observes Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times in an article in the LSE IDEAS special Report.

He adds: "When the process of reform and opening began in China in 1979, the country found itself in a historically unfamiliar and deeply humiliating situation… Under these circumstances, China was forced to adopt a historically unfamiliar posture of humility. Throughout the first years of the policy of reform and opening, which began in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, China made every effort to be friendly and co-operative with its booming capitalist neighbours."

In China's calculus of achieving complete regional dominance, India, a rising economy, whose geo-cultural heft collides, and often overwhelms, Chinese soft power on either side of the Malacca straits, presents a formidable obstacle.

"In the first half of the 21st century, our biggest opponent was the United States, but according to current trends, by the second half of the 21st century, our biggest opponent will definitely be India," acknowledges Xilu.com, a Chinese website, which is part of the media universe of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

China's excessive reliance on hard power, generated by its Middle Kingdom hubris, has removed Beijing's soft power shine. When tanks are being mobilised in Ladakh, boats are being smashed in the South China Sea, and nations are being threatened with starvation of water flowing across Asian borders out of the Tibetan highlands, how can President Xi's slogan of establishing a "community of shared future for mankind" inspire credibility?

In the resurgence of alienation driven by China across Eurasia and West Pacific, India, facing Chinese troops in Ladakh is firmly positioned on the frontline. But this frontline core can extend across two flanks—Eurasia with Russia and Central Asia as bridgeheads in the west, and to the West Pacific in the east. Given its geography, and doctrine of civilizational strategic autonomy, New Delhi is well aligned to cooperate with both Russia and the United States on either flanks encompassing China to push back Beijing's Middle Kingdom illusion.

Scratch the surface, and its "strategic partnership" with China on paper notwithstanding, Russia's anxiety over Beijing's geopolitical sweeps in Central Asia, traditionally Moscow's backyard, under Mr. Xi's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), overflows.

Russia, whose live memory of 1969 border war with China has not disappeared, has never formally endorsed the BRI. Instead, under the BRI cover, it has been hatching its own Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project, with the India partnered International North South Corridor as one of its leading spurs. Nevertheless, substantial heavy lifting on the Eurasian front would be required on account of the region's significant and yet-to-be decoupled structural linkages with China.

As tensions driven by China's Middle Kingdom mindset brew in Ladakh and the West Pacific, two US aircraft carrier groups are confronting China in the South China Sea. Japan, South Korea and Vietnam as part of the ASEAN core, as well as Australia, are also keeping a sharp vigil on China's next move, exploring developing possibilities of a coordinated response. With China facing a multi-front backlash, Australia is set to join India, US and Japan in the next edition of the Malabar naval exercises anchoring the Quad..