As if a global pandemic and a severe economic recession weren’t enough, we now have a serious Indo-China border conflict in Ladakh too. Both sides had casualties for the first time in four decades. We lost 20 soldiers, which is heart-breaking and terrible.
Multiple sources say China started it all. They made an incursion from the current line of control into the Indian side. To break the precarious balance at the border seemed unnecessary. The loss of Indian lives is also unwarranted. As patriotic Indians, it fills us with rage. A full blown military retaliation may even be what the heart wants. After all, we seek accountability. We also want to send a message that this won’t be tolerated.
Yet, if we listen to our heads too (which we must here), we may realise that a violent retaliation may end up harming us a lot too. More anger isn’t more patriotism. Staying calm and thinking strategically through this situation could serve India much better.
To design a response, it’s important to assess the economic, military and diplomatic might of the two countries. Bravado and love for country is one thing, where India stacks up against China is quite another. China is five times bigger in GDP economy or in per capita income. This massive difference in wealth means they can outspend us. They can also absorb more pain from a war than we can. Pakistan, our regular adversary for instance, has a GDP only one-tenth the size of India. Obviously, the response has to be different in the two cases.
In terms of military, China and India have the second and third largest militaries in the world. China has around 50% more weaponry and manpower, and triple our military budget. At a localised border conflict, we could match up well. However, in terms of the entire defence force, they come out stronger. They pursued economic growth like crazy for the last four decades, and became rich and powerful. We didn’t. Maybe it’s a lesson for us to focus on what finally matters.
Diplomatically, China is currently going through a bad phase. Its image has taken a beating, especially in being seen as the origin country for the coronavirus and being silent about it for too long. China’s recent law to increase its control over Hong Kong is also seen by the West as going back on its word.
Despite China’s current diplomatic woes, the world’s dependence on China is immense. Diplomacy doesn’t work on hospitality or friendly rapport. Diplomacy works on leverage – who does what for who. China offers cheap and reliable factories for the world. India doesn’t (yet). China offers a huge market with high purchasing power. India offers a huge market too, but an average Indian’s purchasing power is one-fifth that of an average Chinese. Eventually, apart from some lip service in India’s favour, few countries will annoy China over some unheard of Galwan valley. The question then is, what should India do?
First, India shouldn’t escalate the military conflict. If we could have 45 years of peace before this event, we can strive for the same in future too. We need to talk to China, and offer something to get something in return. What could that be?
For this, it’s important to understand two aspects of Chinese culture. These are the concepts of face (miànzi) and mutual dependence (guanxi). After having spent over a decade living in that part of the world and dealing with Chinese companies, I can affirm these two concepts drive business and relationships there more than anything else.
Face refers to respect, honour and social standing. You can either ‘give face’ (give people respect and social honour) or make them ‘lose face’ (make them feel ashamed socially). Chinese people will do anything to ‘keep face’. They will feel compelled to retaliate if they ‘lose face’. When we fight with Pakistan we routinely insult, yell and make fun of each other – wearing emotions on sleeves. The Chinese, however, see a brazen public display of emotion as losing face.
However, if we can give the Chinese face (lost globally due to coronavirus), it could earn us something in return. If we stop insulting them, and treat them as an adversary but with respect, we will have a different outcome. We have Pakistan to vent our frustrations on. Don’t do that with China, at least at the government levels. Instead, we can get them face in the world (highlight their efforts post-pandemic to help other countries for instance). In return, we will get assurance of less border conflict. This may work much better than our unchecked aggression.
‘Guanxi’ is usually translated as ‘social connections’ or ‘relationships’. It’s simply, you scratch my back, I scratch yours (finds resonance in India too). What can we do for China? We can help their current image problems. We can occasionally take their side when the US bashes them, and not become too loyal to the US. We can make them feel less threatened about taking manufacturing away from them (many Indian manufacturing plants are Chinese JVs anyway). In return, we would want no trouble at the border – ever, and a public acknowledgement of that.
A non-military approach, which syncs better with Chinese culture will work far better in resolving our disputes with China. Let’s be less angry and more strategic here. Let’s give the Chinese some face and get peace in return.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.