Sun, Aug 13, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Calling the Chinese bully’s bluff

By Brahma Chellaney

If a military conflict left China with so much as a bloodied nose, as happened in the same area in 1967, it could spell serious trouble for Xi at the congress.

Even without actual conflict, China stands to lose.

Its confrontational approach could drive India, Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state,” firmly into the camp of the US, China’s main global rival.

It could also undermine Beijing’s commercial interests in the world’s fastest-growing major economy, which sits astride China’s energy import lifeline.

Already, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj has tacitly warned of economic sanctions if China, which is running an annual trade surplus of nearly US$60 billion with India, continues to disturb peace at the border.

More broadly, as China has declared an unconditional Indian troop withdrawal to be a “prerequisite” for ending the standoff, India, facing recurrent Chinese incursions over the past decade, has insisted that border peace is a “prerequisite” for developing bilateral ties.

Against this background, the smartest move for Xi would be to attempt to secure India’s help in finding a face-saving compromise to end the crisis.

The longer the standoff lasts, the more likely it is to sully Xi’s carefully cultivated image as a powerful leader, and that of China as Asia’s hegemon, which would undermine popular support for the regime at home and severely weaken China’s influence over its neighbors.

Already, the standoff is offering important lessons to other Asian countries seeking to cope with China’s bullying.

For example, China has threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — which Taiwan also claims — forcing the Vietnamese government to stop drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China does not yet appear ready to change its approach.

Some experts have even predicted that it will soon move forward with a “small-scale military operation” to expel the Indian troops in its claimed territory.

However, such an attack is unlikely to do China any good, much less change the territorial “status quo” in the tri-border area.

It will certainly not make it possible for China to resume work on the road it wanted to build.

That dream most likely died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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