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OP-ED: India and China in interesting times

  • Published at 09:34 pm September 17th, 2020
Ladakh Kashmir India
Is more trouble to come in the Ladakh region?

Beijing may be accustomed to getting its way, but 2020 is different

Much controversy this week, after an odd and conspicuously dubious Newsweek report claimed: “Another brutal purge is coming” in Beijing, because the “People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has unexpectedly flopped” in its Himalayan standoff with India.

Gordon Chang wrote: “Xi Jinping, already roiling the Communist Party with a ‘rectification’ campaign and mass persecution of foes, has risked his future with recent high-profile incursions into Indian-controlled territory.” 

About the first mortal combat between the two countries in almost 50 years, where India has admitted to losing 20 soldiers, Chang says: “China is thought to have suffered at least 43 deaths [but] the number of Chinese killed could exceed 60. Indian troops fought back ferociously. Beijing won’t admit the extent of the debacle.”

That pitched night-time battle on June 15 has been followed by jockeying for territory on both sides. This rattled China, says Chang, since “Beijing is accustomed to getting its way in disputed territory, especially because Indian leaders and soldiers, ‘psychologically paralyzed’ by their loss in the 1962 border war with China, played only defense.”

But 2020 is different: “For the first time in a half-century, India carried out an offensive against China, taking back high ground the Chinese recently grabbed … subsequent efforts to counter the Indian moves proved ineffective. At least for the moment, India’s troops, in the southernmost of the three areas of conflict, are in control of territory once in Chinese hands.”

Here, of course, one must consider the sources. Newsweek is no longer any kind of publication of repute. And Gordon Chang is an American neoconservative who has staked his career on predicting “The Coming Collapse of China,” which is the actual title of his 2001 book. 

There’s no doubt his needling does irritate the leadership of the nation of his (paternal) ancestors, however, because the entertaining -- often downright hilarious -- Chinese government’s English-language propaganda mouthpiece Global Times constantly attacks Chang. 

In May this year, for just one example, it called him “the doomsayer” with “preconceived biased notions” who only tries “to make a sensation of himself. Everyone knows he is far from a serious and respected scholar.”

There’s also the question of Chang’s own source for his claims, Cleo Paskal of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). 

Ms Paskal is a journalist, whose Wikipedia listing says she “specializes in the confluence of the ‘three geos’ (the geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geophysical),” and the FDD -- where she’s a fellow -- describes itself on its own home page as a “nonpartisan 501(c)(3) research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.” 

But there’s every indication the FDD is anything but “nonpartisan.” 

In an extensive report, The Nation (another American weekly) wrote that it is “funded by prominent American billionaires [and] has relentlessly pushed for a recklessly militaristic US policy against Iran and in the Middle East … That tax-exempt neoconservative outfits like the FDD continue to exercise outsized influence on US foreign policy is a scandal.”

More damning still, Ned Price, former special assistant to President Obama on national security, told the Responsible Statecraft blog that FDD “has put forward some of the most extreme and dangerous pro-regime change policies [and has also] planted one of its employees within the inner sanctum of administration policy-making. It’s the type of corruption and conflict of interest that can spell the loss of life and even the march to war.”

Why is an extremely hawkish, pro-Israel, dedicatedly anti-Iran, largely Middle East-focused American think-tank getting itself involved in the Ladakh border issue, and what compelled Newsweek to carry this story at this time? Is this all just pure misinformation?

To get his perspective, I turned to the straight-shooting Bharat Karnad, who is often described as “India’s foremost national security hawk” and constantly returns to focus on the India-China conflict in his highly engaging Security Wise blog (bharatkarnad.com).

Karnad told me: “I know Gordon Chang and consider him a good source on China. 16 Bihar Regiment did inflict casualties. It is this violent reaction that the PLA and Beijing did not anticipate nor prepared for, and led, it is said, to some trouble with families of the dead. This is reflected in the Chinese social media. So it is a failure only from the point of view of Beijing, being unable to contain the small swell of social discontent.”

What’s the bottom line? 

Karnad says: “If past is prelude, then the Indian government and armed services will remain clueless about China’s intentions and, because complacency will once again set in, the intelligence apparatus will repeat its by-now customary failure, the country will again be surprised, and military preparations will be non-existent other than for bare-bones kind of armed response. The minimum necessary capability to fight the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau -- two additional offensive mountain corps for a total of three such corps -- will be absent.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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