“PLA is ready to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, deter US interference and Taiwan secessionist forces, and, if they go too far, reunify the island by force” -Global Times of 19 September 2020-
On 13 October 2020, while visiting Southern province Guangdong, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked his soldiers to put their mind and soul in preparing for war. While visiting Chaozhou city, Xijinping addressed the PLA Marine Corps and asked them to be absolutely loyal, absolutely pure and absolutely reliable. What was the need, one fails to understand? Was it lack of trust and confidence in the impending task of PLA ? Or was it a motivational talk?
Reports have appeared that China was concentrating troops in South Eastern province. Satellite images show that China was boosting Marine Corps and Rocket force bases in Fujian and Guangdong, respectively. Some indications are also available that China have replaced D-11 and D-15 Missiles with more accurate and long range D-17 Missiles.
All preparations indicate towards South Eastern provinces. Frantic visits of United States Foreign and Defence Secretaries to India for ‘Two plus Two Dialogue’ does provide the rationale when US presidential elections would be held in less than 20 days on 3 November 2020.
China was definitely preparing for war ? There are no doubts that weight of likely war was towards Taiwan. But it could well be a surprise package for India? War is imminent but where, when and why are the questions?
Is China going to engage India too? If not why is it tying down its forces opposite India? Xi Jinping’s China has simultaneously opened two fronts: one, on the East, against Taiwan and the other on the West, with India. It is an extension of Xi’s declared policy of ‘Fa fen, you Wei’ (FFYW).
It means to prove your worth with firm resolve. In other words, it entails to achieve one’s political and strategic objectives through aggressive projection of its real and demonstrable power. In doing so, it must flex its muscles.
Why has China chosen to open two fronts in two diametrical opposite directions? Well! There are different reasons. At the outset, it should be noted that Taiwan was the top priority of China because it fits into the overall context of the 'One China Policy'. Chinese action in Eastern Ladakh was a second priority, as would be brought out subsequently in this article.
Timing is important because of US presidential elections on November 03, 2020. Thereafter, there is an incubation period of two and a half months till 20 January 2021. China would like to exploit this period of presidential incubation.
"Is China going to engage India too? If not why is it tying down its forces opposite India? Xi Jinping’s China has simultaneously opened two fronts."
Let us see why Taiwan was a top priority? Taiwan, has an area of 36,197 square km with a population of around 24 million. It is currently an independent island state, though under the unofficial protective umbrella of the USA. However, in the 17th century, like Tibet, it was a part of the Qing Dynasty of China. It is this historical claim that China justifies its sovereignty over this island state.
Taiwan is a fairly rich country and it is the 15th largest economy of the world. Geographically it could serve as a strategic outpost for China in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s GDP in normal terms is $586 billion at nominal rate and $ 1.3 trillion in Price procurement Parity (PPP) terms.
The per capita income in terms of PPP is around $65,000/-. It is a leading producer of microchips, which are extensively used in all electronic gadgets, including 5G technology.
Until 1971 it was part of the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) but was replaced by China. Ironically, only 14 countries, out of almost 200, have diplomatic relations with it. All the same, it has a good armed forces, particularly Airforce and Missile force, to protect itself, therefore it is not going to be an easy task for China to forcibly occupy it.
China has been long desirous of integrating Taiwan with the mainland but the protective umbrella of the USA has been holding it back inebriated by its economic and military clout, Xi Jinping thinks that it can forcibly occupy Taiwan. An opportunity came Chinese way, in April- May 2020, due to mayhem unleashed by Covid-19, which had actually originated in Wuhan city of China.
This Pandemic has created panic everywhere and the whole world got preoccupied combating it. While the rest of the world was gripped by the pandemic, China had successfully come out of it. This presented a good opportunity to China, as USA and Europe, strong protectors of Taiwan’s independence, were neck deep into trouble by the pandemic man-slaughter.
Accordingly, China not only planned an operation to militarily take over Taiwan but also initiated a diversionary action against India to draw away USA attention from Taiwan. it was a ‘threat in being’ to India, as part of a deception plan. It seems diversionary action was the Phase One of ‘Operation Taiwan’.
But the USA did not buy the bait and, instead, dispatched two aircraft carriers, Nimitz and Ronald Reagan, to the South China Sea (SCS) to forestall any offensive plans China had. It, thus, punched a hole in Chinese Taiwan Option.
All the same, China considers it only a temporary set back. It is still hopeful of executing ‘Operation Taiwan’ during the three months period of November 2020 and January 2021. This is the time, when US administration would be in a limbo due to enforced ‘decision- paralysis’ period, post presidential elections and swearing in of the new incumbent. This is the primary reason as to why China has not stopped its planned exercises and live firing drills in the Taiwan strait?
It is manifestly apparent to note that Taiwan remains its top priority. Ladakh action was only a deception plan. Recent events in the Taiwan strait stand testimony to such Chinese intentions. It has been reported that over the first fortnight of September 2020, PLAF has intruded into Taiwan air space 37 times by crossing the ‘midline’ of Taiwan Strait .
China says it does not recognise ‘midline’ as Taiwan was part of China. Recently in the third week of September 2020, two aircraft carriers of China have conducted live firing drills in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS. The PLA Navy has also deployed mine sweepers for clearing the mines in the Taiwan Strait. China is even prepared to take on the USA, if it intervenes. Therefore, it is absolutely clear that China has not abandoned its plans for Taiwan but will wait for an opportune moment in November-December 2020.
This temporary setback has led to initiation of Plan B by China. It pertains to securing the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region of Pakistan which has its strategic importance for China. It was to engage the Indian army in a ‘No War ; No Peace’ scenario in Eastern Ladakh to disallow it to intervene in GB, while Pakistan goes for its integration as a fifth state of Pakistan.
Pakistan has announced that it would hold assembly elections on 15 November 2020. India has raised serious objections to this move. China and Pakistan are apprehensive of a military action by India. China wants to disallow this leverage to India.
This is where Eastern Ladakh comes into the picture. It is a known fact that China claims certain parts of Ladakh which it asserts as an integral part of Western Tibet. In this regard, there is a 1959-60 Claim line of China which roughly coincides with the present positions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). There are perceptible differences by both sides on the exact alignment in ground.
However, Indian stand has been to claim territory based on Johnson Line of 1865, which ran along Kunlun mountains and thus inclusive of Aksai Chin and such areas. Though there have been modifications to Johnson’s line in 1899 and 1913 by British Indian Government but independent India decided to go by Johnson’s line which was considered legitimate territory of J&K state when J&K acceded to India in 1947.
But the territorial claim is not the real reason of Chinese current action in Eastern Ladakh. It’s interest lay in the GB region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). The significance of GB for China is because of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is dubbed as the ‘New Silk Route’ of China for trade with the rest of the world .
"The Karakoram Highway passes through Gilgit Baltistan at Khunjerab pass. The glitch is that India has been laying its claim to Gilgit Baltistan, which threatens to jeopardies the Chine Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project."
The principal component of the CPEC is Karakoram Highway (KKH), which runs over a distance of 3000 Km from Kashgar in the Xinjiang province of China to Pakistan’s Warm water port of Gwadar in the Balochistan province. As on date 90% of China’s trade is through sea lanes of the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS) and it passes through Choke point at Malacca strait.
This is a distance of 12,000 Km. China has been looking for an alternative and a land route. KKH, as an alternative route, is therefore strategically important to China. It is hugely investing not only in KKH but also in the development of Gwadar Port.
KKH passes through GB at Khunjerab pass. The glitch is that India has been laying its claim to GB, which threatens to jeopardise the CPEC project. India has intensified its claim after abrogation of articles 370 and 35 A on 5 August 2019.
Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, had stated in the Lok Sabha that India would also seek not only POK, including GB, but also Aksai Chin, under Chinese control. If India takes away this territory m, it would not only affect KKH but also threaten G-219 , China’s Tibetan Highway from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet.
In doing so, China has been insisting upon Pakistan to amalgamate GB as 5th province of Pakistan by amending the constitution and probably settle for LC as IB, according to the secret Clause of Shimla Agreement. This is also the viewpoint of current National Security Advisor (NSA) of Pakistan, Mr Moeed Yousuf — a 39 year old Defence and Security analyst scholar from Harvard.
He is pushing forward the idea of LC as IB.. Pakistan media has revealed that Army Chief of Pakistan, General Q J Bajwa had a secret meeting in september 2020, with opposition leaders on this aspect. If so, It is going to be a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s Kashmir stand.
Notwithstanding this, both China and Pakistan, had become suspicious of Indian intentions after abrogation of Article 370. Therefore, they have decided to go ahead with making GB as the 5th province after assembly elections on 15 November 2020. India has raised serious objections and China expects that India might intervene militarily.
Therefore to checkmate India, it is keeping Indian army engaged in Eastern Ladakh to draw it away from GB. This is why China has been dilly dallying troops disengagement from Eastern Ladakh . It intends to keep India busy in Eastern Ladakh in the winters of 2020-21 to allow Pakistan adequate time to consolidate its position.
All said and done, China’s focus and priority remains Taiwan. It would not like to get involved in a major fight with India. Frankly speaking, it has already occupied its 1959 claim line. But India must keep a vigil and do not lower its guard. There is not going to be any de-induction of Chinese troops this winter.
(Col. Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into 3 Bihar. He is a battle-hardened veteran of the ’71 War & has served extensively in various counter insurgency environments across the country.
He is a renowned author, and a highly respected defence & national security expert and a regular contributor at the 'Fauji India' magazine, ‘Defence and Security Alert’ (DSA), the ‘Indian Defence Review’ (IDR) among others. You can reach him on Twitter: @RajeeKushwaha, Email ID: [email protected])
(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')