The China Question, Part 1, Risky maneuvers

There has recently been a bit of a kerfuffle in the Indian media regarding some exercises conducted by the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) over the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The common source for both stories is the People’s Daily Online, the official “news” outlet of the Chinese state controlled media. The headline loudly blares out:

PLA heavy fighters cruise with live ammunition over Himalayas

In the foreground we see what appear to be four Chinese fighter jets. In the background the Himalyan peaks are clearly visible.Shiver me timbers. War is upon us.

Or at least that’s what some Indian news outlets might have us believe. Its 2012, exactly 50 years since the last Chinese invasion of India in 1962. Perhaps there is some numerological significance of this fact.

Keep in mind, that China controls the Tibet plateau, which is bounded to the south by the Himalayan range, and having Chinese fighter jets flying over Tibetan airspace is hardly a provocation. Indian fighter jet flying over the northern plains at high altitude would also appear to be “over” the Himalayas. Nevertheless the photo and its caption are clearly intended to convey the strength and readiness of the PLAAF vis-a-vis India.

Meanwhile, the Indian armed forces are hardly asleep at the wheel. Preparations for countering a possible Chinese high-altitude cross-border offensive are under way.

In trying to understand recent Chinese military actions it is important to remember the internal situation in that country. China is not a democracy. It is ruled by a select handful of autocrats forming the Politburo and its associated organs which control the military, media and other such functions of state. There are no elections where the people get to choose their representatives on the Politburo. For the past fifty or more years, every ten years the top echelon of the Chinese power elite has undergone a change in a carefully choreographed political song and dance where the incoming set of leaders is chosen by consensus among the various factions within the Communist Party. As it so happens, this year happens to be such a transition year when the Hu Jintao is set to be replaced by Xi Jinping as the new General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and as the new President of China.

Now in a country with a large and restive population such as China’s, where the will of people is not given its due role in deciding who serves as their leaders, the ruling elite must go to great lengths to ensure that the people are kept pacified and “stable” at all times but especially during such leadership transitions. In a democracy, the people get to vent their anger and frustration at the ruling elite in the ballot box. In a non-democratic situation the people’s anger must be suitably channeled in some direction away from their unelected rulers.

History is witness that the best way to distract a restless population from directing its anger at the ruling establishment is by raising the specter of external threats. When the homeland is threatened by external enemies, the argument goes, it is unpatriotic for the population to question the manner and content of its leaders’ decision making. In a democratic society, with many interacting, moving and mutually opposing internal parts, the effect of such threats is tempered by the many other avenues available to the population to express its feelings. In an autocratic society, where the establishment tends to be a monolithic, homogenous entity, such propaganda is uniquely effective in keeping the peoples’ revolutionary tendencies in check. China is no exception in that regard.

Thus, as China undergoes its change in leadership it is not just India which is being made the bogeyman by the Chinese media. The same drama is being played out with Japan over the Senkaky/Diaoyu group of islands. Meanwhile China is undertaking large-scale military exercises in Sri Lanka with forces from Pakistan and Bangladesh also taking part, even as it comes dangerously close to the edge of conflict with its south-east asian neighbors over control of the resources of the South China Sea.

To sum, Indians and their news media need not get too worked up about Chinese military propaganda such as recent news about PLAAF maneuvers. It is true that China continues to rapidly build up its capabilities on India’s northern flank on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and on India’s southern and western flanks. However, it is also true that much of what comes of China in the form of official information, especially data regarding the true picture of its economy,  cannot be trusted.

The present situation between India and China is analogous to the US-Soviet standoff following World War II. In spite of the initial hysteria about the “red scare” in the United States in the 1950s, the USSR’s Sputnik triumph and their phenomenal farm production, the fears of being eclipsed by Soviet growth came to naught as the laws of economics caught up with the Soviet Union’s centralized, inefficient and corrupt economy. Similarly, at this juncture, India need not be shaken by an aggressive China.

At some point, sooner or later, India will have to face its own version of the Cuban missile crisis. Following Krushchev’s humiliating defeat in the Cuban crisis, the U.S.-Soviet equation began to tilt in America’s favor. When that moment comes it will be the ultimate test of India’s capacity of withstand foreign aggression in its neighborhood. Till then India must continue to keep watch on the dragon’s risky maneuvers even as it (India) moves towards rapidly strengthening its land, air and naval forces to counter China’s.

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