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TALKING SHOP: Neighbours gone rogue

India faces an unprecedented and unrelenting melee at its borders — China, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal… The list is growing. Some of our friendly neighbours are suddenly and simultaneously flexing their muscles, and baring their fangs; write Rajeev Narayan & Jay Vikram Bakshi

TALKING SHOP: Neighbours gone rogue
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Let's talk defence, especially as India today fights off an unprecedented and seemingly-concerted melee at our borders — with China, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar. The list is growing. Some of our smaller and always-friendly neighbours are suddenly, simultaneously flexing their muscle and baring their fangs. Even our protectorates are. This has precipitated a strident response from India, especially as television and social media news channels pepper us with graphic images, incoherent and raucous reports of India's military might getting squeezed. And then we have numbing visuals of body bags heading to Indian homes and villages… After a long, long period of peace.

Our response? In more peaceful times, we entered into an agreement to purchase 36 Next-Generation Rafale fighter jets from France's Dassault Aerospace Limited for around US $8 billion (around Rs 60,000 crore) to prepare for the future. More recently, we stuttered and stammered to get 21 MiG 29 fighter jets and 12 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft from Russia for around US $800 million (around Rs 6,000 crore). The latest deal is the now-promised before-time delivery of five regiments of Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for US $5.43 billion (somewhat less than Rs 40,000 crore).

That's an over Rs 1-lakh-crore spend over the next year when we can ill-afford it. An economy in tatters, crores upon crores jobless, industry sector after sector dying a sudden death… And most of 135 crore people petrified of stepping out of their homes for anything but what is necessary for daily survival. Let's face it. Neither India nor anyone else, including China, is going to war anytime soon. This is no time for bravado or one-upmanship. Prepared we must be, but grounded we need to be.

Distract. And win

So we are readying our armoury. Right. We are getting power-boats for deployment on Pangong Tso in Ladakh, even as news of further Chinese détente in the Galwan Valley filters in. What has changed? Well, globally-cornered China, thanks to its global gift of perhaps the worst pandemic the world has seen, ever, is now striking back. In the only way it knows how. Ironically, China should be on the backfoot, appealing to and appeasing the powers that be. But nay. China is petulantly snarling. The dragon is spouting fire when it should be burnt out and spent. At least recalcitrant and apologetic.

History holds out a possible explanation. In ancient Afghanistan, a game called Buzkashi might show the way. The game, which somehow evolved into the gentleman's sport of polo (best exhibited by Sylvester Stallone in Rambo), is one of tactics and subterfuge. This ancient game, still played in the steppes of Herat in Afghanistan and in China, loved by the Caucasus and the tribals, involves warding off the competition and making off with the prize – typically the carcass of a goat. What Stallone did in the movie with the miserable, poor has-been goat is what India is up against today. A cruel mix of subterfuge and distraction. While the crowds and onlookers cheer and throw their Pakol and Chitrali caps in the air, Stallone makes off with the carcass.

China is trying to do the same. The real fight is elsewhere. Today, the focus is on Galwan Valley; Pangong Tso; Depsang Plains; PP-14, PP-15 and PP-16; Finger 4 through Finger 8. Each day, the momentum shifts. And while our soldiers get martyred and we cook our own meals and mop our floors in COVID-19-maybe homes, walk for kilometres and buy vegetables and daily essentials, some others ordering from Swiggy and Zomato (as do normal civilized citizenry), the Chinese machinery marches on, relentless.

PLA playing Buzkashi

Let's cut the history out and move on with the present. The Chinese People's Liberation Army is playing Buzkashi with territories and aggression all across its physical borders. With 18 countries, no less. EIGHTEEN!

Japan. Vietnam. India. Nepal. North Korea. The Philippines. Russia. Singapore. South Korea. Bhutan. Taiwan. Laos. Brunei. Tajikistan. Cambodia. Indonesia. Malaysia. Mongolia… Let's get the picture – there's something sinister and well-planned happening here.

In and near India, if Galwan Valley was a comeuppance, the next was the shifting of milestones to capture land in Nepal and Bhutan. Finally, Myanmar, which was forced to issue a demarche against China for arming separatist terror groups. The land-grabber is up to his old tricks. Fortunately, the world is rebounding, getting together and scratching its head and other sensitive body parts to figure out how to counter China, after pandering to them for decades for the cheap imports and glowing GDP-growth and slinking fiscal deficit numbers.

Lot more of Al Badr

Make no mistake, this is simply the beginning. Expect a lot more Al Badr-style funded attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. These shall be visibly initiated by Pakistan, but backed by China. And not to mention, the destabilising activities in all other spheres to distract from the total annexation of Hong Kong. So why is China suddenly playing this game and going rogue?

A great engine was fired up two decades back to become the factory of the world. It sustained by ultra-low prices which had no resemblance to any understandable cost equations. We all smiled and went on a buying spree. We picked up television sets, refrigerators, air-conditioners and air-purifiers for a pittance. Dust-bins, shower faucets, kitchenware and hand-run kitchen grinders and mincers. Life was good.

Shameful mirth

Two decades later, a dragon smarts and spews fire in our faces. Live without me if you can, it carps as it grins with sedulous mirth, entering country after country with no remorse and not a grimace. This is sinisterly similar to the valuation games Venture Capital funds played out to our Unicorns on the basis of monthly active users. Flip to today and examine the interchangeable value of people as per the ideals of the real China, where only subservient people can hope to exist. One day, you are a college professor. The next, you are a taxi cab driver if you are spared. A few weeks later, you may be tilling the fields. And all of this preceded by compulsory military service.

When a super-charged economy started unravelling post the trade negotiations between the United States and China, even the European Union lifted its otherwise stringent trade restrictions, as populations celebrated the availability of cheap diapers, electronic gizmos and household paraphernalia. A decade later, a hidden-for-months COVID-19 pandemic has ripped the heart out of the world and supply and distribution chains. It has also rendered redundant a massive part of the Chinese workforce engaged in making items of discretionary consumption.

What's next?

At some point, the inflection for which has already begun, the world will rewire itself and buy from the next lowest vendor if the products are better, which they presumably shall be; ones that come without the blood money associated with a repressive regime, unapologetic to the world since Tiananmen Square. Today, with a complete clampdown on Hong Kong, another generation is discovering the horrors of authoritarianism. Add to this suppressed regional identities, cultures and cuisines across the vast empire, including the occupied states of Tibet and Xinjiang in the North-West and Manchuria and parts of Mongolia, some tough new internal challenges emerge for the Dragon.

Where's basic decency?

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Ladakh last week, a resounding signal has been sent to the world that China, this time, has gone way too far and crossed acceptable limits. Similarly, portents emerging from Japan, Australia, Russia and Myanmar are significant, underscoring support for a multi-cultural multi-polar world order where global rules of human decency, focus on Climate Change and the uplift of the masses are the mainstay. In this milieu, a power-drunk expansionist trying to bully the world into subservience will simply put its own national fabric under immense, and irreparable, stress. But how do you preach to God?

India needs a flip-switch to this global manufacturing economy. We are already equipped for this. We need to help rewire the world and muscle ourselves to aid the suppressed identities of our neighbours, including the Han-ised Chinese state. We remain the IT backbone of the world. In today's global economy, if anyone wants to be part of the global agenda, sell and buy across the world, we need to open not just our borders but our locked brethren… Enable people to find individual fulfilment, instead of simply aping and following demonic state-driven design.

The writing is on the wall. Autocrats will only last so long. The post-COVID-19 world, as also its thankful survivors, shall not be forgiving. They would have learnt to live with the basics, as they do today. I, for one, shall change my refrigerator or air-conditioner two-five years later than normal, till I get a more humane option, rather than empowering those that started off cooling my cockles but ended up burning my innards.

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