Prem Shankar Jha

Going forward, it is essential that each side understand its opponent.

A Tragedy has Been Averted but the Danger for India and China Persists

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

A tragedy has been averted: Chinese troops that had entered the disputed  areas that lie between the Indian and Chinese definitions of the Line of Actual Control, have pulled back from three of them. Indian troops have done the same.

But the military build-up in their base areas outside the intermediate “grey” zone  continues.

If the talks between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi do not yield fruit, it  is certain to increase. The clouds of war have therefore only lifted: they have yet to disperse.

Galwan and Dhola – The similarity between 2020 and 1962

To appreciate how close we came to a war last month, we only need to  remind ourselves of how the 1962 war began. Officially, it began when the Chinese attacked Dhola post, not far from Tawang, in the eastern Himalayas on October 20, and ended with a China-declared unilateral truce on November 21. In reality, it began 10 days earlier and, like the conflict in the Galwan valley on June 15, it too started over a cartographic dispute.
How this dispute arose is described in detail in the still proscribed Henderson-Brooks Report of 1963, but can now be downloaded from the internet. In August 1962, Eastern Command informed Delhi that one of its patrols had reported that the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet marked on the McMahon line did not fall on the Himalayan watershed, as McMahon had intended it to do, but four miles south of it .

McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.
McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.

The Ministry of External Affairs took this up with the Chinese government, presumably suggesting a rectification, but Beijing did not agree. So in September, Delhi decided to correct it on its own, established the Dhola post at a point between the two locations, and manned it with  a platoon of soldiers. This post was immediately surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers with the obvious intention of starving the defenders out.

A stalemate ensued during which both sides sent more troops to the area. The first skirmish took place in early October and went the way of India. On October 10, therefore, Delhi asked the army to ‘evict the Chinese from the Thagla ridge’. What followed is history and need not detain us here.

The situation that developed at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley on June 15 is similar to the one that had developed at the Dhola post 58 years earlier. On June 15, it was only the stringent protocols designed to prevent armed conflict, put in place after the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region, that  prevented the savage hand-to-hand fighting  that took place  from tuning into a bloodbath. Had those protocols not been in place,  India and China may well have been in the middle of another fratricidal war today.

Who needs another war?

Neither country wants, needs, or indeed can afford, a war in the Himalayas now. So as talks at the diplomatic level begin, it has become imperative for civil society in both countries to  understand what brought us to the brink of war and how we can get back to a durable and mutually beneficial peace.

More specifically, we need to understand why the Chinese chose to occupy these particular stretches of the LAC; why the PLA stayed broadly within the limits of China’s definition of the LAC and, having gone so far, why it has now agreed to move back from three of them and thin down its presence in the other two.

Plains in Ladakh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The topography of the region answers the first question. The Depsang plains are the closest point on the Chinese LAC to Daulat Beg Oldi. DBO is situated on a finger of land west of the Karakoram range, at only 13 kilometres from the Karakoram Pass, and a little more than 200 kms from the  Khunjerab pass through which the Karakoram highway, which  links China to Pakistan now,  passes.

Till only two years ago, for all but a few months in summer, Daulat Beg Oldi was linked to  the rest of Ladakh only by air. But following the completion of a 450-metre bridge across the Shyok river, it is now linked by an all-weather road. DBO also has an airfield now that can take Antonov and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Finally, it is barely 120  kilometres – six minutes in a modern fighter plane – from G219, China’s strategic link road between Xinxiang and Tibet.

Pangong lake, at the other end of the road, is 134 kms long and G219 skirts its  eastern shore just as the road to DBO skirts its western edge. It therefore provides a swift route for moving large numbers of troops, artillery and armour from deep inside Tibet to places from which they can cut off the road to DBO within hours. Occupying the heights above finger 4, can give the PLA the capacity to interdict any Indian counter-attack on Chinese landing craft in the lake. A similar dominating position in the heights above the Galwan valley can  give the PLA a second choke point from which to target  the road from Ladakh to DBO.

Daulat Beg Oldi shown in the northernmost part of Ladakh (1988 CIA map).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

These are strategic deployments of the kind usually made in anticipation of war. So why, after having made them, did China take care to remain within its broad definition of the LAC and agree to talks? The only rational explanation is that its purpose was not to annex the land but to force the  Modi government into a dialogue to clear the misgivings and distrust that its abrupt change of foreign policy in 2014 had sown in Beijing’s mind.

This was underlined by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who has stated repeatedly since the confrontation began that China’s goal is to forge a strategic partnership, not rivalry with India. It was also echoed by the foreign office’s spokesperson  in Beijing: “The Indian side should not have (sic) strategic miscalculation on China. We hope it will work with China to uphold the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”

But what does China mean by ‘strategic miscalculation’ and  ‘strategic partnership’? In the second part of this article, we will examine this crucial dimension of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship against the backdrop of wider region and global security dynamics.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

Note: In an earlier version of this article, a zero was dropped while describing the distance from the Khunjerab Pass to Daulat Beg Oldi. The sentence should have read “little more than 200 km” and not “little more than 20 km”.

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If the two leaders succeed in taking a broad view of the bilateral relationship, the current border crisis can not only be transcended but turned into an opportunity.

LAC Tensions to Fester Till Modi, Xi Revive Prospects for India-China Strategic Cooperation
File photo of preparations made ahead of the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu in 2019. Photo: PTI

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

This is the concluding instalment of a two-part article on the continuing military standoff between India and China. The first part was published on July 23, 2020.

Beijing’s repeated use of the word ‘strategic’ is the key to understanding its military posture in Ladakh. In its view, India’s recent actions in the Asia-Pacific region had invalidated the underlying premise of India’s foreign policy upon which the 1993 and subsequent agreements with China had been based. This was that India would use  its ‘soft power’ to minimise conflict in Asia and the west Pacific, and create a multipolar, rule-guided, world order in opposition to the US goal of creating a unipolar world. This was also India’s stated goal then, and indeed throughout the Cold War. So this commitment was formalised by the creation of BRICS in 2009, and was made explicit in its Delhi declaration of 2012.

China’s misgivings began to grow when, within months of his coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacificwhich obliged its signatories to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; became a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US; sent a flotilla of warships to join a US-Japan task force in the South China Sea;  and began regularly hosting operation Malabar in the Bay of Bengal, one of whose war games is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 40% of China’s exports and close to 90% of its oil imports have to pass.

When India  also signed the Military Logistics Supply Agreements with the US and  Japan and began working on one with Australia, China could no longer ignore the fact that under Modi, India did not feel duty bound to abide by the tenets of  Panchsheel, which are reiterated in  the first paragraph of the 1993 Border Agreement.

Why China wants a strategic partnership

For China, this was hugely disturbing because, unlike Britain in the 19th and the US in the 20th century, its prosperity and growing  hegemonic power did not stem from its dominance of global manufacture but from its dominance of global trade. In some categories of consumer goods, China accounts for over 90% of US imports, and nearly 20% of the EU’s total imports – probably amounting to more than half of its consumer goods imports –  come from China.

But that is only one half of what accounts for China’s pivotal place in world trade. The other half is that  an increasing proportion of its exports  contain components and raw materials that China imports from other ASEAN countries, Australia and South America. This complex web of connections,  maintained by sea,  air and digital communication, can survive only in conditions of peace. War is therefore anathema for China, because it will itself be the first casualty.

Maintaining peace has, however, become more and more difficult as the US has become aware of the speed at which China is converting its growing economic power into hegemony, through investment of its foreign exchange surpluses in developing countries. This awareness had remained dormant in the US through the ‘roaring nineties’ and the ‘dotcom’ boom  of the early 2000s, but sprang to life after the financial crash of 2008 because China’s economy powered on, seemingly unaffected by the global crisis.

Within months of its onset, therefore, analysts had begun to credit China’s immense demand, especially for raw materials, for the early end of the recession that had set in after the crash, and to talk of the US and China as the  G-2.

US reaction – ‘Containment’

President Obama reacted to the implied threat to US hegemony with his ‘pivot to Asia’ in November 2011. Its purpose was to ‘contain’  China by strengthening its neighbours but it soon became apparent the strengthening being referred to was mostly military. As a result,  by 2016 China found itself  encircled by a large number of US military installations and bases stretching from Japan through Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, to Australia.

China was acutely aware of the destruction that that these could unleash upon it. It had seen how a single American warship, acting without any legal backing from the UN, had destroyed nearly all of Gaddafi’s air force and radar installations in Tripoli by unleashing more than 132 Tomahawk missiles in a single night.   It was also aware that the version of Tomahawk missile that is standard equipment on US warships has a range of nearly 1,600 kms. So the 12-mile exclusion limit for territorial waters enshrined in the UN-drafted Law of the Sea  no longer offers any protection against annihilation.

China responded by building an airport on the disputed Fiery Cross reef in the middle of the South China Sea with material dredged up from the ocean floor,  and  declaring the South China Sea a part of its core security area in which it wants prior notification of the passage of non-commercial craft. This has  ratcheted up the tension another notch. Since then, there have been annual confrontations between US-led task forces and Chinese naval vessels  in the South China sea.

If not defused, such military confrontations tip over sooner or later into war – cold or hot. To avoid this, China turned to BRICS, and particularly to India with its immense ‘soft power’ for support. In two momentous meetings, between Manmohan Singh and its new president, Xi Jinping, at Durban in 2013, and between Prime Minister Singh and Premier Li Keqiang in Delhi in 2013, China  sought to consolidate  a long term strategic partnership with India. To remove hurdles in the way, President Xi Jinping  offered ‘an early settlement’of the border dispute in the Himalayas.

Enter Narendra Modi

That was the point at which the UPA government fell, the BJP came to power, Modi turned two decades of patient bridge building with both China and Pakistan on its head, and made India a partner of the US in its  effort to ‘contain’ China.

Despite that huge setback, China did not give up on India. Instead it turned to its Belt Road Initiative to continue binding the two nations together. The  BRI had assumed supreme importance for China not only because it promised to provide a number of  escape hatches through which China could carry on its international trade in the remote contingency that its sea routes out of the South China Sea and through the  Malacca straits got blocked. But more immediately and urgently, the BRI became important because it offered a way to stave off the severe recession that was enveloping its  machine tools and other engineering industries after the fiscal stimulus programme it had launched in 2008-9  to fight the global recession came to an end in 2013.

The problem it faced was  exceptionally severe because the planned fiscal stimulus – with a budgeted investment of 4 trillion Yuan ($586 billion dollars) – ended up creating huge excess capacities in steel, power generation, roadbuilding and construction, and an even more crippling excess capacity  in the heavy machine building industries that produced the equipment these projects needed.

The resulting unemployment was largely hidden, because the Communist Party ensures that there is virtually no unorganised labour force in the county outside the fringes of agriculture.  So prolonged unemployment for the workforce is not an option for the government because it will cost the party its Mandate from Heaven. Xi Jinping therefore turned to the BRI, and to a  massive redirection of domestic investment into the western  and border regions, in its 13th Five Year Plan. Both programmes were therefore outcomes of domestic politico-economic concerns, and not of the inherent expansionism of “the Middle Kingdom” that western defence analysts keep harping upon.

How Modi cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face

India’s capacity to absorb new investment in infrastructure and make it yield quick returns is greater than that of the seven next largest  countries involved in the BRI put together. While the combined GDP  of these seven countries – Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Malaysia – was $2.1 trillion in 2015, India’s GDP was $2.256 trillion.

China had hoped that India, with its huge need to modernise its antiquated road, rail and ports infrastructure, would fill the order books of China’s basic and heavy engineering industries for a decade. Therefore, when Modi opted  out of the BRI in 2017, it was an even bigger blow than his sudden abandonment of equidistance in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, even that is not the end of the story. The reason Modi gave for refusing to send even a representative to the  inaugural conference in Beijing in 2017 was China’s refusal to formally recognise Gilgit as a part of India illegally occupied by Pakistan. This gave Beijing even greater cause for alarm because it showed that Modi would respect neither history nor the commitments of its  predecessors if it suited his whim or fancy. For, in its view, not only had the people of Gilgit nothing in common with the Kashmiris of the valley, but, since 1889, the area had been ’leased’ to the British to protect against foreign (i.e Russian) invasion.

In 1947, therefore, when the British terminated their lease and ‘returned’ Gilgit to Maharaja Hari Singh, a section of the local population revolted and declared itself for Pakistan. Gilgit therefore took no part in the Kashmir war, and the question of retaking it never arose in the meetings of the defence committee of the Indian cabinet in 1947 and 1948.

What is more, the Simla agreement of 1972 and the Delhi agreement of 2005 had both explicitly accepted the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as the de facto border between the two countries. The Modi government’s perversity therefore sowed the suspicion that it would feel few qualms about reneging from the 1993 agreement with China too, if that suited its purpose.

The effective abrogation of Article 370, the bringing of Ladakh directly under Delhi’s rule, and the near simultaneous publication of a new map of India that shows Ladakh and the whole of Aksai Chin as a Union Territory may have been the straw that tipped the scales in favour of sending a warning to India via the PLA.

Turn crisis into opportunity

The acid test of statecraft is the ability to turn crisis into opportunity. India and China can do this today in a manner that makes them both winners. The talks now going on will not serve their purpose, if they do not address the core anxieties of the two nations. Since the signal of growing disquiet has come from China, it is India that needs to take the lead in doing this.

The most important reassurance China needs is that the Modi government’s frequent claims to Gilgit and PoK are nothing more than theatre  for its domestic audience –  full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. This is supremely important for China because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Gilgit, envisages an investment of $68 billion, which will  not only be the largest component of the BRI by far, but also China’s  most important escape hatch for continuing its trade and ensuring its supply  of oil,  should some future western coalition decide to blockade the seaways out of the South China sea.

A second way to reassure Beijing would be to lift the various bans on Chinese apps, the import of Chinese goods, the banning of  Chinese investment, and the termination of ongoing contracts that PM Modi has decreed since June 19. Since trade with India accounts for only 2.4% of China’s exports, but 14% of India’s imports, this is hurting India more than China. But the far more dangerous message that Prime Minister Modi has unwittingly sent is that since he feels no obligation to respect minor international economic commitments, it would be folly to expect him to uphold major political ones. If that impression is allowed to sink in, then for Beijing force will remain the only alternative.

The least politically sensitive way to repair relations would be for India to join  the Belt Road Initiative. Estimates of how much money China has pledged for the BRI vary. According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, China has so far committed $200 billionto projects in 60 countries. But its experience has been mixed. Since China is offering finance in the form of low interest loans and not grants, many smaller countries have over-leveraged their projects and been forced to sell off equity in them to China when demand projections have turned out to be too rosy and they have been  unable to service their debt.  In sensitive projects like the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, this has looked far too much like an engineered take-over of a strategic asset, and has made several  countries shy away from projects in which they had initially welcomed Chinese financing.

China has been trying to persuade India to join the BRI since well before its inauguration, because India has the financial reserves and markets that can ensure a more balanced funding of projects, and the deep, unsatisfied demand that  guarantees immediate returns on investment. By not doing so, Prime Minister Modi has only cut India’s nose to spite China’s face. This would be a good time to correct that error. Revisiting the BRI in the discussions being held now would therefore be the surest way of cementing peace in the Himalayas.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

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Based on the current trend line of active cases, the growth may be slowing but India will hit its peak only when daily recoveries outpace new cases. There are signs this may be happening in Delhi, which is why other metros need to pay attention to its strategy.

How Long Will the Pandemic Last? Rate of Growth of Active Cases Holds Key.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Just over a  week ago, Prime Minister Modi asked his ministers to prepare “emergency plans” to deal with the spike in COVID cases in the five most severely affected states of the country. If one is looking for an admission from the government that its lockdown had failed, then this is it: instead of taking 21 days, Modi’s Mahabharata has lasted over 100 days. And the battle is only growing more intense by the day.

So how long will it last? How long before the case count reaches its peak and starts to decline? After how many deaths? If anyone in the government has an idea, she or he has kept it a deep secret. Mercifully, we have enough data now to make a reasonable estimate by ourselves. The news is not all that good, but the data on the rate of growth of active cases (i.e. total cases minus those who have recovered)  is sufficiently reassuring to make panic unnecessary. While across India, daily new cases are outpacing daily recoveries, the picture in Delhi is somewhat reassuring and could serve as a guide for what needs to be done if the duration of the pandemic is to be shortened.

The following table gives data, from  May 15 till July 6, for the total number of cases, the number of patients who have recovered, and the number of patients under active care.

May 15 has been chosen as the starting date because phase 3 of the lockdown had ended and normal life was just being resumed. It therefore gave the data a fairly uniform base, free of policy change-induced shocks. A comparison of the rates of change in these parameters makes it possible to discern the slowing down of the diseases and, barring, a surge in news cases, broadly map the trajectory of cases.

Of course, a caveat is needed. Two big confounding factors remain testing rates and the government’s denial of community transmission. Recovery rates do increase because that’s the natural course during a pandemic and we won’t discover more new cases unless we test more, which is why leading epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil think most cases are going under the radar. For this exercise, however, we will take the government’s data at face value.

What the graph tells us

Column 1 shows that although the absolute number of new cases has kept increasing,  the rate of  growth has  slowed from doubling in 14 days till May 29, to 17 days by June 14. It has taken 20 days to double again by July 3-4. This slowdown is welcome, but it is the least reliable (although most quoted) datum for charting the future course of the disease, because it is the one most affected by government interventions.

In India, this is particularly so because a good part of the increase is a product of more intensive – though by no means adequate or even geographically uniform – testing, which has gone up from around 4200 tests per day on March 24, to more than 150,000 today. One consequence of this is the inclusion of a higher proportion of those who are mildly affected by the disease.

Column 2 gives a sense of the number of patients who recover every day. This has been rising much more rapidly than the infection rate throughout the 46 days of the survey, but the rate of recovery too has been slowing down. Recoveries per day doubled in just 9 days by May 24, then doubled again in another 12 days by June 5. This slowed down further after the lockdown was lifted to doubling in 15.5 days ( June20/21). In the last days of June the rate of recovery has slowed down still more, with the doubling rate likely to be 17 days.

Column 3 shows that the higher recovery rate has been mirrored by a slower growth of active cases. Whereas new cases increased by 6.5 times between May 15 and  June 30, active cases increased by only four times. Better still, the doubling rate of active cases has also slowed sharply from 18 days  between May 15 and June 3, to 25 days from June 2 to  June 30.

Columns 4 and 5, plotted in the graph above, give us a sense of the  average rate of improvement in these two parameters per day. It is 0.63% per day in recoveries and 0.54% per day in active cases. A simple linear extrapolation would then suggest the tide turning in September.

While comforting, however, this does not tell the whole story, for all-India, there are more new patients detected with COVID-19 every day than there are patients who have recovered:

The challenge for India is to narrow the gap between the blue and green curves so that eventually daily recoveries outpace daily new infections. That point would mark the peak, though hitting the peak, by itself is no guarantee of the pandemic’s end.  In Europe, China, Malaysia  and several others in Asia, the active disease count fell fairly rapidly after that point as recoveries continue to grow. But then there are also countries which have either plateaued after peaking, or had a resurgence of cases (eg. Iran) thereafter. It is too early to tell which way India will go.

In India, there are three big imponderables. First, the danger of the community transmission we see in large metros spreading to rural areas and smaller cities and  towns. Second, the inadequate amount of testing, particularly in some populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, gives us an inexact sense of the total disease count. But by far the most disruptive of developments that could derail these predictions is the inability of even the augmented treatment facilities we are putting in place to cope with the sheer number of active cases there will be. By the beginning of September, at the present 25-day doubling rate, active cases will rise to around 1.2 million patients by that date.

Where will so many beds come from? In  2015, Price Waterhouse had estimated that there were 1.3 beds per 1000 population, in India. This amounted to 1.75 million beds, which  was far from sufficient to meet the requirements that arose out of  accidents, diseases, localised epidemics, pregnancies and premature births. Even if  the number of beds has  gone up 50 percent since then, and that all of the increase can be sequestered  for coping with the pandemic, There will still be a shortage of 600,000 beds. The inevitable decline in the quality of treatment that will result from trying to cope, will slow down recovery and increase the number of deaths further.

As the enormity of the problem dawns upon the state governments, the knee-jerk reaction of many of them could be to reimpose lockdowns, or  harden them where they already exist. This must not happen.

Our bitter experience of the past three months has shown that any  lockdown that is not back-stopped by financial sustenance of the kind that was given by the government of  Malaysia, will again fail to contain the disease. But  the harm that it will do to the economy will persist for  years to come. This is because once an airline, a hotel chain, a bank, a mobile telephony company,  an industrial enterprise,  a restaurant or a cinema hall goes bankrupt, debt recovery procedures kick in that make it impossible for it to restart again.  Thus the end of the pandemic will not therefore re-start these enterprises automatically.

Delhi example worth emulating

One way to drastically shorten the fight against the pandemic and minimise the damage to the economy at the same time would be to follow the example that Delhi has set, first during the lockdown, and then after it was lifted at the end of May. Kejriwal, Sisodia, and their ministers understood from the very first day  that the lockdown would deprive millions of workers of their livelihoods for no fault of theirs or their employers, so they  had a moral duty to minimise the hardship the poor, in particular,  would have to suffer.

The government, helped by cadres of the Aam Admi Party, did not  wholly eliminate the distress caused by the sudden loss of jobs because a large proportion of the wage earners, especially the migrant workers,  lived in distant  suburbs across the Uttar Pradesh and Haryana borders, and were therefore prevented  from entering the city by the stoppage of metro trains and buses. But  it did  reduce the stress  and anxiety in the resident working class of the National Capital Territory and therefore its willingness to abide by the lockdown in the containment areas.

The other key decision of the Delhi government – one that the lieutenant governor tried recently to countermand before taking a U-turn –  was to allow mildly affected patients to be treated at home. This reduced the pressure on the city’s medical infrastructure

The second is the introduction of rapid antigen testing on June 18. While this test has been criticised by many, including the WHO, on the grounds that it misses many people in the early stages of the infection, it allows for a much earlier start of treatment of those it has detected, because the results become available in half an hour instead of two days. This has led to a rapid increase in the number of recoveries, and consequently a plateauing of active cases after June 20. It has also raised  the recovery rate to 0.71 %, substantially  above the national average of  0.54%. As the table below shows, this speeded up the daily recoveries dramatically from an average of 400 a day till June 8 to 3,000 a day from June 17. This stopped the number of active cases from rising any further,  and may have begun a marginal decline from June 27.

As a result, the ratio  of recovered to total cases  has risen from 42.7% on May 31 to  66.5% on June 30, at an average of 0.71% per day. This is one reason why Delhi’s graph of new cases and new recoveries presents us with some room for optimism compared to the all India graph:

Since three-quarters of all COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the dozen or so largest cities of India (Delhi and Mumbai alone account for almost a third), if all of them follow Delhi’s example, the number of cases could peak, and the pandemic begin to draw down, earlier than otherwise.

But even here a caveat is needed: Delhi’s testing volumes need to be ramped up and now slowed down.

Note: This article has been edited to clarify that the figure for recoveries in column 2 is the cumulative total till that day, and the difference between total daily recoveries each day is the daily increase in the number of recoveries. It has also been edited to add graphs plotting daily new cases and daily recoveries for India and Delhi. The earlier version erroneously made a prediction of COVID cases “peaking” in September, based on the trajectories of recovered cases and active cases. In fact, cases will peak only when daily new recoveries equal daily new cases.

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f political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension
Map of the Galwan Valley region. Credit: Google Maps

It is 1962 all over again. India and China are heading for war, and this time it is not an insecure defence minister (Krishna Menon) and a gung-ho army chief who had never seen a shot fired in action (B.M. Kaul) who are driving India towards it. This time, it is a bunch of retired army officers, many of whom have not even served in the Ladakh region, egged on by television channels that see in the tragedy in Galwan valley an opportunity to increase their TRP ratings and increase their revenues in the future.

The dominant narrative has it that the hand-to-hand fight in the Galwan valley on June 15 took place because the Chinese never intended to honour the disengagement agreement reached on June 6 and were pursuing their seven-decades old policy of slicing off whatever territory they wanted in the Himalayan region. So when a small Indian contingent set off up the Galwan river to confront them and demand that they withdraw, the Chinese responded by ambushing it and killing 20 of our jawans, including their colonel.

What this narrative ignores is that both sides have differing perceptions of where the line of actual control (LAC) runs. In some areas, the lines overlap, creating a grey zone to which both sides lay claim and where the two armies have developed rules of engagement that occasionally come unstuck.

That is why the army’s official statement on the incident was matter of fact:

“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”

The MEA’s first statement on June 16 blamed the incident on Chinese attempts to alter the status quo: “On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.”

On June 17, the MEA’s readout of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s conversation with his Chinese counterpart went one step further,

“The Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC,”, the MEA spokesperson said. “While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

While the increase in the temperature of India’s official statements is noticeable, so is the careful calibration. Regrettably, the electronic media is showing no such restraint. Virtually every channel except NDTV has been ending its programmes by forcing political dignitaries from both the Congress and BJP to choose between advising caution and thereby condoning the death of the Indian soldiers, and demanding a reckoning from China.

Needless to say, nearly all party representatives on TV agree that China has to be taught a lesson, and that the best way to do this is to break every international trade agreement and convention India has signed, drive every Chinese product and every Chinese company out of the Indian market and be prepared for war.

The storm of jingoism that the media has created has already forced Prime Minister Modi to abandon some of his initial caution and say that India will give “a befitting reply to provocation”. It has also given him an opportunity to merge his atma-nirbharta (self-reliance) campaign, conceived to divert public attention away from the failure of his COVID lockdown, with the clarion call to nationalism which has served him so well before. Should he now decide to ‘stand up to  the Chinese dragon’ it is difficult to see any political party that will have the courage and strength to oppose him and advise caution.

War is therefore only one fatal misstep away.  Should that step be taken, India will once again be embroiled in a conflict that, given the nature of the terrain, it cannot possibly win.

What happened at Galwan

The only way the government can avert this is by telling the public everything that had been decided on June 6 and June 13, set the record straight about what happened at Galwan on June 14-15, and hope that better sense will prevail. This, to the best of my knowledge, is what happened:

At the corps commander-level meeting on Saturday, June 13, the two sides had agreed to withdraw their forces to a distance of two kilometres from where they were then. Where the Chinese were then, both in the Galwan river area and above Pangong lake was not indisputably on the Indian side of the LAC but on the Chinese side as defined by them, and thus in the grey zone. At Pangong it was the ridge above Finger 4 of the lake. In the Galwan valley it was at a point the Indian army called PP (Patrol Point) 14. The Indian definition of the LAC was some distance east of the Chinese  at Pangong, and pretty much contiguous with it at Galwan except at a few places.

It is important to make this clear because at no point, except for the location of one little tent, did the Chinese try to “slice off” any fresh territory, as TV anchors are claiming. Everything they did was within their understanding of the de facto LAC established after the 1962 war and accepted in principle by both countries in the Agreement On Peace And Tranquility In The Border Regions, of 1993.

This is also true of the Chinese military build-up at various points in Aksai Chin since May. In fact, the support base of the troops in the Galwan valley is 40 kms to the east, beyond even the Indian definition of the LAC in the area. This is equally true of the support bases for the build up at Pangong lake and the three other points in Ladakh.

When the 14th corps headquarters realised on June 15 that the Chinese had not only not begun their withdrawal as stipulated in the agreement, but had set up a tent on the Indian side of PP14 and a fresh observation post on the Chinese side, it sent a detachment to remove the tent, and request the Chinese to withdraw from the observation post in line with the agreement of June 13.

Indian soldiers removed the tent on the 15th. The same day, Col Babu and his men proceeded to the observation post at the China-defined LAC, reaching there at 4 pm. When he asked the Chinese why they had set up the observation post after the June 13 agreement, he was given the possibly disingenuous answer that it was to make sure that  the Indian troops were withdrawing to the stipulated distance first, before doing so themselves. As of now, one can only speculate on how this discussion turned into an altercation and then into the lethal battle that followed. Suffice it to say that the Chinese were prepared to fight with improvised weapons, and a tragedy ensued  that can end by changing the course of Indian, and possibly world history in the months and years to come.

China tamps down rhetoric, somewhat

The Chinese government has made it clear that it does not want the incident to derail China-India relations any more than they have already been derailed in the past six years. To do this, it has, in addition to its official statement on Wednesday, resorted to its unofficial mouthpiece on foreign policy, Global Times, to cool tempers in China and send a message to India that it does not want a war.

In an article titled “Chinese netizens call for restraint and reason in wake of China-India border clash”, the author, Chen Xi warned his readers against the wave of xenophobia that was sweeping China and highlighted message after message that did the opposite:  “Some Chinese netizens took to social media Twitter to state that the incident should not undermine the common development of the two countries” .

He particularly  singled out one from a Chinese netizen who calls himself  Hubei_Peasant: “I really hope friends and comrades don’t provoke Indian people on Twitter or engage with any bad-faith provocations. It tarnishes what soft power we have left, and any inflammation of Indian public opinion is contrary to our interests. Silence is golden”.

China has sent a second signal by agreeing on June 17th to release 10 soldiers whom they had captured at the observation post.

While the soldiers were indeed freed within 24 hours of the agreement, some hardening of the Chinese stand was evident too by June 18 with the Global Times editor putting out a video and tweet warning India not to underestimate China’s resolve.

China’s aims

In all this, there is a question that needs answering: If Beijing is not following a policy of cloaking incremental expansionism in subterfuge, and genuinely does not want the conflict to escalate, why did its soldiers do what they did in Galwan, bringing the two countries to the brink of war?

There is one other possible explanation: It has been apparent for some time that China’s sudden hardening of stance over the boundary issue is designed to warn Delhi against reneging on  the implicit and explicit understandings that have  sustained peace in the border region since 1993. Foremost among these is the maintenance of equidistance from all power blocs in the post Cold War world.

India has gone back on this in  the past six years. It has signed an agreement with the  US to force freedom of navigation in the south China sea, sent warships to join a US-Japanese task force to do so; joined Operation Malabar with the US and Australia – one of whose “ war games”  is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 90 percent of China’s imported oil passes; and signed three military logistics agreements with the US that have made India a de facto military ally of the US in a future war.

Had Modi stopped there, China might not have reacted. But he has also reneged on past understandings with China over Indian non-intervention in its construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit, and on the understanding reached with Pakistan by two Indian prime ministers,  Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, that the LOC in Kashmir will be turned into a ‘soft border’ between the two countries, thereby leaving the CPEC alone.

Under Modi, India reneged on this understanding  not only in words but deeds, for in 2018 he made China’s acceptance of India’s claim to Gilgit a precondition for signing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). By doing this, he literally cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face, because the Chinese  were depending upon India’s insatiable need to modernise its  infrastructure to fill the order books of the  huge ‘mother machine’ heavy industries that  were lying idle after its 2009-14 domestic fiscal stimulus ended.

The end of Article 370

Mod did not stop there. Not only did he and defence minister Rajnath Singh state more than once  that India will take back every inch of its territory including PoK and Aksai Chin.

Following on from the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and its division into two union territories, India released a new political map in November 2019.

Like all official Indian maps, it shows neither the line of control with Pakistan nor the LAC with China and did not alter the external boundaries of India in Ladakh in any way. Its purpose may have only been to remind the faithful of the BJP’s great achievement in eliminating Article 370 and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir into two but its release may have also been misunderstood by the Chinese. This was not the first time New Delhi was reasserting its stand that Aksai Chin is a part of India. But when the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi – barely 20 kms as the crow flies from the Karakoram Pass –  has just been been repaired and a fairly good modern road linking it to Pangong,  Durbuk and Leh has been completed, Beijing may well have convinced itself that Modi could no longer be relied upon not to try to put a spoke in the CPEC project.

China’s sudden decision to unilaterally define the LAC, by militarising its side of it, is therefore a political message. A return to the status quo ante required political discussions, and these had begun at both the diplomatic and military headquarters level. But military commands do not explain the political rationale of the orders they give to soldiers on the ground. The Chinese troops at Galwan were no doubt told to hold their territory without using firearms until they received further orders. That they made elaborate preparations to do so, including damming rivulets to provide water for the use of water cannons, is now apparent.

Col. Babu and his men were similarly not kept in any political loop. They too had been given simple orders: clear the tent, find out what the Chinese are up to and persuade them to withdraw as per the June 13 agreement.  The rest is now history. If political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

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Had India done what Malaysia did – kept everyone where they were by ensuring that their economic futures were not imperilled by the lockdown – we would have been in a much better place right now.

The Lockdown Backfired and Modi Has Only Himself to Blame
Low traffic in Ahmedabad, India, March 21, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave


At the beginning of India’s national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation to endure the coming disruption of their lives with stoicism.

“The Mahabharata war was won in 18 days, this war the whole country is fighting against coronavirus will take 21 days,” he said on March 25 in an address to the people of Varanasi.

Not for the first time in the past six years, Modi made a promise he could not keep. On March 25, when the lockdown began, there had been 606 reported cases of COVID-19, of which 87 had been added in the previous 24 hours. As of the time of writing, the corresponding numbers are in excess of 2.97 lakh, rising by an average of 10,000 a day.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation. Photo: PTI

The only sliver of a silver lining today is that the ratio of daily recoveries to new cases has been rising steadily and is now almost 50%. The current spike, mostly attributed to migrant workers returning to their home states, has slowed this to a snail’s pace but not stopped it altogether. If the trend is maintained, the number of active cases will reach a peak and begin to decline in two-three months from now, i.e five-six months after the declaration of the lockdown. That will be a far slower start to recovery than any other country has witnessed from similar lockdowns so far.

What went wrong? The experience of most western European countries has shown that the tougher the lockdown, the sooner has a country reached a peak in the daily addition of cases, the more rapid has been the decline afterwards. When asked why this has not happened in India, BJP ministers and spokespersons, and government officials have brushed the question aside, in essence saying that those are rich nations and our problems are entirely different.

Malaysia’s lockdown

But if that is so, how do Modi and his government officials explain the extraordinary success of Malaysia, a middle-level industrialised nation that was far poorer than us only 40 years ago?

In many ways, the Malaysian government ’s lockdown experience has been similar to ours. It announced a national lockdown on March 18, six days before we did, designed to end on May 12 a week before our phase 3. But on May 4, under pressure from industry, when it lifted some controls on public transport, and congregation in workplaces, four out of its 13 states refused to implement these. On May 10, following a public petition signed by half a million Malaysians, it extended this partially relaxed lockdown for another month till June 9.

A worker sprays disinfectant at a mosque, which is closed during the movement control order due to the outbreak of (COVID-19)
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng

It is the impact of the two lockdowns that has been starkly different. For unlike ours, Malaysia’s has been a total success. The infallible yardstick there, as here, is the new case to recovery rate ratio. Starting from 13% of new cases on March 18, the recovery rate rose rapidly till it exceeded the number of new cases for the first time on April 6 and then stayed above it for 53 out of the next 64 days till the lockdown was lifted on June 9. By June 8, the total number of COVID-19 cases the country had experienced was 8,319. The number who had recovered was 6,694 – 80%. The number of new cases on June 8 was only seven.

Malaysia’s success cannot be ascribed to a higher level of development, better health service or more efficient administration. It arises from the government’s very different concept of its duty towards its people. From the incipient, planning stage of the lockdown, the government recognised that the severe dislocation of the economy it would cause could not be compared to an economic recession or a natural disaster. The first resulted from vagaries of the domestic and international market and could be mitigated by countervailing policy measures. The second could be as catastrophic as a lockdown but the government could not be blamed for it. But the lockdown was a conscious act of government. It therefore imposed a specifically moral obligation upon the government to make sure that the victims – employers and employees – suffered as little from it as possible. Malaysia’s Prime minister, Muhyiddeen Yassin accepted this from the outset. Modi did not and still has not.

The Malaysian government, therefore, recognised that the lockdown would cause a crash in sales and drying up of revenues. This would make it difficult for employers to meet their fixed costs and wage bills, and destroy income and demand. This had to be prevented at any cost. The government, therefore, decided to spend whatever was needed to meet the production and minimum wage and salary costs that would have to be paid to keep factories in working condition and workers in place to resume work when the lockdown was lifted. It estimated that this would require it to provide fiscal stimulus of up to 14% of its GDP. Indeed its preliminary estimate was 17%. This was the highest deficit financing limit set by any country in the world.

As a result, Malaysia has suffered little or no social or economic dislocation from the lockdown. Although a large part of its 15.8 million labour force consists of internal migrants, and several million more are foreign workers, the sudden loss of income, home and security that has driven more than 10 million despairing migrant workers in our country to set out for homes in distant villages by any means possible is signally absent. Instead, the government has put pressure on employers to register their undocumented foreign migrant workers and provide them with the dormitory accommodation that is required by law. Their number, fortunately, is relatively small because, again unlike us, the state has a law that requires employers to register all new employees with the social health authority within 30 days of hiring them.

India’s lockdown has failed because the sense of moral obligation that has driven Malaysia’s policies is completely absent. In its place Modi made prayashchita (atonement) the guiding principle of policy: a great evil had descended on the world. To fight it, one had to be willing to suffer.

Crash in demand

The crash of demand that has followed the lockdown is, therefore, one that no other economy has experienced. The demand for electricity fell by nearly 30% in April. The demand for transport fuels fell so sharply that oil refineries had to halve their production.

Maruti, the automobile industry leader, did not manufacture a single car or commercial vehicle in April and almost none in May. It met the few export orders in hand from stocks that had accumulated after the sudden imposition of the GST last year.

The Maruti plant in Manesar around which several ancillary activities have grown, giving employment to migrant workers.
The lockdown meant cessation of work, no wages, or partial payments. Photo: Rahul Roy

Bajaj Motors, the other Indian automotive giant, sold no vehicles in India in April. It continued to produce at a skeleton level, but entirely for export. Even there it experienced a fall of 80% in sales (32,009 two-wheelers and 5,869 three-wheelers in April, against 160,393 two-wheelers and 38,818 three-wheelers in the same month in 2019).

SIAM, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers has predicted that if a demand boost does not come now production this year will decline by 35-40%. And ACMA, the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association says that it has lost $57 billion dollars worth of sales. This is 2-3% of India’s GDP.

The textiles industry is in equally bad shape. A survey of 2,000 firms by A.C. Nielsen showed that their production had dropped by 84% since the lockdown. Much of what was still being produced was personal protective equipment (PPE) clothing for health workers. The textiles industry employs 105 million workers, second only to agriculture. Thus most of the 114 million persons who lost their jobs by the beginning of May were probably from this industry.

The construction industry, which used to create 40% of India’s non-agricultural new jobs every year, is in a coma because, with the departure of migrant workers, it faces an acute shortage of labour, rising wage rates and lower EMI payments by financially stressed homeowners.

And finally, there are the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries that account for a quarter or more of the GDP and are, collectively, the largest employer after agriculture. These have been hit both by the need for social distancing and the sharp fall in income and demand in the economy.

Had India done what Malaysia did – kept everyone where they were by ensuring that their economic futures were not imperilled by the lockdown, the number of COVID-19 cases would have peaked very much earlier, even in the most crowded of our cites, and the virus would not have been carried to the villages. Best of all, the economy would have remained poised to jump back to normal the moment the lockdown was relaxed.

But Modi had other goals. He wanted to emerge from the battle against coronavirus as Arjuna had emerged from the battle of Kurukshetra, steely, determined and invincible. Now that he has exposed his own lack of capacity to deal with real as distinguished from self-manufactured emergencies, instead of changing course and pumping purchasing power into the economy, he is busy fashioning another image of himself as the lone champion of ‘self-reliance’ in an increasingly ‘sold out’ economy.

One can only hope that when this too fails, India’s voters, who placed their faith in him for a second time in May last year, will recognise him for what he is.

Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Modi’s Mahabharata reference was made on March 24. It was, in fact, made on March 25.

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From China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise of the 1993 Agreement: going back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed at the height of the Cold War.

Are China and India Going Back to 1962?
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, Photo: China Daily via Reuters.

China’s near-simultaneous incursion into two areas of Ladakh, one of which it has recognised in the past as being on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, has caught the government by surprise. The media, especially television, has reacted with its usual mixture of incomprehension and bravado, but fortunately, both the Army command and South Block have exercised a mature restraint. Apart from rushing reinforcements to the two areas of Chinese incursion – the Galwan river valley and Pangong lake – the Northern Army command has continued to try and resolve differences through flag meetings between progressively higher levels of command in both armies.

Unlike similar confrontations in the past, these are unlikely to bear fruit. The reason is that, from China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise upon with the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, was based. This is that, with the end of the deep freeze in relations that had existed since 1962, China and India would go back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed between them at the height of the Cold War.

A man walks inside a conference room with Indian and Chinese flags in the background. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File

That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all. It became explicit during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference at Hua Hin, Thailand in 2009. The meeting was triggered by a period of rising tension between the two countries over Delhi’s permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in what Beijing then frequently referred to as South China.

To the Indian media’s uncomprehending surprise, it was China that took the initiative to hold the meeting. India did not withdraw its permission to the Dalai Lama but so managed his visit that it did not become the international spectacle that China had feared. Delhi’s unqualified success in allaying China’s long term anxieties both over immediate border issues and India’s continued adherence to its policies of equidistance laid the base for the strategic cooperation that China was seeking. This became apparent in the content and tenor of the annual meetings of BRICS, at Sanya, in China, in 2011, and more  unambiguously at Delhi  in 2012

At Delhi, in a joint statement that was twice the length of its predecessor, the member countries voiced the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been articulated by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.

At the Durban meeting of BRICS the next year, Xi Jinping, who had replaced Hu Jintao as president of China, accelerated the development of Sino-Indian cooperation by stating explicitly that it was his intention to settle the border dispute ‘as early as possible’, instead of the previous formulation of ‘gradually over time’.

Modi’s China policy 

Unfortunately, when Xi came the following year to discuss long term strategic cooperation and possibly suggest some form of closure to the border dispute, Narendra Modi had replaced Manmohan Singh. Instead of taking up the reigns where Manmohan Singh had dropped them, Modi turned the visit into a Gujarati tamasha designed to enlarge his own image, and discussed nothing of consequence. This was because, less than a fortnight earlier, he had met President Brack Obama in Washington, sacked his foreign secretary, committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US,   aligned India with the US on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on which the US and China had come close to conflict, and invited Obama to be the state guest at the next Republic Day.

In spite of all these disquieting developments, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi during his return visit to China in June 2015. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Prime minister Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region (emphasis added)”. But aside from that, it was barren of content.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) guides Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a meeting room in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A year later, in May 2016, Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the  Law of the Sea.

The subsequent rapid deterioration of relations has been described by me in earlier columns and will take too long to describe. Suffice it to say that China avoided blaming India directly, preferred to accuse the US of playing a ‘divide and rule’ game to create a schism between the two countries, and waited to see if time, or the next general election, would bring about a change of policy.

When, to the delight of the US, Modi also brusquely rebuffed every enticement by China to send at least a representative to the inaugural Belt Road Initiative (BRI) conference in Beijing, China put its relations with India on hold till the next elections. One suspects that the BJP’s second victory ended that and made Beijing start looking for an alternative policy towards India.

The sites for confrontation are not a random choice

Only against this background does the current Chinese military action make any sense. Its choice of Pangong lake and the Galwan river region as the sites for confrontation is not random. For Pangong lake is the starting point of a road India completed two years ago that runs along the west side of the Shyok river past its confluence with the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldi.

From a cartographic point of view, this gives the road considerable strategic importance. The Galwan river starts in the south of Xinjiang, and runs a long way through a narrow valley before joining the Shyok river in the Nubra valley. It could therefore become an access route between Xinjiang and  Ladakh.

The valley is an old flashpoint. In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, Army HQ in Delhi ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and urged that this be done only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route.

When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 or more Chinese soldiers. The Chinese forced the supply columns back, day after day, for four days and withdrew only after 12 days. In October, when the Sino-Indian war began, the Chinese overran Galwan in hours. 33 of its 68 defenders were killed, and the rest taken prisoner. As the Henderson Brooks report pointed out, this was part of the Forward Policy adopted in November under defence minister Krishna Menon in November 1961, which became the trigger for the 1962 war.

After the Chinese withdrew again, the Indian army could have left the valley alone as part of a no man’s land between the two countries. The 1993 agreement gave it an added reason for doing so. But the Chinese had, over the years steadily expanded their claim to the Galwan valley, and the surrounding region, so to pre-empt further changes the army had set up a post once more. In the last year, it had been building a road to connect it to the Pangong-DBO road.

Daulat Beg Oldi sits at the foot of the Karakoram range on its eastern side, but only a short distance away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the Karakoram pass. This seems to have become a  source of unease for the Chinese military, so much so that in 2013, three weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, a Chinese platoon had penetrated 10 km into Indian territory to create an incident there. At that time, there were only a few buildings there, but recent satellite photos show that it too has been expanded into a substantial forward base with a large number of sheds and buildings.

Pakistan and China flags. Photo: Reuters

None of these three recent developments poses any military threat to China. The Pangong-DBO road is a supply road for light vehicles similar to the ones that now link every Chinese outpost on the other side of the LOAC.  The connection across the Shyok to the Galwan post is a footbridge. The post itself has no more military capability now than it had in 1962.

Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldi is a jumping off point to nowhere because, although only a short distance from the Karakoram pass, any military action there would involve a war with both Pakistan and China.

No sane government in India, or for that matter any country, would take on two powerful adversaries at the same time. But Modi has been harping upon Pakistan’s illegal occupation of two-fifths of Kashmir, and opposing the creation of CPEC ever since he has come to power. So DBG too has acquired a strategic significance to China because it is now convinced that it faces a government that not only does not respect the commitments made by its predecessors, but is driven by the impulses of a prime minister who has made a habit of leaping before he looks.

The purpose of China’s choice of this particular area for its intrusions is therefore clear. Although it has not formally abrogated the 1993 agreement, it believes that the Modi government has thoroughly undermined the underlying premise upon which it was based. It has therefore gone back to the age-old strategy of minimising potential risks when faced by a potential enemy.

But, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has made clear, the door back to 2014 is not closed.    It lies in rediscovering “our strategic mutual trust”. These are not idly chosen words. They require a rediscovery of our common strategic aims, as were enunciated in BRICS’ Delhi declaration, and a rebuilding of mutual trust. If that does not happen, then China will treat the 1993 agreement as no longer binding and do what it feels is necessary to safeguard its long term best interest.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

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To save the economy, a phased relaxation of the lockdown is needed. If a COVID-19 calamity is not to be replaced by an economic one, this must start well before the new lockdown period ends.

With the Lockdown Extension Coming, It’s Time to Turn Our Attention to the Economy

Sacks of unsold vegetables in the mandi, that are slowly starting to rot in the harsh sun. Credit: The Wire.


The happy consensus between the prime minister and all chief ministers that the national lockdown needs to be extended for another two weeks cannot hide the fact that when Narendra Modi ordered the shutting down of all ‘non-essential’ activity on March 24, neither he nor his  advisers had thought through what the consequences would be – and when and how it could be lifted.

In the past couple of days, it has become obvious that the state governments, with one or two notable exceptions, have no idea either.

China had done a lockdown in Hubei province, and succeeded in containing  the virus.  Five other countries – France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK – had, or were about to declare a similar lockdown. Modi’s India had to be among the first.

It is clear that, so far as the economy is concerned, no decision-maker in India has the faintest idea of what to do next. In the first days of the lockdown this was excusable: the tacit assumption was that the number of new cases would start to come down after two weeks of its imposition, as had happened in Hubei. The government would therefore be able to lift its punishing restrictions when there were no more new cases

Instead, the opposite happened, and the number of active cases  ballooned from 519 on March 24 to 7,367  on April 12. The lack of a contingency plan – in fact of any plan whatever – became apparent when millions of migrant workers who had been thrown out of work and dwelling began a desperate march home to villages hundreds of kilometres away with the little money they had saved and what their employers had given them. Had it not been for the prompt action of the state governments, and the kindness of people on the roads, this could have turned into a major humanitarian disaster.

The happy consensus between the prime minister and all chief ministers that the national lockdown needs to be extended for another two weeks cannot hide the fact that when Narendra Modi ordered the shutting down of all ‘non-essential’ activity on March 24, neither he nor his  advisers had thought through what the consequences would be – and when and how it could be lifted.

In the past couple of days, it has become obvious that the state governments, with one or two notable exceptions, have no idea either.

China had done a lockdown in Hubei province, and succeeded in containing  the virus.  Five other countries – France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, and the UK – had, or were about to declare a similar lockdown. Modi’s India had to be among the first.

It is clear that, so far as the economy is concerned, no decision-maker in India has the faintest idea of what to do next. In the first days of the lockdown this was excusable: the tacit assumption was that the number of new cases would start to come down after two weeks of its imposition, as had happened in Hubei. The government would therefore be able to lift its punishing restrictions when there were no more new cases

Instead, the opposite happened, and the number of active cases  ballooned from 519 on March 24 to 7,367  on April 12. The lack of a contingency plan – in fact of any plan whatever – became apparent when millions of migrant workers who had been thrown out of work and dwelling began a desperate march home to villages hundreds of kilometres away with the little money they had saved and what their employers had given them. Had it not been for the prompt action of the state governments, and the kindness of people on the roads, this could have turned into a major humanitarian disaster.

However, as some studies from Singapore have confirmed, central air-conditioning in buildings may pose risks,. Could the ubiquity of air-conditioning in Singapore and the Gulf countries like Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, therefore account for their much higher infection rates than India? Or the fact that they have higher ‘expat’ populations that may have been exposed to the virus in their home countries?

Either way, with the summer upon us, it may be necessary to keep centrally air conditioned establishments and offices locked down and limit travel in air conditioned trains and buses – whose filters are not as efficient as those on modern aircraft – till no more new cases have been reported for some time. The travails of the well to do  are not therefore going to end soon. But that does not mean the poor have to suffer with them.

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To save the economy, a phased relaxation of the lockdown is needed. If a COVID-19 calamity is not to be replaced by an economic one, this must start well before the new lockdown period ends.

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By springing the lockdown on millions of migrant workers, the Modi government has once again shown a combination of unseemly haste and organisational ineptitude.

Seven Decisions That Can Prevent the Lockdown From Becoming Another Policy Disaster
Migrant workers wait to board a bus to their respective villages during the national lockdown, at Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, March 29, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

With every hour that passes, the fate of India’s poor is being sealed more and more firmly. That fate is to confront possible death at the hands of COVID-19. As I had feared, employers have responded to the sudden and country-wide lockdown and the consequent total cut-off of their cash flow by firing their workers. And the workers are heading “home”.

When they reach their homes in the villages and small towns, these will turn it into death traps.

An NDTV news report from two days ago showing migrants thrown out of work at Unnao in Uttar Oradesh walking 90 km ‘home’ to Barabanki was greeted by a storm of unimaginably obscene abuse by self-appointed Modi bhakts, who berated the channel for trying to use a national emergency to defame their hallowed leader.

But within 24 hours of that venomous outburst, district magistrates in every metropolis of the country were scrambling to find buses to take migrant workers ‘home’.

That ‘home’, the village, could become a death trap. Even as I write, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India has jumped from 834 to 980. At least four times as many people have had the disease but are likely to recover by themselves. There are thus at least 4,000 others out there spreading the disease without knowing it even as I write.

The lockout is only in its fifth day, so each of them will have been in contact with a large number of persons even before it began. What is more, among the poor, it has only reduced, and cannot eliminate, close social contact. So there are ten more days in which anyone who is infected, whether he or she knows it or not, can infect other people.

In the 14 days between getting infected and overcoming the virus, each of them will have been in close proximity with scores of persons. So we are virtually certain to see a rapid spread of the disease in the coming days.

How fast can it be? We now have one concrete measure of the speed with which the virus can spread when the migrants get home: A Sikh priest who returned to India after two weeks in Italy and Germany on March 6 broke quarantine and visited Anandpur Sahib and 15 villages before he died on March 18. He is believed to have infected 23 persons, including 14 from his own family, before he died.

Health workers spray disinfectant in Chikmaglur, March 28, 2020. Photo: PTI

But this has to be a gross underestimate because 80% of those who get infected recover on their own. However while they are doing so, they too are carriers of the virus. Thus, that one Sikh priest must have infected more than a hundred persons.

This gives us an idea of what the approaching pandemic will look like if the outflow of migrant workers is not stopped within the next day or two. At this hundred to one ratio, if only ten out of India’s 139 million migrant workers travel home in the coming days and even one in a thousand of them is carrying the virus when he boards the bus, ten thousand carriers of the virus will have fanned out into the villages within the next fortnight. There the multiplier is likely to be far smaller, but even so, we are already staring a pandemic that can infect millions in the face.

All this could easily have been anticipated and forestalled, for the Sikh priest died six full days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his total lockdown of India. The size of India’s unorganised sector and its component of migrant workers is well known, and the ruthlessness of their employers is also well known. And any good undergraduate student of growth economics could have told it that a total lockdown of the country would mean instant unemployment for hundreds of millions of workers.

It is therefore difficult not to conclude that the Modi government has once again shown a combination of unseemly haste and organisational ineptitude, which made such a mess of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax during its first term in office.

This is not, however, the time for finger pointing. Seven actions can still minimise the spread of the disease to the rural areas. These are:

1. Immediately ban the laying-off of workers in all sectors of the economy and make it a punishable offence.

2. Meet the fixed costs of all working establishments – airlines, bus companies, manufacturing companies and wholesale and retail stores of all sizes, on condition that they do not lay off, and especially, not send away migrant workers.

3. Meet 50% of the wage bill of all non-migrant workers. If they are provided accommodation quarantine them there.

4. Base compensation on documentary proof of the finances of the enterprises and make it strictly conditional upon their following these rules. Breaking them will not only mean cessation of aid and recovery proceedings being taken, but also imprisonment for the employer.

5. Make it a criminal offence to throw anyone out of a rented accommodation during and immediately and for at least a month after the lockout period.

6. Then seal off all the major cities from the countryside. This is the most effective way surest way to virus must not be allowed to get to the villages.

7. Finally call out the army and paramilitary in aid of civilian authority, to set up camps for the homeless and the indigent, where they can be fed, medically tested and housed in tents.

After that, pray.

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