How the coronavirus pandemic has sharpened superpower rivalry

India must be vigilant as violence in Kashmir surges in this season of coldblooded strategic opportunism.

ByDavid Devadas
How the coronavirus pandemic has sharpened superpower rivalry
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Early on Tuesday morning, North Korea launched missiles into the Sea of Japan. That test is unlikely to have happened without a wink and a nod from Beijing. It came less than a week after Japan told its companies to exit China, and earmarked a whopping $2.2 billion to underwrite the cost of moving.

At the beginning of this month, a Chinese naval ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea. That was about a week after Vietnam joined South Korea, New Zealand and the Quad countries (the US, India, Japan, and Australia) in a video conference arranged by the US. China sees the Quad as an alliance against it.

China seems to be giving notice that it sees the pandemic pandemonium as an opportunity to aggressively consolidate its strategic interests. Taking control of the South China Sea is a major objective, as is consolidating its hold on the Karakoram Highway through Jammu and Kashmir.

A bit of background: having dismissed the verdict of a UN tribunal, China claims 90 percent of the 3.37 million sq km South China Sea, which lies between Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Indonesia. China has built artificial islands with military fortifications at distant corners of the Sea to buttress its territorial claims.

Meanwhile, China is quintupling the strength of its Marine Corps to a whopping 100,000 commandos. Its diplomacy is said to have turned hard-nailed too. Shockwaves pulsed across the world when it was reported that China’s President Xi had, in a conversation with French President Macron, linked the supply of masks with France’s accepting 5G services from the Chinese company, Huawei. The US has urged its allies not to accept Huawei’s 5G services, since this would give China cyber control of their national security.

Playing hardball while the US is tied up

Several articles in US-based defence and strategic affairs journals have warned that China seeks to use the pandemic crisis to try and leverage itself to the top of the global pecking order, displacing the US as the world’s dominant superpower.

If one thinks such provocative strategic moves are odd, if not odious, in the middle of a pandemic, one should remember that the crucial last few months of the Great War were fought during the last pandemic. Indeed, it was called the Spanish Flu since most countries other than Spain, which was neutral, censored information about the pandemic in order to keep up the war-fighting zeal of their citizens.

Realpolitik is cold-blooded. Upto 100 million are estimated to have died of the Spanish Flu in three years, more than the 20 million that the war killed over four years.

One reason China might feel emboldened to provoke its neighbours is that both the US aircraft carriers in the Pacific are docked, the virus having spread among sailors.

The US is deeply concerned about the repercussions of this, to the extent that the captain of one of those ships was relieved of his command when a letter from him, urging steps to help his sick sailors, went public. His bosses said the captain’s letter, which got to the media, had compromised national security by letting other powers know of a weakness in the US’s defence capabilities.

Close to the bone

All this may seem like a series of blips on a faraway horizon, but to see it that way would be foolish. These are warning signs of trends which could cut very close to the bone. If North Korea’s missile launch can be read in light of China’s strategic concerns, so can Pakistan’s moves.

That a terror campaign has been stepped up in Kashmir, and highly trained militants are crossing the snowbound Line of Control, can only mean that Pakistan has stepped up its plans for action.

The discovery of a light machine gun in south Kashmir late last week indicates that whatever is planned for this summer is of a different order to what has gone before. This would not be happening without a go-ahead to Pakistan from China.

New Delhi should not be lulled into complacency by the fact that there was barely any revolt in Kashmir against the constitutional changes last August. The Kashmiri people only postponed their response. It would have been suicidal to initiate an uprising amid the unprecedented troop deployment across every nook of Kashmir in the weeks following those constitutional changes.

Nor would there have been much point in initiating a revolt without planning. If policymakers presumed that Kashmiris would rush out from all directions pelting stones helter-skelter last August, they misread what happened when militant commander Burhan Wani was killed on July 8, 2016.

That uprising was planned. Some powerful Kashmiris in the administration had warned close associates that the situation would be very unsettled after Eid (which fell on July 6 that year). In fact, it is quite possible that information about Burhan’s whereabouts was deliberately leaked from across the Line of Control.

Mass mobilisation

Apart from the recent murders of citizens in south Kashmir, and the militant encounters, the mobilisation of a large part of the Kashmiri population on the night of March 25 is worth noting. Large knots of people emerged from their homes in the middle of the night when calls to prayers resounded from just about every mosque.

The calls to prayers were evidently sparked from Pakistan. It succeeded remarkably to quickly mobilise the population at large. To a suspicious mind, various things that happened during the uprisings of 2010 and 2016 too could be viewed as experiments at such things as cutting military supply lines.

Since 1991, India’s security establishment has increasingly pinned its hopes on US support in a crisis. But between the pandemic, which is currently ravaging the US more than any other country, and the elections, which will preoccupy the US from July to November, the US is going to be tied down more than it has been for a very long time.

After blustering against the “Chinese virus” for weeks, President Trump suddenly changed his tune after “a very good conversation” with Xi, and ended his tweet with “Much respect!”.

As the pandemic gradually builds up in parts of India, extraordinary vigilance must be the order of the day.

Also Read : Why the coronavirus pandemic threatens rightwing politics globally
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