Tackling an assertive China: India’s options

Insatiable dragon

As China continues with its provocations, India cannot pretend that all is well.

Brahma Chellaney
DNA newspaper, October 30, 2009

Although China invaded India in 1962, provoked a bloody clash at Nathu La in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the line of control in Samdurong Chu, this is the first time it has opened pressure points against India all along the Himalayan frontier in peacetime.

This pressure long predates the Dalai Lama’s plans to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Indeed, the pressure gradually has been building up since 2006, largely in reaction to the Indo-US strategic partnership, which was set in motion by the separate unveiling in 2005 of the nuclear deal and defence-framework accord. 

By muscling up to India, is China aiming to browbeat India or actually fashion an option to wage war?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Indian officials have publicly sought to tamp down military tensions. But in contrast, the Chinese leadership has been mum on the Himalayan border situation even as the bellicose rhetoric in China’s state-run media has affected public opinion, with 90 per cent of respondents in a Global Times online poll citing India as the No. 1 threat to China’s security. The Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, after asking India to consider the costs of "a potential confrontation with China," ran another denunciatory editorial recently on New Delhi’s "recklessness and arrogance."

The current situation, in some aspects, parallels the one that prevailed in the run-up to the 1962 attack, which then Chinese premier Zhou En Lai declared was designed "to teach India a lesson."

Whether Beijing actually sets out to teach India "the final lesson" will, of course, depend on several calculations, including India’s defence preparedness, domestic factors within China and the availability of a propitious international timing of the type that the Cuban missile crisis provided in 1962. But why should New Delhi repeatedly and gratuitously offer explanations or justifications for the continuing Chinese cross-frontier incursions? If such intrusions are due to differing perceptions about the line of control, let the Chinese say that. But note: Beijing hasn’t proffered that excuse.

The issue up to 1962 was Aksai Chin. But having gobbled up Aksai China, an area almost as big as Switzerland, China now claims Arunachal, nearly three times as large as Taiwan, to help widen its annexation of resource-rich Tibet. Since ancient times, the Himalayas have been regarded as India’s northern frontiers. But China is laying claim to territories south of the Himalayan watershed. Having lost its outer buffer — Tibet — India cannot lose its inner buffer  the Himalayas — or else the enemy will arrive in its plains.

Yet, instead of putting the focus on the source of China’s claim — Tibet — and on Beijing’s attempt to territorially enlarge its Tibet annexation to what it calls "southern Tibet" since 2006, India fights shy of gently shining a spotlight on Tibet as the lingering core issue.

Both on strategy and capability, India is found wanting. Unable to define its own game-plan, it plays into China’s containment-behind-the-façade-of-engagement strategy by staying put in an unending, barren process of border talks going on since 1981, even though it realizes Beijing has no intent to reach a political settlement. Worse still, it agreed in August to let the border talks go off on a tangent and turn into an all-encompassing strategic dialogue, thereby arming Beijing with new leverage to condition a border settlement to the achievement of greater strategic congruence.

Now consider capability: More than 11 years after it gate-crashed the nuclear-weapons club, India conspicuously lacks even a barely minimal deterrent capability against China. Instead of giving topmost priority to building a credible deterrent against China — possible only through a major augmentation of indigenous nuclear and missile capabilities — India is focused on the spendthrift import of conventional weapons.

Let’s be clear: No amount of conventional arms can effectively deter a nuclear foe, that too an adversary that enjoys an inherent military advantage against India by being positioned on the commanding upper reaches of the Himalayas.

Although China is playing provoker, New Delhi helped create the context to embolden Beijing to up the ante. Can it be forgotten that New Delhi for long has indulged in ritualized happy talk about its relations with Beijing, brushing problems under the rug and hyping the outcome of every bilateral summit?

Even today, as New Delhi stares at the harvest of a mismanagement of relations with China by successive Indian governments that chose propitiation to leverage building, attempts are being made to pull the wool over public eyes by calling the Himalayan border "peaceful." Speaking honestly about a relationship fraught with major problems and lurking dangers is an essential first step to protect India’s interests.

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