Timid India allows China to nibble at Himalayan border

Brahma Chellaney

The National, May 7, 2013

Intruding Chinese soldiers hold banner asking Indian troops to “Go Back.”

China’s “peaceful rise” is giving way to a more muscular approach as Beijing broadens its “core interests” and exhibits a growing readiness to take risks.

As if to highlight its new multi-directional assertiveness, China’s recent occupation of a 19-kilometre-deep Indian border area, close to where the frontiers of India, Pakistan and China converge, has coincided with its escalating challenge to Japan’s decades-old control of the Senkaku Islands and territorial spats with Vietnam and the Philippines.

China is aggressively conducting regular patrols to support its sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas, while furtively enlarging its footprint in the Himalayan borderlands. While naval and air force units focus on asserting sovereignty claims on the seas, the army stays active in the Himalayas, nibbling at territory.

China is employing novel methods to alter its line of control with India in the mountains and valleys bit by bit – without having to fire a shot. For example, the Chinese army has brought ethnic Han pastoralists to the frontier and given them cover to range across the line. This tactic is designed to drive native herdsmen out of their pasturelands and assert Chinese control over those places.

Such subversion of the status quo, along with China’s ever-expanding “core interests” – which have grown from Tibet and Taiwan to include Xinjiang and now the South China Sea and the Senkakus – is at the root of instability in Asia. This pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness began when China revived its long-dormant claim to the large, north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh just before the 2006 visit to India of China’s then-president, Hu Jintao.

The resurrection of that claim was followed by territorial spats China provoked with several other neighbours. Together these signalled that China was staking out a more domineering role in Asia. It was as if China had decided that its moment had finally arrived.

For example, playing a game of chicken, China has been posing major new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple fronts, including stepping up cross-border military forays and questioning India’s territorial sovereignty in key sectors.

China has repeatedly tried to breach the Himalayan border by taking advantage of the fact that this long, forbidding frontier is difficult for India to patrol effectively, since in many sections Indian troops are based at lower elevations. When an incursion is discovered, Beijing’s refrain is that its troops are on “Chinese land.”

Yet India remains focused on the process rather than on the substance of diplomacy. Process is important only if it buys time to build countervailing leverage. Unfortunately, a rudderless India has made little effort to craft such leverage.

India’s defensive mindset has been on full display in the latest episode. It initially blacked out the April 15 incursion, just as it has suppressed its own figures showing a rising pattern of Chinese military forays across the border.

A whole week went by before New Delhi said a word on the record about the furtive Chinese ingress. The first official Indian comment came only after Beijing issued a bland denial of the incursion, in response to Indian media reports quoting army sources.

India’s cautious, conciliatory response to the deepest Chinese incursion in more than a quarter of a century was revealed in its decision not to scrap its foreign minister’s scheduled trip to Beijing this Thursday and to welcome Li Keqiang, the new Chinese premier on May 20.

This approach has invited rebuke from critics, who portray the intrusion as premeditated, muscle-flexing provocation backed by China’s new leadership.

The immediate crisis eased on Sunday when the Chinese government agreed to end the three-week-old standoff, in return for India’s acceptance of some Chinese demands, including the dismantling of some border-defence structures. China, meanwhile, conceded nothing, in a triumph for its coercive diplomacy.

As China’s coercive power grows, it is beginning to use its capabilities against several neighbours to alter the status quo in its favour, without having to wage open war.

In light of this, India can maintain border peace only by leaving China in no doubt that it has the capability and political will to defend itself. If the Chinese see an opportunity to nibble at Indian land, they will seize it. It is for India to ensure that such opportunities do not arise.

India thus needs a counter-strategy to tame Chinese aggressiveness. Tibet remains at the core of the Sino-Indian divide. And India’s growing strategic ties with the US increasingly rankle China.

To build countervailing leverage, India has little choice but to slowly reopen the central issue of Tibet – a card New Delhi surrendered at the altar of diplomacy. India’s recognition of full Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was based on Beijing’s acknowledgement that Tibet is an “autonomous region” in China. The fact that China has squashed Tibet’s autonomy creates an opening for India to take a more nuanced position.

More broadly, China’s strategy to assemble a “string of pearls” – ports, staging posts and hubs for expanding its interests and presence from East Africa to the Pacific – can be countered by India forming a “string of rapiers” with like-minded Asian-Pacific countries.

At the root of Asia’s growing tensions and insecurity is China’s strategic subversion of the status quo. Only cooperation can shield peace and economic growth; muscle-flexing will not accomplish it.

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic-studies scholar based in New Delhi. His most recent book is Water, Peace, and War.

(c) The National, 2013.