Beijing’s Triumph of Coercive Diplomacy

In exchange for withdrawing from India’s own territory, China wins a slew of military concessions from New Delhi.

Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2013

When India announced on Monday that Chinese troops would draw back from a disputed Himalayan border region, Indian politicians hailed the retreat as a return to normalcy and a win for quiet diplomacy. In truth, the three-week Sino-Indian standoff on the Debsang plateau gravely weakened New Delhi’s strategic position in a region that straddles key access routes linking China’s rebellious Tibet and Xinjiang regions as well as China to Pakistan, while Beijing conceded nothing of value.

The dispute was a study in Chinese coercive diplomacy and Indian fecklessness. Beijing’s incursion 20 kilometers past the de facto Himalayan borderline in mid-April bore all the hallmarks of modern Chinese brinksmanship, such as a reliance on surprise and a complete disregard for the risks of wider military escalation.

Above all, the move demonstrated a keen sense of timing. India has never been so weak internally, and its response to the crisis was hobbled by political paralysis and leadership drift.

Chinese troops in Ladakh, India, on May 5 — Associated Press

Merely by deploying a single platoon of no more than 50 soldiers, China won military concessions far beyond what it has gained through peaceful negotiations. In exchange for Beijing’s retreat from an area China never had the right to control, New Delhi will dismantle a key forward observation post, destroy bunkers and other defensive fortifications, and potentially halt infrastructure development near the border.

Meanwhile, China will continue to build up its offensive capability in the Himalayas so that it can strike without warning. Over the past decade, an increasingly assertive China has steadily encroached on India’s Himalayan territory in the name of expanding its “core interests”—a tactic reminiscent of its ongoing territorial and maritime spats with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. India’s spineless Himalayan strategy should be a lesson to those other states on how not to respond to Chinese provocations.

New Delhi’s bumbling began in earnest three years ago, when the Congress Party-led government inexplicably replaced army troops with border police to patrol the frontier. More recently, the entire government leadership kept mum for a week on the latest intrusion, only to break its silence with inanities making light of the encroachment. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a “localized problem,” Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid described it as “one little spot” of acne on the “beautiful face” of India-China relations—an issue that can be “addressed by simply applying an ointment” because “ointment is part of the process of growing up.” The garrulous Khurshid went on to say that “incidents do happen.”

Had Beijing persisted with the standoff, it would have led to cancellation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s New Delhi visit on May 20—his first overseas trip since assuming office. It was in India’s interest to raise the diplomatic costs for China so as to deter such intrusions in the future. However, the domestic woes of India’s corruption-tainted government left New Delhi no space for it to stand firm or consider how capitulation could embolden the adversary. A never-ending series of scandals have paralyzed the government and undermined its public credibility.

The result was that India wilted in the Himalayas just as China was coming under an adverse international spotlight for its provocations. Instead beefing up its forces and letting Beijing stew for a while, India rewarded the aggressor with concessions. In all likelihood, New Delhi rushed a deal so that its foreign minister could go ahead with a scheduled trip to Beijing this week to prepare for Li’s visit. It was as if Li’s stopover in New Delhi on his way to visit “all-weather ally” Pakistan is more important for India than for China..

The irony is that every visit of a Chinese leader to India in recent years has been preceded by a new aggressive Chinese move. The jarring revival of China’s claim to the Austria-size northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh came just before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit. Before Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 visit, Beijing began questioning India’s sovereignty over Kashmir through a new visa policy. And now Mr. Li’s visit has been preceded by a military incursion, which has soured relations.

Instead, the main diplomatic legacy of the Himalayan faceoff will be permanent damage to the Sino-Indian border accords of 2005, in which both states agreed to “strictly respect and observe” the de facto border known as the Line of Actual Control. China openly violated these accords by pitching tents in Indian-held territory and raising banners that read “This Is Chinese Land.” Given New Delhi’s timidity, such proclamations may yet become a reality.

Mr. Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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