China’s bloodless victory over India

Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, May 12, 2013

In a classic replay of its old game, China intruded stealthily into a strategic border area in Ladakh and then disingenuously played conciliator by counselling “patience,” “wisdom” and “negotiations.” The incursion bore all the hallmarks of Chinese brinkmanship, including taking an adversary by surprise, seizing an opportunistic timing, masking offence as defence, and discounting risks of wider escalation. Occurring at a time when India has never been so politically weak, the intrusion was shrewdly timed to exploit its political paralysis and leadership drift.

What China did was to impudently violate border-peace agreements with India by employing coercive power on the ground. Then — armed with the leverage from its encroachment into the Debsang plateau — it embarked on coercive diplomacy by setting out military demands for India to meet.

In doing so, it presented India with a Hobson’s choice: either endure the Chinese ingress into a region controlling key access routes or meet China’s demands at the cost of irremediably weakening Indian military interest in a wider strategic belt extending up to the Karakoram Pass and the Siachin Glacier. After a three-week standoff, China withdrew from the occupied spot but only after India blinked by ceding some ground — an action it has tried to rationalize as granting China a “necessary face saver.”

The plain fact is that India made a concession to end the standoff, while China — in a triumph for its coercive diplomacy — conceded nothing. In fact, placing the aggressor and the victim on the same pedestal, India announced both sides would pull back troops to end the standoff.

India, oddly, wilted just when China was coming under adverse international spotlight for intruding into Indian-controlled territory after expanding its “core interests” and provoking territorial spats with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Instead of raising China’s diplomatic costs for the encroachment so as to deter it from staging another intrusion at a time and place of its choosing, India rewarded the aggression by dismantling its defensive structures at Chumar. It took China just one platoon of up to 50 troops to bring India to heel.

The intruding troops could not have survived the icy wintertime conditions in the temporary shelters they erected. But had the intrusion continued for several more weeks, it would have shone an unlikable international light on China’s territorial revanchism and imperial resurgence.

All that India needed to do was to reinforce its military positions without encircling the intruders, yet standing firm on the demand it initially made while summoning the Chinese ambassador — an unconditional return to the status quo ante. Yet India gratuitously brought itself under pressure over Premier Li Keqiang’s impending visit, instead of feeling insulted that Li was stopping over in New Delhi on his way to Pakistan to bless the newly elected government there.

Making the most of India’s apparent lack of self-respect, Beijing insisted that India degrade its border defences by dismantling a key forward observation post, destroying defensive fortifications such as live-in bunkers for its troops, and suspending infrastructure development near the line of actual control (LAC). For its part, China, seeking to bolster its larger game-plan in eastern Ladakh to encroach on Indian land bit by bit, continues to rapidly build up an offensive capability.

In forcing Indian troops to start demolishing bunkers before officially terminating the standoff and softening up India for further bargaining, China has vindicated its coercive diplomacy while rendering India more vulnerable to Chinese military manoeuvres and raids. The razing of bunkers has already forced Indian troops to suspend patrolling up to the LAC in the Chumar area, a development that threatens to whittle down Indian salience in a critical border region while opening space for China to expand its sovereignty claims.

Having overtly challenged India’s belated, bumbling moves to fortify frontier defences against a rising pattern of Chinese border provocations, China will now hold the threat of unleashing its coercive power again. In fact, with boundary tensions still lingering, Beijing has made it clear that it has “terminated” the standoff, not settled the dispute, with the two sides, according to it, reaching “an agreement on resolving the incident in the western section of the border.” An actual resolution, Beijing has indicated, hinges on India making more border-related concessions, which is why it is pushing a new Chinese-drafted frontier deal — a clear attempt to rub salt into Indian wounds.

More fundamentally, China’s incursion has wreaked lasting damage on the dual Sino-Indian border accords of 2005, a development scarcely conducive to ensuring Himalayan tranquillity and stability. One pact relates to military confidence building and the other defines political parameters for border peace and an eventual frontier settlement.

While the political accord enjoins the two parties to “strictly respect and observe the LAC and work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas” (Article IX), the military agreement — echoing an earlier accord of 1993 — mandates that “if the border personnel of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the Line of Actual Control or any other reason,” they “shall cease their activities in the area, not advance any further, and simultaneously return to their bases,” without putting up “marks or signs on the spots” (Article IV).

China openly violated these accords by pitching tents in Indian-held territory, provoking an extended faceoff, and publicly justifying its actions. Notwithstanding the “face-to-face situation,” the intruding troops refused to retreat and raised provocative banners such as, “This is Chinese Land” and “Go Back.” If one side violates agreements with impunity, how can their sanctity or value be preserved?

Even so, the incursion betrayed the fecklessness of India’s leadership, which has pathetically sought to disguise its capitulation as a win for quiet diplomacy. It is as if history is repeating itself. Today’s national-security disarray mirrors the confusion and mess of 1962.

Just as the 1954 Panchsheel Agreement paved the way for China’s nibbling at Indian territory, culminating in the 1962 invasion, India lulled itself into complacency by signing the 2005 accords. These accords have yielded a sharp escalation by China in cross-LAC forays and border incidents, including the 2007 destruction of Indian army bunkers near Doka La at the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction.

For China, agreements are just a tool of deception to lull the enemy. As Sun Tzu famously said, “All warfare is based on deception.” Having scored a bloodless victory, the latest intrusion will not be China’s last. Rather, it is just the first major shot China has fired across India’s bows to alter the Himalayan status quo in its favour by employing coercive power short of an open war.

Brahma Chellaney is professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and winner of America’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) The Economic Times, 2013.