Chinese checkmate

Brahma Chellaney

The Hindustan Times, May 15, 2013

China has taken no break to savour the triumph of its coercive diplomacy when it caught India unawares by sneaking troops into Ladakh’s Depsang plateau and then, employing the threat of an extended standoff and escalation, extracted military concessions. Not content with that success, Beijing is now pushing a frontier accord that, in the name of Himalayan peace and tranquillity, would freeze India’s belated, bumbling build-up of border defences and troop levels while preserving China’s capability to strike without warning.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) completed the removal of its encampment from Depsang not on May 5, when India said the face-off was over, but on May 7 after Indian troops dismantled a defensive line of bunkers on their side at Chumar, an action that has spawned another concession — suspension of Indian patrolling along that critical borderline. Earlier on May 4, India received a far-reaching, Chinese-drafted “Border Defence Cooperation Agreement” that, in essence, seeks to keep India at a strategic disadvantage and thus vulnerable to Chinese military preemption.

Beijing is stepping up pressure, lest it gets too late, to stop India from plugging gaps in its border defences. China’s recent incursion forced India to dismantle vantage-point fortifications capable of providing early warning of Chinese troop movements, while the draft Border Defence Cooperation Agreement aims to advance broader Chinese interests and ensure that the PLA retains the option to strike at a time and place of its choosing. An emboldened China believes the Ladakh standoff has so softened India that it can now be inveigled into granting more concessions, especially to make Premier Li Keqiang’s visit a “success”.

In the recent episode, Chinese coercion easily trumped Indian diffidence. By merely positioning a single platoon of up to 50 troops across the de facto border, China compelled India — without firing a single shot — to agree to attenuate its border defences at Chumar (the scene of recurrent Chinese intrusion attempts) and to commit to addressing other Chinese concerns in follow-up negotiations.

China had a lot to lose by persisting with the face-off because it would have led to cancellation of Li’s visit and shone an adverse international spotlight on Chinese territorial aggressiveness with multiple neighbours. It was in India’s interest to raise the diplomatic costs for China so as to deter future military provocations.

Instead of letting China stew for a while after beefing up its forces but without encircling the intruders, India rewarded the aggressor with concessions. It also presented itself in the same light as the aggressor by announcing a simultaneous Indian and Chinese troop pullout from the standoff zone.

While New Delhi wilted under coercive pressure, China incontrovertibly vindicated its raid by paying no diplomatic or economic costs. Yet the corruption-tainted Indian government claims quiet diplomacy made China beat a retreat. If such is the power of Indian diplomacy, why is India bleeding itself by remaining the world’s largest arms importer?

In truth, it was India’s feckless decision to respond only by diplomatic means to a grave military provocation that left it no choice but to publicly play down the incursion and to yield ground.

China’s leverage-pivoted, concessions-mining approach stands in stark contrast with the forbearing Indian diplomacy, now stewarded by Salman Khurshid from his cloud-cuckoo-land perch. Imagine if Indian soldiers had intruded even one kilometre into Chinese territory: Would the Chinese foreign minister have survived in office by belittling it as a pimple on the “beautiful face” of India-China relations? And would he have subsequently rushed to New Delhi, renouncing the right to “do any post-mortem or apportion blame” and saying he would love to live in India?

Note also the striking contrast between the two countries’ approach to agreements. Whereas India’s legalistic line treats agreements as sacrosanct in letter and spirit, China regards accords as just political tools to advance its interests, including lulling the other party into complacency so as to create new exploitable opportunities. The 1954 Panchsheel treaty was a classic example: India valued it as heralding a Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era, while China used it as a cover to start encroaching on Indian territories and to solidify its Tibet annexation, paving the way for its 1962 India invasion.

China does not hesitate to renege on a commitment or violate a key pact, whereas India puts up stoically with even an iniquitous agreement like the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan, despite coming under growing water stress. After exchanging maps of the middle sector with India in 2001, China broke its commitment to also trade maps of the other two sectors to help clarify the entire line of control.

No sooner had the dual 2005 border-peace accords been signed than China began infringing them. Now that its Ladakh incursion has nakedly contravened the 2005 pacts, Beijing’s audacious response is to draft a lopsided Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to supplant all previous accords.

China has a knack of disaggregating any issue into multiple parts and then pursuing a shrewd, quid-pro-quo diplomacy to each element, often drawing a linkage with even extraneous pieces. In contrast to India’s itch to settle issues, settlement in Chinese diplomatic chess involves keeping space to possibly unleash leverage by reopening any component part in the future.

If India’s China policy remains driven by wishful thinking, the country is likely to invite more nasty surprises that end with similar Indian submission to the aggressor’s demands. It is past time to inject greater realism and leverage into the policy.

Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of America’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2013.