China’s game plan is to keep India on the back foot

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, July 31, 2013

An increasingly assertive China has indisputably emerged as India’s immediate strategic challenge. While erring on the side of caution is prudent, strategic diffidence and tentativeness are likely to exact increasing costs. The more feckless and fearful a policy, the more pressures it is bound to invite.

India’s current China policy indeed exemplifies how meekness attracts bullying. The more timorous India has been, the more belligerent China has become.

A key defining event has been the three-week Chinese military incursion into Ladakh’s Depsang plateau, which ended on May 7 only after India virtually capitulated by demolishing a line of new defensive fortifications in the Chumar region, 400 kilometres to the south, and agreeing to consider a Chinese-drafted “Border Defence Cooperation Agreement”. Since then, an emboldened China has escalated its military pressure on India.

Its provocations have included several military forays into Chumar — a lightening raid on June 17 to smash up surveillance equipment was followed by more incursions on July 16-17, 18 and 20. Depsang was the scene of a 28-kilometre-deep Chinese intrusion on July 12. Border transgressions also occurred this month in Arunchal’s Dichu and Uttarakhand’s Barahoti areas.

Yet this spate of incursions has received little attention as the Indian state, mired in petty politics, remains woefully adrift. Indeed, the government kept the June 17 Chinese raid under wraps for three weeks for fear that news about it would provoke public pressure to cancel the impending separate visits to Beijing of the national security adviser and defence minister. Similarly, to safeguard the Chinese premier’s visit earlier, New Delhi — as if reading from the aggressor’s script in Chinglish — tried to pass off the watershed event at Depsang as a “small little spot” of “acne” treatable with “an ointment”.

China’s newest provocations, in fact, draw encouragement from its bloodless victory when it sneaked troops into Depsang and then, employing the threat of escalation, extracted Indian concessions. One of the concessions — suspension of forward patrolling in Chumar — has created the opening for stepped-up Chinese intrusions, designed to assert claims to that highly strategic area overlooking the Tibet-Xinjiang highway.

By making India remove fortifications and halt forward patrolling in Chumar, China accomplished two objectives — securing India’s acquiescence to Chinese-defined constraints on deployment and surveillance and an Indian acknowledgment, even if tacit, that the area is disputed. Pursuit of the next objective will likely witness Beijing’s call for “mutual accommodation” and “mutual respect” to achieve a dispute resolution on the basis of a now-familiar Chinese dictum — “what is ours is ours to keep, but what is yours must be on the negotiating table to be settled through give-and-take”.

To cover up its entrenched strategic timidity, however, New Delhi has flaunted its go-ahead for establishing a new mountain strike corps — a clearance that should have come several years earlier and without media hype. Yawning gaps in India’s Himalayan defences remain unplugged owing to sluggish decision-making. Even as China develops and deploys capabilities quietly, New Delhi advertises any deterrence move, however nascent.

It will take India probably up to seven years to establish and fully deploy the new strike corps. But the government has already betrayed its trademark meekness by deciding to deploy the new strike corps, or any of its formations, not where most needed — Arunachal Pradesh — but in West Bengal and elsewhere so as not to raise the hackles of Beijing, which calls Arunachal “disputed territory”. This is just one example of how New Delhi allows Beijing to dictate terms to it.

Consider another, more mortifying example: China’s draft Border Defence Cooperation Agreement is receiving India’s fullest consideration. The draft was handed to India in circumstances that amounted to holding a gun to its head and demanding that it enter into discussions on concluding the agreement. It was given on May 4 before Beijing agreed to dismantle its Depsang encampment.

China’s intent is to keep India at a strategic disadvantage and thus vulnerable to Chinese military pre-emption through an agreed freeze on build-up of border defences and troop levels. The aim clearly is to stymie India’s belated and still-bumbling efforts to enhance its defences and military logistics support.

China has a knack of defining important principles in an accord so as to bind the other party to them by fostering a belief that their mere enunciation represents progress, even as Beijing pays lip service to those principles. In the face of belligerent Chinese actions, however, it has become difficult to keep up the pretence of progress. The Depsang encampment represented a shot through the heart of the border-peace concept central to the existing accords concluded in 1993, 1996 and 2005. China thus wants these accords replaced with a new lopsided agreement to aid its containment-behind-engagement strategy.

But why is New Delhi furthering China’s game plan? Can a draft thrust by China at gunpoint be the basis for negotiating an agreement? As if content to play second fiddle to China, India is offering its comments and suggestions on the Chinese draft. In a July 6 joint statement with his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony even “agreed to the early conclusion of negotiations” on the proposed agreement. Is India a vanquished nation that had little choice but to embrace an imposed draft as the basis for negotiations?

With India’s lame-duck prime minister scheduled to visit Beijing in November, symbolism will again trump substance. Yet, without a fundamental course correction, India seriously risks courting another 1962-style Himalayan debacle.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

(c) Mint, 2013.