Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times
India extended the hand of friendship to China but was repaid with stealth aggression in Ladakh. The Chinese incursions into strategic areas presented India with a Kargil-like challenge. The aggression is not just a wake-up call for India; it could prove to be the deciding factor in fundamentally altering the country’s approach to China.
Shrewdly timing a surprise assault has been central to China’s repeated use of force, as several studies underscore. In 1962, China invaded India just as the Cuban missile crisis was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And in April-May, as a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China encroached on Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Hot Springs (both previously undisputed areas) and simultaneously occupied Lake Pangong’s disputed long stretch between Fingers 4 and 8.
Military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” led China to strike when India was vulnerable. India’s draconian lockdown — the world’s strictest — flattened not its coronavirus curve but its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) curve, as one industrialist has noted. India now has the worst of both worlds — spiralling infection rates and a seriously-damaged economy, crimping its military options. China, which signalled a bellicose intent by conducting Himalayan military drills since the beginning of this year, seized the opening from the Indian Army’s lockdown-driven deferment of its annual Ladakh exercise, which creates acclimatised troop reserves before late spring unfreezes ingress routes.
Caught off-guard, India faces difficult options while battling the pandemic. India, however, is unlikely to put up with China’s encroachments, which explains its counterforce build-up in eastern Ladakh, despite the viral risks to troops. This week’s mutual pullback of troops at three of the four confrontation sites reduces the threat of war but doesn’t diminish China’s act of belligerence. The 2017 Doklam disengagement is a reminder that China doesn’t deviate from what it has set out to achieve: No sooner had the standoff ended than China began frenzied construction of permanent military structures and occupied almost the entire Doklam.
Let’s be clear. China’s latest aggression is very different from its Ladakh intrusions in the Depsang Plains (2013) and Chumar (2014) that had narrow tactical objectives. For example, it withdrew from Chumar after making India demolish local defensive fortifications.
The latest well-planned encroachments seem strategically geared to altering the frontier by grabbing vantage locations, whose control will place the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a commanding position. By building bunkers and other concrete structures, such as between Pangong’s Fingers 4 and 8, PLA has signalled its intent to retain key land grabs.
With PLA forces already present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near its frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh. The encroachments raise the spectre of PLA in a war cutting through northern Ladakh and physically linking up with Pakistan to put India under siege.
China’s aggression potentially signifies a geostrategic sea change. China is seeking to buy enough time through negotiations with India to consolidate its hold on key encroached areas. In this light, Beijing is seeking to string India along. If China vacates occupied land after extracting a price, it won’t be vantage points overlooking enemy positions but marginal territory.
As Mao Zedong admitted, China undertakes negotiations to “buttress its position” and “wear down the opponent”. China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before deceptively being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003.
India also invested considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China through five different agreements, each signed with great fanfare at summits between 1993 and 2013. However, by brazenly flouting the accords’ basic principles through its encroachments, China has gravely fractured the framework.
In the way it has profoundly changed the status quo in the South China Sea without firing a shot, China is seeking to complete its thus far bullet-less aggression against India by forestalling through negotiations an Indian counter-offensive or an Indian tit-for-tat grab of Chinese-claimed territory elsewhere. So, it is saying the two sides must ensure “differences do not escalate into disputes”. In plain language, China is asking India to stomach its aggression or else the situation will cease to be, in its words, “stable and controllable”.
With its aggression, however, China has brought its relations with India to a tipping point. By opening several international fronts, including one against India, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be biting off more than he can chew. He will discover India is no pushover. By awakening India to China’s threat, Xi’s aggression eventually will prove costly for China, which is already staring at a cold war with the United States.
Far from submitting to China’s aggression, India will make necessary readjustments in its foreign and defence policies with the aim of imposing costs and thwarting Beijing’s larger hegemonic objectives. After all, how India emerges from its military stand-off with China will have an important bearing on its international standing and on Asian security.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” By starting a conflict with India to advance his larger neo-imperial ambitions, Xi has increased the odds that the tiger under his arm will bite him.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.