Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
In this light, the outcome of China’s aggression against India will have an important bearing on Asian security. If the current India-China military disengagement ends up like the 2017 Doklam disengagement in making China the clear winner, an emboldened Xi regime will likely become a greater threat to neighbours.
China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.
China has displayed its art of deception even in its disengagement process with India. The first accord of June 6 to disengage collapsed after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) erected structures on Indian territory and then ambushed and killed Indian Army men on verification patrol. The disengagement process restarted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to let China off the hook with his June 19 speech at the all-party meeting. But the fresh process became a ruse for PLA to encroach on two new Indian areas — the Depsang Y-Junction; and the Galwan Valley site of the ambush killings.
India and China are now in their third disengagement series. But while the previous two abortive rounds followed military-level talks, the latest cycle is being driven politically. We now know that Modi’s July 3 Ladakh visit, and his tough words there, were essentially designed to create domestic political space for his government to seek de-escalation with China. Barely 48 hours after his visit, India and China hammered out a disengagement deal.
Will the latest deal stick? Having encroached on key areas that overlook India’s defences, PLA is sitting pretty. A full return to status quo ante as sought by India seems remote, thanks to India’s own mixed signals. Moreover, by encroaching on additional areas behind the previous disengagement facade, China has armed itself with greater leverage to impose a revised status quo, including by applying the precept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law”.
Disengagement (pullback of rival forces from close proximity), if not de-escalation (ending hostilities through demobilisation of forces), meshes well with China’s interest in presenting India a fait accompli. Removing the threat of an Indian counteroffensive or Indian tit-for-tat land grab will help China win without fighting.
This explains why China has accepted disengagement — but on its terms. This is illustrated in the Galwan Valley, where India has pulled back from its own territory and created a “buffer zone” on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These steps, though temporary, create a new, China-advantageous status quo that PLA could seek to enforce because it keeps India out of China’s newly-claimed zone — the Galwan Valley.
The risk that, like at Doklam, the current disengagement may not end well for India is high. Instead of demonstrating strength and resolve, India has displayed zeal to end the stand-off, despite its armed forces being mobilised for possible war.
At a time when the international environment is beginning to turn against China, India could have prolonged the stand-off until winter to compel restoration of status quo ante. But instead, it has kicked status quo ante down the road and settled merely for disengagement. This allows China to hold on to its core territorial gains and trade the marginal occupied territories for Indian concessions, as part of its well-known “advance 10 miles and retreat six miles” strategy.
Far from imposing military costs, India has shied away even from trade actions against the aggressor, as if to preserve the option of another Modi-Xi summit. India’s steps so far (banning Chinese mobile apps and announcing an intent to restrict Chinese investment in some areas) have been designed to assuage public anger at home, but without imposing substantive costs on Beijing or damaging bilateral relations.
In 1967, a weak India, while recovering from the 1962 and 1965 wars, gave China a bloody nose. But in 2017 and again now, after its soldiers displayed extraordinary bravery in tackling China’s aggression, a nuclear-armed India hastily sought disengagement. Its decision-makers remain loath to fundamentally change the China policy even when faced with aggression.
Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have sought to appease it. When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.
The present path risks locking India in a “no war, no peace” situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down.
If India wants Himalayan peace, it must make China pay for its aggression to help create a deterrent effect. The present aggression — the most serious since the 1960s — resulted from India letting China off the hook too easily in 2017, allowing it to capture Doklam. And if China emerges the winner from the current crisis, its next aggression could be worse. Only a chastened China saddled with high costs and loss of face will rein in its aggressive expansionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.