With China’s aggression, India finds history repeating itself

A common Indian refrain today is that China has betrayed India’s friendship. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Did India really draw enduring lessons from 1962? If so, how does it explain being “stabbed in the back” again by China?

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Successive Indian governments have put more faith in diplomacy than the armed forces in achieving security objectives. Diplomacy can accomplish little in the absence of strategic vision and resolve or adequate leverage. The diplomatic blunders of 1948 (Kashmir dispute’s internationalization), 1954 (Panchsheel Agreement’s acceptance of the “Tibet region of China”), 1960 (Indus Waters Treaty), 1966 (Taskhent) and 1972 (Simla) have imposed enduring costs.

Worse still, India has learned little from its past, which explains why history repeats itself. Today, with China’s multi-thrust aggression, which caught India napping, history is repeating itself, underscored by a common Indian refrain that Beijing has betrayed India’s friendship.

China’s latest “stab in the back” raises key questions, not about the communist dictatorship in Beijing (which has made a practice of employing deception, concealment and surprise in peacetime), but about India. What explains India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity over the decades that highlights the aphorism, “act in haste, repent at leisure”? Why has India repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust?

Why has Indian diplomacy, time after time, rushed to believe what it wanted to believe? Or what makes India keep repeating the cycle of bending over backward to court a foe and then failing to see aggression coming (as in Kargil, Pathankot or Doklam)? More fundamentally, why does India stay at the receiving end of its foes’ machinations and always play the victim? For example, why has it never repaid China with its own “salami slicing”?

One reason history repeats itself is that virtually every Indian prime minister, although unschooled in national security at the time of assuming office, has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel, rather than learn from past blunders. Another reason is that Indian intellectuals and journalists generally shrink from closely scrutinizing foreign-policy moves.

Overselling outcomes of summit meetings with China from 1988 to 2019 for leadership glorification has led to India’s worst China crisis after the 1962 war. For example, five separate border-management agreements were signed at summits between 1993 and 2013, with each accord hailed in India (but not China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.”

Now India admits China has trashed all those agreements with its aggression. Yet India still plays into China’s hands by clinging to the accords and by agreeing recently in Moscow to build on them through new confidence-building measures (CBMs).

China is showing it is a master in protracting negotiations so as to buy time to consolidate its territorial gains, while exploring the limits of its adversary’s flexibility and testing its patience. For Beijing, any agreement is designed to bind not China but the other side to its terms. It is seeking fresh CBMs to make India respect the new, Chinese-created territorial status quo and to restrict India from upgrading its border infrastructure.

China’s foreign minister claims the “consensus” reached at Moscow is to “meet each other halfway.” Meeting China halfway will validate its “10 miles forward, 5 miles back” strategy, with China gaining half but India losing half. This illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.

Yet India has placed its faith in diplomacy ever since it discovered China’s intrusions in early May. It reined in its armed forces from taking counteractions until recently. Had it permitted proactive countermeasures earlier, once sufficient acclimatized troops and weapons capability were in place, China’s territorial gains would have been more limited.

China used the talks with India to make additional encroachments, especially on the critical Depsang Y-Junction, which controls access to several areas. Of all the land grabs China has made, the largest is in Depsang, the sector of utmost importance to Indian defences. Yet this encroachment has received little attention.

In fact, some are drawing a false equivalence between the Chinese and Indian military actions to obscure the reality. While China has seized several areas that traditionally were under Indian patrolling jurisdiction, India has occupied its own unmanned mountain heights in one area in order to pre-empt another Chinese land grab.

The defence minister’s statement in Parliament, however, shows the government remains loath to admit that China has encroached on Indian areas. Shielding the government’s image, alas, comes first. This explains why India hasn’t labelled China the aggressor, leaving the field open for China to repeatedly call India the aggressor.

Having redrawn the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in several Ladakh sectors, including Pangong, Gogra-Kongka La, Hot Springs and Galwan, China is now seeking to replace the term LAC with the looser expression “border areas.” It had its way in the Moscow agreement, which repeatedly mentions “border areas,” not LAC (a line unambiguously marked in Indian military maps and up to which Indian forces are supposed to defend all territory).

All the boundary-related bilateral accords and protocols are LAC-centred. But China, signalling its aggressive designs, stopped referring to the term LAC in recent years. Instead it is quietly treating the LAC as a line to actually control by changing facts on the ground.The Moscow agreement’s use of the vague term “border areas” helps to obscure China’s encroachments and creates space for continued Chinese salami slicing.

In this light, diplomacy is unlikely to deliver the status quo ante India seeks. In fact, China seems intent on continuing, below the threshold of armed conflict, coercive military pressure along the entire frontier from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh until India acquiesces to its demands, including reconciling to the new status quo.

Will China’s win-without-fighting warfare campaign help create a new India steeped in realism and determined to break the cycle of history repeating itself? At a minimum, it promises to shake up India’s business-as-usual approach to national security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.