Indian perspectives on border tensions with China

Some context at the WSJ on the past week’s flare-up, and my article from 2011 (PDF) on the drivers of Sino-Indian tension. And Indian reactions:

Srinath Raghavan:

The areas where Chinese intrusions occur are claimed by both sides as lying on their side of the LAC. The Chinese are perfectly sincere when they claim that their forces are operating on their side of the LAC — just as the Indians are when they claim that the Chinese have intruded into the their side of the Line. This simple fact seems to elude most of our commentators in the media. This is all the more surprising because this problem has been around for over fifty years now. Daulat Beg Oldi, the focal point of the current hubbub, was an area of contention even before the 1962 war. Such places are likely to remain contentious until there is a boundary agreement between India and China. Till such an agreement is reached, both countries will continue to send troops into disputed areas, if only to keep their formal territorial claims alive. An Indian army chief is on the record stating that “the Chinese have a different perception of the Line of Actual Control, as do we. When they come up to their perception, we call it incursion and likewise they do.”

Equally mistaken is the notion that every move by China is part of some larger plan to box India into a corner. If our experts are to be believed, Beijing has worked out its strategy for the next thirty years while New Delhi can barely think thirty days ahead. The idea that great powers work to some predetermined grand strategy flies in the face of all international history. It is certainly not true of China, which has more than its share of extraordinary blunders.

Srinath Raghavan, again:

Srinath Raghavan, the author of War and Peace in Modern India, shares the view that Chinese unease with India’s border bustle is the big driver in this round of hostilities. But the senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi refuses to divine a hardening of Beijing’s overall stance towards India.

“I think it fits with past patterns of incursions in the area,” says Raghavan. “The Chinese are operating within their notion of the LAC. There is evidently an increase in tit-for-tat moves but China is not the only active party here. We too make our moves in areas that fall under China’s perceived LAC. So long as there is no agreed boundary, these things are bound to happen.”

Prashant Jha:

Last week, as the dispute over the alleged Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control deepened, the Headlines Today anchor, Rahul Kanwal, adopted a particularly aggressive line of questioning. Implicit in his approach was the assumption that the Chinese were the ‘aggressors’, that the Government of India had been weak, submissive, and not done enough […] Mr Kanwal did not reply to The Hindu’s question whether his channel had adopted a particular editorial line on the issue. But his approach was very similar to what was seen across channels, with anchors framing provocative questions, picking experts with a particular slant of views, and hectoring down those whose opinions perhaps varied with a narrative which sought to paint the issue of border ‘incursions’ in black-and-white. This throws up, yet again, questions about the nature of foreign policy coverage on Indian television.

The other issue is of the kind of ‘experts’ on TV discussions. Senior editors admit that there is a pre-determined narrative and guests are picked depending on their availability, but also familiarity with their thoughts and what they would say. ‘We don’t like nuances,” says one editor.

 Nitin Pai:

The PLA’s tactic of creating outrage to check the Indian Army works because the Chinese side expects the Indian political leadership to act rationally. If, instead, New Delhi were to allow the situation “to accentuate”, to use the prime minister’s phrase, then it would be for Beijing to choose whether it wants to escalate matters, especially at this time when China finds itself poised on the verge of conflict with almost all of its neighbours.

This is, of course, a risky thing to do. However, this is also a good time to take a calculated risk. After this month’s incursion, PLA commanders have proposed that the Indian Army back away from its positions in return for the PLA vacating its campsite in the Depsang valley in Ladakh. New Delhi should reject such a compromise; instead, it should visibly reinforce the Indian military presence around the vicinity. New Delhi should signal to Beijing – and, lest we forget, to our television studios – that this would be our default response to anything that we consider an incursion […] Beyond the Himalayan boundary theatre, New Delhi should calibrate its attention to the numerous maritime disputes involving China and its East Asian neighbours to the temperature of the overall India-China relationship. China cannot expect New Delhi to be insensitive to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states if Beijing is insensitive to India’s interests.

Ajai Shukla:

Without a road network, the cruel Himalayan terrain reduces even the largest divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. For decades, New Delhi has failed to speed up road building […] New Delhi must initiate an emergency inter-agency drive to cut through the difficulties and cut the roads through the hills. A Strategic Roads Plan already exists, crafted by Shyam Saran, a former special advisor to the prime minister who invested years of tramping around the borders into this comprehensive document […] Until this network of new Indian roads substantially changes the military equation on the ground, India has little choice but to hasten softly in its military build-up […] And as India changes ground realities, it must face the current ones, too – and keep talking with the Chinese army to ensure that tensions do not get out of hand.

Ajai Shukla, again:

This is no routine patrol incursion, which is common since both sides routinely patrol up to their perceived boundaries in order to keep alive their claims. Instead, this is an escalation that establishes “facts on the ground” that would materially affect an eventual territorial settlement. Remember the Wangdung intrusion, near Tawang, in 1986? That pocket, where the Chinese had pitched up a few tents, much like they did at DBO last fortnight, continues to remain with them […] You must make it clear that – even in the absence of a Wangdung-type troop build-up – all options remain on India’s table. The “proportionality” that you have advocated could involve a similar occupation of disputed territory by Indian troops at a selected time and place […] If the Chinese patrol replaces tents with permanent shelters, the Indian army will conclude that they intend to remain there through winter. In that case, it will be difficult for the government to explain to voters why it is not reacting militarily to a Kargil-style occupation of Indian territory […]

China’s new regime is clearly testing New Delhi’s resolve, checking to see whether the MEA’s wish to make the visit a success will induce it to meekly accept the incursion at DBO. Your discussions in Beijing will set the tone for the next 10 years. We are confident you will flash the steel that your predecessor, S M Krishna, did in reminding the Chinese that our sensitivities in J&K matched Chinese sensitivities in Tibet; coming closer than any Indian official before or after to reopening the Tibet question.

 Indrani Bagchi:

Watching China’s aggressive territorial moves in the east, India should have learnt one lesson — China will remain intractable in its territorial claims. It’s willing to go to war with Japan or Vietnam and even India if need be. Second, having built a formidable network of infrastructure on the border, China is apparently unsettled at India’s own efforts in the past five years. This may ‘explain’ Chinese behaviour, but the Indian government’s focus seems to be on keeping the relationship insulated from such incidents. This talks-despite-terrorism policy didn’t work in the Pakistan context and it’s bound to fail equally spectacularly with respect to China.

KC Singh (former Secretary in India’s foreign ministry):

This time, however, the Chinese have not only exceeded their accepted outer limit by a few kilometres but actually camped there. In effect, the Chinese have changed the rules of the game. The ministry of external affairs dubs it a “face-to-face” situation. The mechanisms for border stabilisation, established by the Special Representatives (SRs) for border settlement, have failed to deal with the latest Chinese infraction […] Interestingly, the current fracas occurs weeks before the arrival of the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, in India much as the Chinese ambassador’s provocative remarks on Arunachal Pradesh in 2006 were made on the eve of the visit of then President Hu Jintao. Is there method in this madness?

India’s dilemma is akin to what the US and the West faced in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, i.e. whether to trust Stalin’s Soviet Union or contain it […] Sinologists advising the Indian government, led by national security adviser S.S. Menon, who interminably insists that a war with China is impossible, may actually have emboldened China to test the Indian resolve again half a century after the 1962 debacle. The Chinese offer of an agreement to freeze Indian troop enhancement, bolster Pakistan, encourage Sri Lanka and penetrate Nepal are all to make India accept Chinese dominance in the new world order.

B. Raman (former intelligence officer):

There is no evidence to show that this could be a prelude to a major Chinese assertion of territorial sovereignty in this area. The Chinese aim seems to be to re-assert their claim of sovereignty over this area without disturbing peace and tranquillity. The Chinese troops are presently camping in the area in a tent. We will have reasons to be more than concerned only if they stay put there and construct permanent defences as they often do in the uninhabited islands of the South China Sea […] There is a noticeable keenness on the part of both China and India to avoid any provocative incident either in the Eastern or Western sector […] The Chinese are unlikely to relent in their claims to Indian territory in the Eastern sector till after they have succeeded in imposing on the Tibetans a Dalai Lama chosen by the Communist Party of China (CPC) with the help of the Panchen Lama chosen by the CPC

P. Stobdan (former Indian Ambassador):

Since 1986, China has taken land in the Skakjung area in the Demchok-Kuyul sector in Eastern Ladakh. Now, it has moved to the Chip Chap area in Northeastern Ladakh. As in Kargil, India has been lax in patrolling. Unlike the lowlands in Eastern Ladakh, the Chip Chap valley is extremely cold and inhospitable. Until end-March, it remains inaccessible, and after mid-May, water streams impede vehicles moving across the Shyok River. This leaves only a month and a half for effective patrolling by the Indian side. For China, accessibility to Chip Chap is easier. No human beings inhabit the area. No agencies except the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the army have a presence there. And both are locked in inter-departmental disputes […] The Chinese intention is to enter from the south of the Karakoram and cross the Shyok from the east. That would be disastrous for Indian defence, leaving the strategic Nubra vulnerable, possibly impacting supply lines and even India’s hold over Siachen. It is quite possible that China is eyeing the waters of the Shyok and Chang Chenmo rivers, to divert them to the arid Aksai Chin and its Ali region. The only provocation from the Indian side was the recent opening of airbases at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma […]

As of today, the issue is not reclaiming 38,000 square km of Aksai Chin lost to China in 1962 but retaining the territory lying inside the Indian LAC. India’s problems include poor infrastructure, shortcomings in understanding the boundary, discrepancies in maps held by various agencies, a lack of institutional memory, lack of clarity in South Block, a demoralised army. In a 2010 meeting, officials admitted the loss of substantial land in 20-25 years, though then Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor dismissed that Ladakh had shrunk. Some agencies used the change in river course as a reason for the loss of 500-1,500 metres of land every year […] India’s political sensitivity towards Ladakh has also waned over the years. A drift in Ladakh is not desirable.

Major General Vinod Saighal:

To the armed forces, to the people of India, and to the world the foreign minister of India is not going to the Chinese capital to demand a pull-back. He is seen to be going to Beijing as a supplicant. As in the days of yore the imperial power may graciously oblige its vassal. The country will not know as to what concessions the minister would have been authorised to concede that would further undermine India’s capability in the future. Flowing from it, it could be well on the cards that during the Chinese Prime Minister’s visit some public pronouncements that the country can live with would be made. Nobody would be deceived that once again India would have been humiliated.

India still has a range of options to make China see reason without losing face. It hardly matters that India loses face, the country having been inured to it, used to it and reconciled to it by now. If these options are not exercised early enough – timing always being of the essence – India’s humiliation would have been compounded and its military position further degraded. What is worse the status quo might conceivably turn out to be freezing of positions as obtaining on the date of the agreement; meaning thereby the new LAC on the DBO sector would be 19 kms within Indian Territory.

Sushil Kumar (former navy chief):

This stand-off may be defused diplomatically, but what it really shows is the PLA’s contempt for our military capability. This raises a serious question: why do we continue to remain militarily fragile vis-a-vis China, despite being nuclear-armed, with a deterrent that boasts of an ICBM capability? […] We consequently lack the refinements needed for manoeuvre warfare in our mountainous borders with China. With improved border infrastructure and massive airlift resources, the PLA can deploy up to four full-fledged mountain divisions to any point along the LAC within 24 hours. In contrast, our troops remain bogged down by decrepit border infrastructure and lack of mobility. That is the ground reality […]

But why are we in such a paradox — nuclear-armed, yet militarily fragile? It is because we have deluded ourselves that nuclear deterrence reduces the need for conventional force levels and, taken in by this flawed proposition, scarce national resources have been diverted to build a nuclear war-fighting machine that will never be used. Influenced by nuclear warfare gurus with a “nuclear mindset”, we have misplaced our strategic priorities […] Hopefully, we are not going to make the type of strategic blunder Great Britain made in the 1960s and 1970s, when it opted for the Polaris-Trident programme to bolster its nuclear deterrence. Massive resources were diverted that emasculated Britain’s conventional war-fighting capability. It cost the Royal Navy dearly. An atrophied Royal Navy realised the consequences of this folly much later in1982, when it could barely assemble a motley group of ships to sail for the Falklands.

Srikanth Kondapalli:

They are testing us and we are testing them back. When you have uncertainty, people play games. In this case, the fact that we asked for two flag meetings and the Chinese had to accept, indicated that we too put them to a test. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a comment on this, and their foreign ministry spokesperson also said, “We should go back to status quo.” This means they accepted that it was China that changed the status quo, so to go back to it, they will have to withdraw and go back 10 km. So it is true that China tested India and India, in turn, also succeeded in testing it […] I don’t think this issue will lead to a war. This is just posturing. Both sides will protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity, but they will not go to war on small issues. It is a big issue in terms of changing the status quo, but a small issue in terms of war.

Manoj Joshi:

Even so, it would be hazardous to speak definitively about Chinese motivations. After being lambasted by the Indian media for occupying “Indian territory,” the Chinese might be concerned about losing face with a hasty retreat. The fact of the matter is that the boundary in the region is defined merely by a notional Line of Actual Control, which is neither put down on mutually agreed maps, let alone defined in a document through clearly laid out geographical features. While both sides accept most of the LAC and respect it, there are some nine points where there are overlapping claims and both sides patrol up to the LAC, as they understand it. In such circumstances, the Chinese could well withdraw after a decent interval.

This more benign interpretation of Chinese behaviour is also in tune with the statements that the new leadership in Beijing has been making […] 2013 is not 1962 and the Indian media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a hawkish course on the border. But what the recent controversy does tell us is unsettled borders are not good for two neighbours because they can so easily become the cause of a conflict that neither may be seeking.

Praveen Swami:

Finding a speculative explanation for what is going on is easy. For example, it is possible Chinese want to lean harder on Indian positions facing the Karakoram, or that they are signalling irritation about India’s wider build-up on its eastern borders, which includes the raising of an entire new corps […] It is also, of course, possible that China is telling the truth when it suggests the action may be a protest against defensive fortifications India has put up in Phuktsé, to compensate for its vulnerable logistical chain […]

Even though it’s improbable China wants war, India wants one even less. India’s political leadership is hesitant to authorise force, wary of the certain costs of precipitating a crisis. Later this year, as the cold sets in across Ladakh, China’s outpost will have to withdraw: there’s simply no way to survive the cold in temporary shelters. However, Chinese will by then have drawn lessons about Indian resolve—and it’s vital, in the long-term interests of peace, that they not be the wrong ones. There are things India can do, short of setting off a firefight, which can signal seriousness of purpose: among them, more aggressive probes and presence-marking operations. There will be a price—but it will be cheaper than the cost of doing nothing now.

Zorawat Daulet Singh (via Nitin Pai):

China’s perceptions and its approach to its entire periphery has undergone changes in recent years. The reasons can be attributed mostly to internal political dynamics where the Dengist image of a pragmatic and agreeable China has been trumped by a more assertive self-image of China as a great power. The East Asian geopolitical dynamic, especially the US ‘pivot’ and renewed intra-allied cooperation in the US security network, only reinforces China’s threat perceptions and its assertive posture. This is now an ongoing game as part of the evolving balance of power in the Asia Pacific […] At some point intense forward probing can tend to undermine the bigger negotiating picture with both militaries seeking marginal improvements in their LACs. If political oversight from both sides over the operational details is robust then this game can carry on a little longer. While on India’s side political oversight is strong, overzealous tactical behaviour must not be allowed to dictate the strategy of seeking a negotiated settlement.

Brahma Chellaney:

In this light, it will be a mistake to view the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh in isolation of the larger pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness that began when Beijing revived its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh just before the 2006 India visit by its president, Hu Jintao. The resurrection of that claim, which was followed by its provoking territorial spats with several other neighbours, was the first pointer to China staking out a more domineering role in Asia. It was as if China had decided that its moment has finally arrived […] India’s defensive and diffident mindset has been on full display in the latest episode. Not only has it publicly downplayed an act of naked aggression — the worst Chinese intrusion since the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incursion brought the two countries to the brink of war — but India also insists on going with an outstretched hand to an adversary still engaged in hostile actions, unconcerned that it could get the short end of the stick yet again […]

More fundamentally, India can maintain border peace only by leaving China in no doubt that it has the capability and political will to defend peace. If the Chinese see an opportunity to nibble at Indian land, they will seize it. It is for India to ensure that such opportunities do not arise. In other words, the Himalayan peace ball is very much in India’s court. India must have a clear counter-strategy to tame Chinese aggressiveness. […] To build countervailing leverage, India has little choice but to slowly reopen the central issue of Tibet — a card New Delhi wholly surrendered at the altar of diplomacy during the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister.

Jaideep Prabhu:

Returning to 2013, these patterns from the past are immediately visible – proclamations of the desire for peaceful coexistence, feigned anger at a supposed slight, ambiguous diplomatic positioning, and military risk-taking with the hope of usurping territory and rights undefended. Enough ink has already been spilled on how the Indian military might better defend the country’s frontiers, how India lacks a coherent China policy, and how Indians need to calm down about an incident that is more routine than one would like. However, it might also behoove policy makers to take a step back and see the larger pattern of Chinese behaviour with its neighbours: duplicity, opacity, and belligerence when they can get away with it. The present border skirmish is not an isolated incident but fits uncomfortably well with Chinese strategy over the past few decades. India needs to consider the entirety of Chinese strategy and not restrict its response to a singular event but develop a range of options by which to undermine China’s game.

Pierre Fitter:

Let’s start with the immediate problem – the incursions. The one thing India does not want to do is to play Beijing’s game. Beijing wouldn’t mind a fight right now. This would rally China’s citizens behind the Party. The goal, remember, is not the fight itself, which the PLA will likely win thanks to superior logistics. It is for the Party to have the unquestioning support of its citizens. India, at any rate, cannot afford a conflict right now. The best solution is to talk and defuse such provocations. This has happened 600 times before and will continue to happen in the future. The media should avoid conflating such obvious distractions with the real problems identified above.

That said, there is no harm in enhancing India’s ability to respond to a potential conflict. The stationing of new military units along the LAC is a strong signal that New Delhi is prepared to defend its territory. This conventional deterrence bolstered by the existing nuclear deterrent, will ward off more serious land-grabbing attempts […] Another strong signal would be the strengthening of ties with China’s other neighbours such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan […] The wider the basket of benefits for good behaviour, the greater will be Beijing’s perceived alienation for its bad behaviour. MEA officials and observers in the strategic community indicate that the New Delhi is doing exactly this. Perhaps its public messaging could do with improvement.

Suggested additions welcome.


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