1 December 2022
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Between the Afghanistan fiasco — a horror story without any ending, the transatlantic ruckus over AUKUS, the Evergrande mess, Xi Jinping’s regulatory crackdown and resurrection of Maoism in China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the United States and the maiden ‘in-person’ Quad Leaders’ Summit — the border standoff between India and China has dropped off the headlines. Lack of media attention doesn’t mean the situation is easing on the ground. If anything, since the disengagement of troops from Gogra early August, China yet again seems to be upping the ante.

And as always, Chinese steps are incremental, staying just below the radar on the ground to avoid large-scale attention but backed by heavy-duty signaling. Media reports emerged this week that on 30 August, PLA troops numbering over 100 (some on horseback) had crossed the border via Tun Jun La pass to enter Barahoti in Uttarakhand where they smashed some infrastructure, including a bridge, but retreated before being challenged by Indian soldiers.

It is not so much the intrusion into 5 km of Indian territory, but the number of PLA troops involved in the provocation that reportedly alarmed the Indian security establishment. As Economic Times points out, Barahoti intrusion in 1954 by the Chinese was part of a sequence of events that eventually led to the 1962 war.

Then there were reports, also this month, that PLA’s Western Theatre Command has introduced more night drills for troops and is bringing in advanced equipment for units stationed near the Himalayan border. South China Morning Post, quoting Chinese media, reported that PLA soldiers are practicing nighttime live-fire gun drills. Cutting-edge weapons such as truck-mounted 122mm multiple system rocket launchers are being deployed. Additionally, the PLA is replacing all old generation J-7 fighter jets along the LAC with the advanced J-16 multirole strike fighters.

We also saw reports this month of China testing its air defence forces against “possible Indian missiles or jets” in drills on the Tibetan plateau, constructing “at least 10 new airbases along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh besides ramping up infrastructure at its exiting airbases close to the Indian frontier” and, curiously, PLA officers “contacting guides and ex-terrorists in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” who have a good understanding of the “topography of Kashmir valley, Ladakh and Jammu regions.”

It isn’t clear (it never is) why China is launching a series of provocations, but it is worth noting that PLA’s Western Theatre Command, which includes Tibet and Xinjiang military districts and is responsible for border security along the LAC, underwent rapid recent changes in leadership with General Wang Haijiang in September becoming the fourth head of the command since the border crisis escalated with India, and the third change in WTC this year.

And according to The Print, another significant military promotion ostensibly targeted at India occurred this month with Liu Lin, a general who is known to Indians due to his presence during border negotiations, taking over as the commander of Xinjiang military district.

More alarmingly, the PLA’s Western Theatre Command is installing modular container-based accommodations for troops in several high-altitude locations in eastern Ladakh such as near Tashigong, Manza, Hot Springs and Churup where Indian and Chinese troops are in forward-deployment posture. These shelters are meant for withstanding extreme cold weather, indicating that China anticipates escalation of tension even during the severe Himalayan winter.

None of these developments and signallings are exceptional in isolation, but taken together they represent a pattern, indicating that China doesn’t want to let calmness prevail along the border even as it pitches for normalcy in bilateral ties.

It is futile to search for reasons behind Chinese behavior because its actions are deliberately aimed at spreading confusion and ambiguity so that the adversaries remain on edge, always fearful of inviting Chinese wrath and consequently adopting a more cautious stance. China considers this ambiguity leverage, and it loathes giving it up. Right through the standoff in eastern Ladakh that resulted in the deadly Galwan clash last year, China has consistently blamed India and continues to do so, even though it was PLA’s land-grab in April 2020 that sparked the crisis.

Last Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian at a press briefing said “the Galwan Valley incident last year was caused by the Indian side’s illegal trespass of the LAC to encroach on Chinese territory, in violation of previously-signed treaties and agreements.”

There have been speculations that India’s infrastructure-building spree and raising of a new mountain corps — the 17 Mountain Strike Corps has been allocated to the Eastern Command and is now fully operational — may have displeased China but this is exactly what Beijing wants New Delhi to surmise so that the onus of the border tension lies on India.

It has been encouraging to note that India (albeit belatedly) is calling out China’s tactics of obfuscation that allow Beijing the space to be aggressive while posing as the victim. In a recent speech, delivered on 23 September as part of a Track-II dialogue organised by Indian and Chinese institutes, India’s ambassador to China Vikram Misri pointed out some home truths. His speech came on the same day, and as part of the same dialogue, that also saw the Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong delivering an address.

It is worth juxtaposing the two speeches that came within a few hours of each other and are reflective of the gulf that exists between the two sides. Let’s take up the Chinese ambassador’s talk first. But before we do so, it would make sense to note that this event was held at a time when global attention was cornered by the AUKUS pact and the Quad Leaders’ Summit hosted by US president Joe Biden in Washington DC — both developments that are indicative of the intensification of great power rivalry between the US and China.

And it is this that Chinese ambassador Sun chose to highlight. He accused India of adopting a more realist stance vis-à-vis China instead of putting faith in “Asian solidarity” and suggested that as “two major oriental countries, China and India should avoid falling into the trap of outdated western thinking.”

This is interesting because notions of a mythical ‘Asian solidarity’ led early Indian thinking into believing notions that China and India’s rise would be complementary. It took the bitter defeat in 1962 for Jawaharlal Nehru to realise that pan-Asian solidarity is a mirage. Recent Indian stance towards China has been governed by a realist understanding — prompted no doubt by China’s policy of territorial aggrandisement — that as a presumptive superpower in the same geography, China sees India as a threat to its hegemonic ambitions and would employ all tools at its disposal to ‘manage’ India’s rise.

India knows that internal balancing is a time-consuming exercise. It would take at least a couple of decades of sustained, near double-digit growth for India to measure up to China in terms of composite national power. This is an objective that will take a democratic India more time to achieve compared to China’s authoritarian political system. Therefore, governed by a realist approach, India is investing in balancing coalitions such as the Quad, entering into foundational agreements with the US, and strengthening bilateral ties with Japan, Australia and France to close the yawning power gap.

China doesn’t like this but pretends as if its imperial expansionism wasn’t the prime factor behind India’s adoption of an external balancing strategy. Notably, India’s enthusiasm for the Quad increased manifold after 20 Indian troops were killed in the Galwan Valley clash.

“Some Indian people think that China has become India’s ‘major threat’ and ‘strategic rival’. It is a serious strategic miscalculation. If such judgment is translated into India’s foreign policy, it would probably become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’,” said Sun.

Behind his apparently benevolent remarks lie the accusation that it is India that is marking China as an adversary and strategic rival, while China wishes nothing but well for India and “peaceful development” for both nations. The irony of delivering these grandiose statements even as PLA troops engage in live-fire drills along the LAC and intrude into Indian territory is lost on the Chinese envoy. Instead, he claims that China is a victim of Indian aggression.

Sun says that India shouldn’t insist on peace and tranquility as a prerequisite for progress in bilateral relations because “we should avoid taking a part for the whole, or losing sight of the forest for the trees… peace and tranquility in the border areas is important, but it is not the whole story of the bilateral relations.”

Perhaps Sun is unaware that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, in a recent meeting with US climate envoy John Kerry, said that through the US hopes to “transform bilateral cooperation into an ‘oasis’ in Sino-US relations, but if the ‘oasis’ is surrounded by ‘deserts,’ the ‘oasis’ will sooner or later be deserted. The Sino-US climate change cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of Sino-US relations.”

It may seem that China has adopted ‘one country, two foreign policy’ system whereby Beijing’s climate cooperation is incumbent on general improvement in Sino-US bilateral ties, but India should keep its border tension in a separate silo and focus on improving bilateral ties. It may strike as a particularly hypocritical argument to the rest of the world but for China it is ‘logical’, because the asymmetric dimension of Sino-Indian ties (that are loaded in China’s favour) is different from the Sino-US power asymmetry. Therefore, while China may demand some concessions from the US, it is not ready to give those concessions to India. And it doesn’t understand why India keeps insisting that it be treated as an equal.

Also notable are Sun’s comments where he says: “China and India should uphold strategic autonomy and grasp fate in our own hands… At present, some countries, with their ideological bias and Cold War mentality, vigorously seek closed and exclusive ‘small cliques’ with the aim of containing the third party, stoking bloc confrontation and geopolitical games… Once getting on someone else’s ship, one is no longer able to have the steer in control… We should uphold true strategic autonomy, not only in words, but more importantly, in deeds.”

While China doesn’t consider India as its peer competitor, it nevertheless fears a situation where India is drawn tightly into the American security arc (not necessarily as a treaty ally). American support, even if tactical, could be a force-multiplier and make India truly competitive in China’s eyes — a vindication of the balancing strategy that India has chosen to adopt.

As Stimson Center scholar Yun Sun wrote in War on the Rocks last year, “the US factor has become the most important consideration in China’s policy toward India. For China, the prospect of facing the American military at sea and the Indian military along its southern border and in the Indian Ocean becomes much more real and dangerous with defense cooperation between the US and India.”

China believes that the US seeks to enmesh India in institutionalised frameworks (for example, Quad) and India would play along even at the cost of bartering its strategic autonomy, though it may claim otherwise. Sun’s ‘worry’ over India’s perceived loss of autonomy is therefore insincere because it indicates China doesn’t want India to strike strategic partnerships and punch above its weight.

This theme, that India’s strategic posture is a reaction to China’s imperial ambitions and hegemonic behaviour runs right through ambassador Misri’s address at the same forum. Notably, the Indian envoy makes it clear quite early on that India’s stance towards China is not governed by any prejudice towards China’s rise but is the result of the “situation in eastern Ladakh” that must take precedence over every other bilateral consideration.

To the extent that this Track-II initiative was an extension of the diplomatic manoeuvres underway, it was worth noting that Misri stressed on “consistency between words and actions” and presented “three obstacles” that may hinder both sides in getting a solution to the most “pressing issue in bilateral ties”.

Misri’s entire speech is worth reading in full, but paragraphs 7 and 8 — where he elaborates on the first obstacle — deserve close attention.

“For long, the Indian and Chinese sides have adhered to a well-understood distinction between resolving the Boundary Question and managing border affairs. The 1988 understanding between our leaders was precisely for keeping the resolution of the Boundary Question on a track separate yet parallel to the bilateral relationship, with maintenance of peace and tranquillity as the prerequisite. The Special Representatives mechanism, the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles of 2005 and the three-phase framework were all designed in order to work on the Boundary Question, which we agreed was a complex and sensitive issue requiring time to work through.

On the other hand, for managing border affairs on a daily basis, we evolved a mechanism, consisting of instruments such as the WMCC and a succession of agreements, protocols and CBMs, in order to govern behaviour on the ground and ensure peace and tranquillity. A serious violation of peace and tranquillity in the border areas naturally requires us to apply our minds on the basis of established agreements, protocols and mechanisms to resolve it. As we do so, any attempt to confuse border affairs with the Boundary Question is a disservice to the work of those involved in finding solutions…”

Misri has cut through China’s strategy of deliberate obfuscation and presented Beijing’s attempt to change the status quo in eastern Ladakh for what it is — naked terrestrial aggression by an imperial power that masks bellicosity in perpetual victimhood.

Misri then points out that “it cannot be that only one side’s concerns are of relevance while the other side’s case goes unheard. Safeguarding territorial integrity and national security holds equal value for both sides… And to press one’s own concerns and disregard the other side’s concerns and sensitivities without any explanation or recourse goes beyond disrespect. It actually creates even more obstacles to finding solutions.”

The point being made here is that both countries are “equal” and there is no place for a Sino-centric hierarchical framework where China (Zhongguo) is the Middle Kingdom and the cradle of human civilization and the rest of the world is divided into tributaries or barbarians. In other words, India is letting China know that it doesn’t accept China’s hegemonic ambitions despite the power asymmetry between the two sides.

Misri also pointed out that bilateral ties “are substantial enough and sufficiently complex that they require their own approach and appropriate handling, without imaginary third factors complicating them further and distracting us from working on our priorities.”

This is a rejection of China’s accusation that India is bartering its strategic autonomy for a closer strategic embrace of the US. In other words, India’s balancing strategy will continue.

Be that as it may, the sequence of recent events on the border and the twin speeches exemplifies the complete breakdown of trust between both sides. The gulf is seemingly irreconcilable and growing because China’s aggression towards India, governed by a belief in Beijing that India has hegemonic ambitions of its own and could be a threat to its Tibetan flank, is forcing New Delhi into a deterrence posture and taking both countries into opposite directions.

And if Chinese pressure is aimed at persuading India not to align with the US or be assertive in its dealings with Beijing, then China needs to revise its policy because that is ensuring the exact opposite outcome.

Abdul Gh Lone