SPEAKING FREELY China's incursions show strategic blindness
By Namrata Goswami
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WASHINGTON - The China-India border dispute has cast a shadow on bilateral relations for decades. Memories of the war it provoked in 1962 continue to influence Indian strategic thinking vis-a-vis China.
In India's northeast, the bilateral dispute is dominated by Chinese claims over 90,000 square kilometers of territory which includes
the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh or "Southern Tibet" as the Chinese call it.
This area is viewed by China through the prism of Tibet, mostly due to the presence of the Monpas and the Membas, connected as they are to the Tibetan heritage as well as the Tawang monastery, revered as the second most sacred Tibetan Buddhist monastery after Lhasa.
There is speculation that the 15th Dalai Lama may come from Tawang, continuing the expatriate Tibetan resistance to China's presence in Tibet.
While this area has witnessed increased militarization by both China and India in recent years with troop, fighter-jet and missile deployment, it was another dispute on India's northwestern border, in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir, that last month led to a military standoff with Beijing.
India alleges that China is illegally occupying 38, 000 square kms of Indian territory in this area. The Chinese view is that this territory had never been demarcated.
One way China has been asserting its ownership rights is by aggressively patrolling along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and through questioning the validity of the LAC itself.
This keeps the issue alive and dynamic while challenging the Indian presence in an extremely strategic geography. The Aksai Chin, as this disputed area is called, connects the Autonomous Province of Xinjiang to Tibet via a strategic road.
Another important connection here is the Karakoram highway that connects Pakistan to China. This opens up the strategic possibility of connecting land-locked Xinjiang and Tibet to the Gwadar port in Pakistan thereby opening up trade links via the Arabian Sea.
China continues to intrude into Indian territory in Ladakh on the basis that there are "differing perceptions" of the LAC as determined by absence of a common understanding between China and India over the exact location of this border.
This particular assertion of vague and differing perceptions is surprising given that both China and India signed two critical agreements on "Maintaining of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas" in 1993 and " Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas" in 1996.
If the LAC is the basis of these important agreements, there has to be firm understanding between both sides on where that border line is when they signed onto these agreements. Therefore, to now argue that there are "differing perceptions" is rather spurious.
It is also surprising that India buys onto the Chinese argument of vague and differing perceptions of the LAC as that enables China to cross the LAC into Indian territory at will and provoke India militarily at the border. This situation offers China an easy way out from several such border intrusions without any serious strategic implications.
The most recent standoff between China and India in Ladakh was also interpreted by both Chinese and Indian officials as propelled by differing perceptions of the LAC.
It began on the night of April 15, when around 50 Chinese troops (a platoon level) crossed the LAC near Daulat Beg Oldi sector into the Depsang plains in Eastern Ladakh and set up a tent there at nearly 17, 000 ft. Noticed a day later by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the tent clearly encroached into Indian territory.
In response, the ITBP set up camp 300 meters from the Chinese camp. This led to a face-off, if not a military confrontation.
Unlike earlier times when Chinese troops crossing the LAC illegally returned almost immediately to the Chinese side of the LAC, the PLA troops stayed put for 20 days.
What is even more significant is that the Chinese troops travelled almost 19 kilometers from the LAC into the Indian side of the border and set up their tents, covered by helicopter fire and PLA trucks.
This meant that this was not a spontaneous decision to cross the LAC but a well-planned tactical move. It is rather incredulous that with today's sophisticated GPS technology, satellite imagery and maps that the Chinese could mistakenly travel 19 kilometers into Indian territory as travelling within Chinese territory.
The Chinese move was a deliberate show of strength, with Beijing signaling to India that it means business when it argues that the border along the LAC is not a resolved issue, and that the Indian side of the LAC is viewed by China as Chinese territory.
This move puts pressure on the border negotiations as well as weakens the Indian position on the negotiating table as its latest response mechanism in Ladakh could be interpreted as enabling China to take military risks at the LAC without significant repercussions.
It took China and India nearly 20 days of diplomatic negotiations and flag meetings at the border for the Chinese troops to agree to go back and perhaps recognize the status quo pre April 15.
In the beginning, the Chinese Foreign Ministry refused to even recognize that there is a border issue between China and India, instead stating that the Chinese tents are pitched on Chinese territory.
It was perhaps due to continued diplomatic pressure from India that the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement on May 6 when its spokesperson, Hua Chunying said in a statement published by Xinhua that "China and India have reached an agreement on resolving the incident in the western section of the border. The frontier forces of the two countries have terminated the standoff at the Tiannan River Valley area".
This diplomatic pressure however took time, and happened only after China made sure that its resolve at the LAC was firmly established by showcasing Indian weakness. For instance, after the two flag meetings on April 18 and April 23 respectively, the PLA actually increased their presence in the area by sending in additional supplies and erecting more tents, in a way, putting even more pressure on India.
This kind of Chinese pressure is not new or unprecedented. Similar to the present situation where the PLA moved into perceived Indian territory and set up posts (a rare move in recent years) just weeks before the new Chinese premier, Li Keqiang's visit to India on May 20; in 2006, just days before Chinese premier Hu Jintao's state visit to India, Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi stated on Indian national television that China lays claim to the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. That, like the current diplomatic standoff, cast a shadow over Hu's visit.
The latest border incursions urge us to ask two inter-related questions: what provoked the Chinese troops to enact these border incursions and why now?
The answer is two-fold and connected to China's behavior with its other neighbors over territorial issues. In the past few months, China has been aggressively pursuing its territorial claims over the maritime islands in the East China Sea with Japan, roughed up the Philippines and Vietnam over the island disputes in the South China Sea, and printed a map in its new e-passports which showed the disputed maritime islands, Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as Chinese territory.
This is reflective of the new leader, Xi Jinping, embracing a rather assertive strategy with regard to territorial disputes with China's neighbors. It also means that the PLA is a strong component of Jinping's strategy of cementing his own stature as both the Central Military Commission (CMC) chair and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Consequently, the PLA could be asserting more influence in terms of its strategic calculations and military show of power in China's disputed territories with its neighbors. China has been assertive for many decades now about its territorial claims in India as well as its robust opposition to any oil exploration by foreign companies in collaboration with Vietnam in the South China Sea, is against the Philippines and Vietnam's seismic survey vessels in Scarborough Shoal, and Japan's move of buying the islands in the East China Sea.
The significant difference now is that its strategic moves in Indian territory along with the maritime disputes are increasingly defined by its larger strategic vision of conceptualizing all these territories as "core" to China's vision of national unification.
The timing of the recent Chinese incursions into Ladakh is based on a bargaining posture by China vis-a-vis India on the border; a strategy crafted to test India's resolve at the border as well as a reaction to India's military deployment and infrastructural developments at the border. This is increasingly propelled by China's view of itself as the rising hegemonic state in Asia. It also reflects the seriousness of China's claims over disputed territories.
This Chinese aggressiveness is a counterproductive strategy and is detrimental to the Chinese dream of influencing other Asian countries with its soft power. It reflects strategic shortsightedness and vindicates heavily the "China threat" discourse amongst its neighbors thereby creating paranoia about China's rise and its intentions. This Chinese strategy creates support for the creation of a countervailing alliance against China amongst its neighbors. Left only with dysfunctional and weak states like North Korea and Pakistan as allies, China cannot hope to become the leader of ideas and hopes in Asia.
While countries like India have been cautious not to join the bandwagon against China in the larger discourse of international politics, events like the recent Chinese aggression in Ladakh will push India to choose sides to create an effective safety net against a China that will increasingly be seen as a regional bully with little strategic restraint.
This kind of aggression will also strengthen strategic partnerships like those between India-Vietnam-South Korea-Japan-Philippines and the United States as such cooperative strategic mechanisms would be increasingly viewed as a guarantor against Chinese aggression.
Strategic power is the ability of country "x" to influence country "y" to do or act according to its interests. This means incentivizing country "y" to either cooperate with country "x" by aligning interests and values or by creating a structure that is seen as beneficial to both. This kind of strategic power broadcasting to influence another is not simply based on military strength; it involves moral respect, soft power as well as generosity from the stronger power.
In all these respects, China appears to be falling short. There is an urgent need to rethink on its strategy of provocation which is propelling its neighbors to join alliances based on the strategy of limiting China's rise; something that most Chinese strategic thinkers accuse the West of orchestrating with little understanding that it is China's own actions that might be propelling these counter-moves.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington, DC and Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are her own.