Strategic stalemate


The Chinese behaviour along the LAC points to a familiar pattern vis-a-vis India. However, it’s time for New Delhi to turn a new page in dealing with Beijing

After some intense physical showdown between the Indian and Chinese soldiers at the Line of Control (LAC), attempts are now being made by Beijing to dial down the conflict. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said recently that the situation at the border with India is “overall stable and controllable” and that both countries have “proper mechanisms and communication channels” to resolve the issues through “dialogue” and “consultation.” China’s apparent attempt to de-escalate tensions at the border is as quintessential a leaf from its strategic playbook as its attempt to escalate it in the first place. A few familiar patterns apropos earlier such endeavours cannot be missed.

The timing of the flare-up is, perhaps, the most predictable one. A pandemic-stricken world has been brought down to its knees and India has surpassed China’s Coronavirus tally. It has now climbed into the top 10 countries worst-hit by the pandemic. To recall, in 2014, when Chinese troops intruded deep into the Indian territory even as Premier Xi Jinping was on a State visit to India, it baffled many. Why would Beijing do that? If anything, it only harmed the purpose of the ongoing bilateral talks. By now, China’s strategic charade of mixing wrong signals with publicly-perceptible good intentions is all too known. Physical assertion with an intention to send a political message that points south, deliberate obfuscation to prevent perception build-up, international grandstanding and the choice of an opportune time — all of this collectively constitute the Middle Kingdom’s new approach to heighten tensions. But there is a marked similarity that runs across modern China’s strategic behaviour.

In its strategic playbook, it avoids “strength” and attacks “weakness.” As the world reels under the Corona pandemic, China seems to have controlled the spread of the virus and has now resorted to practising aggressive behaviour, thus rattling other countries. It has waged conflicts on multiple fronts. Border tension with India along the LAC has escalated; two new municipal districts to control the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands has been declared; military confrontation with Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea, too, has been launched. Besides, China  has approved a controversial legislation in Hong Kong to undermine its autonomy. This, in clear violation of the initial terms of agreement between Britain and China that the former’s autonomy shall be preserved until at least 50 years.

Furthermore, there’s an obvious cold war 2.0 on with the US. Wolf warrior diplomacy has been launched world over as a pre-emptive effort to counter criticism and questions of accountability. It is also resisting a global call for an unbiased probe into the origin of the Coronavirus. Above all, Xi has called upon the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “prepare for war.” All such instances have come to test China’s strategic transition into a “great power.” As countries look inward to deal with their economic, political and strategic problems arising due to the spread of the virus, China considers this as its moment to test the limits of “power transition hypothesis.” But in many ways, how China acts during the pandemic will define its future course as a “great power.”

In the ongoing standoff with India, too, traits clearly point to the aforementioned test-of-its-power transition. China has opened multiple fronts of conflict along the LAC; at least one of them is a hitherto uncontested region, the Naku La Pass in north Sikkim. There are a few other peculiarities that set the ongoing border flare-up apart from earlier skirmishes. The number of PLA troops camped near the LAC  is estimated to be somewhere in between 5,000 and 10,000.

Although India has matched Chinese encampments and numbers, this is perhaps a new high of troop build-up by the latter in the absence of any unilateral aggression by the former. The military build-up and China’s refusal to recede is geared towards “political signalling” than to “protect” an apparent incursion into India. This subtle packaging comes at a time when India is scrambling to improve border infrastructure and connectivity in border areas. In the current context, the strategic importance of the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road, that brings India within an eight kilometre range of the strategically important Karakoram Pass, cannot be overstated.

Steps from either side point to a long-drawn confrontation. While the two sides match in troop numbers that mirror each other, certain factors suggest that neither side will be too quick to withdraw from strategic positions. Chinese troops remain entrenched in bunkers along with a fleet of heavy vehicles and monitoring equipment. Helicopter movement close to the LAC has also been monitored by the Indian side. India, too, scrambled two fighter jets along the LAC in Ladakh. Besides, Army Chief MM Naravane paid a visit to Leh, the headquarters of 14 Corps in Ladakh, for a security review of the sensitive sector amid tensions. Perhaps this suggests that the best way to resolve the present standoff is through established mechanism at the military and governmental level, howsoever ineffective these mechanisms may be.

Chinese behaviour along the LAC points to a familiar pattern vis-a-vis India. Just like its traditional medical practice acupuncture, it is pressing certain points. Its assertions may often be intended to solve a deeper or a different issue. In the present case, unprovoked assertions along the LAC can be linked to a few decisions taken by India in recent times, which may have perturbed China. Among them is the Indian Government’s decision to implement three important recommendations relating to border infrastructure that was made by the Shekatkar Committee in 2016. Specifically, the work on the Sela tunnel (connecting Tezpur in Assam to Tawang) is in full swing. Once completed, it will provide all-weather connectivity to an important frontier with China in the Kameng sector. Such projects are also on to connect Zanskar Valley and Ladakh. The Nimu-Padam-Darcha road being constructed across the Sinkunla Pass could have have been points of concern for China, too.

Other factors that could have perturbed Beijing include New Delhi’s decision to change FDI norms for countries sharing land border with India. This could potentially impact how China invests in India. The virtual presence of two BJP MPs at the swearing-in ceremony of the Taiwanese leader has also irked Beijing. Lastly, India’s support to the global call for a WHO-led probe into the origin of the Coronavirus is a cause, too.

From India’s point of view, the transgressions, including ones at previously uncontested patrol areas, like the Naku La Pass, point towards a wider conflicting arc. To that end, Chinese strategy along the LAC has preferred horizontal to vertical escalation, where scaling up of conflict at the local level has been the preferred strategy.

India’s options in the current standoff are limited. First, and perhaps the most likely way to resolve the tension, is by repeating the Doklam strategy. It should resolutely wait until both sides decide to de-escalate. However, under no circumstances should India negotiate  on settled areas like the Naku La Pass. This will not only increase the possibility for China to horizontally escalate against India but would also dilute India’s sacrosanct nature of “sovereignty” apropos a modern state. This is precisely what makes the current standoff different and more fraught than previous ones. Since both sides have laid claim to a new area as their “sovereign part”, possibilities of de-escalation are high. India can press other weak points of China to compel desired State behaviour if LAC is too sensitive a matter. Adopting the Indo-Pacific strategy to chart a future strategy in Asia as an emerging global power is a low-hanging fruit. Among other steps, raising a global pitch on China’s other interests or decisions that run counter to Indian interests can be considered. It is, perhaps, time to turn a new page in dealing with China.

(The writer is deputy director, KIIPS, Bhubaneswar, and research fellow, ICWA, New Delhi)