Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Dilemma for Delhi in Ladakh standoff

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : India-China trade

Mains level : Paper 2- India-China border issue

Though the rest of the world is preoccupied with Covid pandemic, China is busy in raising tension over border issues with its neighbour-India. What explains such actions by China? And timing selected by China has also puzzled many. India, on its part, faces a dilemma. This article dissects the various issues related to the standoff and explains the options available with India to deal with the Chinese intimidation.

Why the latest transgression by PLA is unprecedented?

  • There are around 400 transgressions/faceoffs each year on an average along the LAC.
  • But the recent spate of territorial transgressions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is unprecedented in its scope and manner.
  • Even as independent accounts point out that Chinese troops are yet to withdraw from the transgressed territories and restore status quo ante.
  • Those territories are traditionally considered by both sides to be on the Indian side of the LAC.
  • Chinese officials have gone ahead and stated that the “Situation in China-India border is overall stable & controllable”.

What this move by China signals?

  • The Indian government is left with two basic choices: 1) accept territorial loss as a fait accompli or 2)  force or negotiate a reversal to status quo ante, unless of course the PLA unilaterally withdraws.
  • Either way, China’s growing territorial aggression on the LAC signals the end of Beijing’s peaceful rise and its traditional desire to maintain regional status quo with India.
  • China under its President, Xi Jinping, unequivocally seeks to demonstrate that it is the preponderant power in the region. 

Let’s analyse the aggression

  • While the timing could be explained by the global political distraction caused by COVID-19.
  • And also the international pressure on China (including by India) to come clean on the origins of the novel coronavirus could have played the role.
  • But the proximate causes could be several. Consider the following-

1. Statement by India on Aksai Chin

  • For one, New Delhi’s terse statements about Aksai Chin following the Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation in August last year had not gone down well with Beijing.
  • While not many in India believe that New Delhi was serious about getting back Aksai Chin from Chinese control, Beijing may have viewed it as India upping the ante.
  • More pertinently, in a clear departure from the past, New Delhi has been carrying out the construction of infrastructural projects along the LAC — a long overdue activity — which is something that seems to have made China uneasy.

2. Broader context of long-term geopolitical world view

  • The Chinese angle to the J&K conundrum deserves more attention here.
  • The aggression must also be viewed in the broader context of a long-term geopolitical world view China has for the region. Consider the following in this regard-
  • 1) China’s China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) connectivity to Pakistan through the Karakoram and New Delhi’s criticism of it.
  • 2) The reported presence of PLA troops in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
  • 3) India’s new-found activism on Aksai Chin.
  • 4) The PLA’s incursions into areas in eastern Ladakh.

3. Strategic goals

  • It is equally important to appreciate the larger Chinese strategic calculations behind its recent spate of aggressions.
  • Having given up its traditional slogan of ‘peaceful rise’, China, under Mr. Xi, is beginning to assert itself as the next superpower.
  • Over the years, Beijing has perhaps realised that India is not keen on toeing the Chinese line in the region.
  • So this is Beijing sending a message to New Delhi to fall in line.
  • A message that will not go unnoticed in the smaller capitals around China — from Colombo to Kathmandu to Hanoi.

4. Political message

  • Given that China is currently engaged in what many analysts are describing as a new cold war with the United States, in the middle of a crackdown in Hong Kong along with fighting COVID-19 at home, one would not have expected the Chinese leadership to open another front.
  • And yet, by opening a limited military front with India on the LAC, China is signalling the U.S. that it can handle pressure.
  •  And telling India that it has the political and military wherewithal to put pressure on New Delhi notwithstanding its other preoccupations.

Why limited scope confrontation is cost-effective and preferred option by China?

  • China’s limited scope military expeditions on the long-contested border is cost effective for the PLA.
  • This is because the ever-growing conventional military superiority that it enjoys with India.
  • Moreover, because limited fights or smaller land grabs may not provoke an all-out confrontation or nuclear use.
  • The side with conventional superiority and more border infrastructure would likely carry the day.

India’s China dilemma

  • Picking a direct fight with India which might lead to an undesirable military escalation with India does not suit Beijing’s interests.
  • But carrying out minor military expeditions with the objective of inflicting small-scale military defeats on India is precisely what would suit the Chinese political and military leadership.
  • They are cost effective, less escalatory, and the message gets conveyed.
  • More so, India’s military response would depend a great deal on how far the regime in New Delhi is willing to acknowledge such territorial losses due to domestic political constraints.
  • If New Delhi acknowledges loss of territory, it would have to regain it, but doing so vis-à-vis a conventionally superior power would not be easy.
  • Put differently, growing conventional imbalance and domestic political calculations could prompt New Delhi to overlook minor territorial losses on the LAC.
  • But let us be clear: the more New Delhi overlooks them, the more Beijing would be tempted to repeat them.
  • These considerations lie at the heart of India’s China dilemma.

How India could respond?

  • Yet, there are limits to China’s LAC adventurism.
  • 1) There are several places along the several thousand kilometre long LAC where the PLA is militarily weak, the Indian Army has the upper hand.
  • And, therefore, a tit-for-tat military campaign could be undertaken by New Delhi.
  • 2)  While China enjoys continental superiority over India, maritime domain is China’s weak spot, in particular Beijing’s commercial and energy interest to which the maritime space is crucial.
  • 3) Finally, and most importantly, would Beijing want to seriously damage the close to $100 billion trade with India with its military adventurism on the LAC?

Way forward

  • In any case, for India, the age of pussyfooting around Chinese intimidation strategies is over.
  • The time has come to checkmate Beijing’s military aggression even as we maintain a robust economic relationship with our eastern neighbour.
  • It is also a reminder for us to get more serious about finalising a border agreement with China.
  • The bigger the power differential between India and China, the more concessions Beijing would demand from New Delhi to settle the dispute.

Consider the question-“There have been growing instances of PLA aggression on India-China border. Examine the multiple objectives China’s actions seek to achieve. What are the options available with India to deal with situation?

Conclusion

There is little doubt that China is our neighbour and that we have to live next to the larger and more powerful China. However, India should not accept Beijing’s attempts at land grabs, or military intimidation. That China is a rising superpower located next door to us is a reality, but how we deal with that reality is a choice we must make as a nation.

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