Intrusion in Ladakh: Why China had better stand down?

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3916

Rana Divyank Chaudhary assesses the implications of the move on the prospects of a coherent Chinese grand strategy

Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Rana Divyank Chaudhary
Research Intern

Beijing's recent manoeuvres on its land borders with India reveal a deeper malaise in the heart of Chinese decision-making. The more China imposes the ‘hide your strength-bide your time' maxim on itself, the more anxious it grows to assert its clout before an opportunity is gone. Veteran strategist Edward Luttwak has famously pitted this modus operandi against what he calls the ‘logic of strategy' and concluded that China's rise will hobble grievously in the long term on account of antagonising powerful neighbours through cultivating fear and eliciting waves of strategic counterattacks.

Is China bent on foregoing the potential of a meaningful partnership with India, a rising yet status-quo power, in return for snatching strips of land on the shared frontiers? What does this behaviour imply for the prospects of a coherent Chinese grand strategy for the jigsaw of regions which surround it, carrying immense political and ‘eco-strategic' weight in the international system?

Missing the forest for the trees
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) setting up a camp across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, on territory over which India claims sovereignty, completely threw off New Delhi. The government of India has in the recent years been increasingly optimistic about relations with China. India's National Security Advisor and the Ambassador to Beijing are both known to be sophisticated China hands, instrumental in pushing forth the case for better institutionalised dispute management and greater cooperation.

But even as these initiatives take course and mature, at precisely a juncture when high level political leadership is to visit each other's capitals, things seem to be going horribly awry. Flag meetings between the army commanders from both sides have come to naught as China has demanded freezing of certain Indian border construction projects and has been non-committal on withdrawing or even accepting responsibility for the alleged transgression. If this is not a radically innovative posture, the usual Chinese rationale is to stage an incident and stall till the counterpart is ‘persuaded’ to come to the negotiating table.

It should go without saying that the act of intruding and squatting on claims which have remained dormant for over forty years is an attempt to unacceptably raise the stakes for India and subsequently propose ‘generous' and ‘agreeable' terms so that New Delhi can save face. However, it is going to end up exactly the way the border incident in 1962 did. Should India respond to the impasse by either military action or strong diplomacy with accompanying economic riders, all prospects of a resolution would stand quashed for years if not decades to come. Furthermore, since neither side has planned for a full-blown war, the odds of clinching a limited exchange are in India's favour this time around. If it imposes quarantine on the PLA encampment while keeping diplomatic channels open, the onus of response will fall on China. There should not be a doubt that wars are won before they begin and therefore it is critical to show one's resolve to win if one wishes to broker peace without fighting.

The Indian political leadership is currently running a tight ship and the economic morale is suffering from prevailing slow rates of growth. It might well be turned into an opportunity for rallying popular opinion around re-assertive diplomacy to refuse compromise till the Chinese troops are pulled back from this specific deployment. For sure, the visit of the Indian minister of external affairs to Beijing is impossible without hurtling the present state of surprise and confusion towards greater humiliation. On the other hand, China’s economic opulence is permitting a social behaviour which riles up historical anger and discontent and pushes for outwardly expressing it causing foreign policy aberrations. What China stands to turn against itself completely and perhaps irreversibly, is the willingness of India to remain committed to ‘tranquility’ and cooperation in the face of unresolved issues and simmering tensions.

White Papers, Red Flags
Irrespective of how the present scenario plays out, the hyperactive and uncoordinated cogs in Chinese government, bureaucracy, and military command structure would come to haunt time and again. The government in Beijing pledging ignorance of the border incursion and now denying that it is an incursion harks back to the fairly routine incidents in the East and South China Seas. With the local maritime surveillance patrols and military regions said to be acting without prior sanction from political bosses and constantly asking for more muscle, there is little choice left but to go with the nationalist sentiment thus manufactured in varying degrees.

If bureaucratic factionalism and the military’s adventurism are indeed at the root of this behaviour then it is only going to get extremely difficult for China to manage the course of incidents it invariably allows to occur and fester. Time apparently, is on China’s side but geography certainly is not. From the edge of Northeast Asia well up to Southeast Asia, the crowd of states frequently being harrowed by Chinese claims and provocative actions has grown more and more apprehensive.

China’s thrust to get a military potential which matches the US but upsets the balance of power in its immediate proximity, defeats the purpose of demonstrating transparency and declaring benign intentions. The majority of the states cannot decidedly deter China nor invite direct military conflict. Therefore, they are resorting to more subtle shifts in economic strategies to prevent Chinese eminence from burgeoning into pan-continental dominance. These are the reactions which would hurt China harder and deeper in the near future. Ultimately, China’s manipulative behaviour towards other states will cause an irreparable fracture in its grand strategic potential. The possibility of containing misperceptions whilst successfully augmenting strategic partnerships will be reduced to an assorted mass of bilateral disputes and powerful neighbours finding common cause against the giant who wouldn’t sit still.