Most people in India would welcome that a potential military conflict with China had been averted after China pulled back its troops who had intruded 19 km across the of Line of Actual Control (LAC), into Indian territory in Ladakh. The intrusion in the strategically sensitive area near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) tested Indian nerves for 20 days. The aftershocks of what many Indians perceive as an ill-timed and seemingly uncalled for Chinese provocation is sure to linger for a long time affecting Indian perceptions in the long term.
The latest intrusion was perhaps the most serious stand-off between the two countries after in Indian troops ‘taught a lesson’ (to borrow a Chinese description of 1962 war) to the Chinese at Sumdrong Chu in 1986. In a way, the Chinese should be thanked for giving a wakeup call to the people and polity now to look beyond their internal preoccupations to attend strategic priorities of the nation with the urgency they deserve.
Though the Indian leadership might claim the withdrawal of the Chinese troops as a political victory, it should thank Indian diplomats for their marathon effort to achieve results. However, it has come at a great political cost to the smooth progress of India-China relations which had been going well for nearly a decade, despite periodic hiccups.
But unfortunately the DBO incursion has created yet another negative benchmark for Chinese conduct and reliability. From now onwards, invariably at all levels Chinese actions relating to India will be measured against the latest benchmark.Of course, we have also created negative political benchmark in handling the issue without the sriousness it deserved.
More pointedly, DBO benchmark is likely to condition the relationship building exercise between the two countries under the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jingping and their Indian counterparts. As a corollary, in the near term it is likely to hobble Prime Minister Li Keqiang in his interaction in India when he visits New Delhi for the first time since assuming office on May 20.
The incursion does not appear to be without a strategic purpose; Times of India report quoted Indian Air Force drone reports to indicate that the Chinese troops had chosen the spot near DBO to cross the LAC after they had probed three other spots along the line. The strategic imperatives that induced the Chinese to indulge in this bit of brinkmanship on the eve of their Prime Minister’s maiden visit may be endlessly debated. But it is clear that it could not have been taken place without his knowledge.
Whatever are the merits of China’s strategic intent or purpose, by prolonging the intrusion for 20 days, China has squandered the abundance goodwill it enjoyed in recent times amidst large sections of Indian people. The Chinese intrusion has come as a harsh rerun of events that led to the 1962 war. It has reminded them that the disconnect between Chinese rhetoric and action is very much alive now, as it was in 1962.
Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru called it a betrayal in 1962, an epithet that might not be considered apt in the present instance as the Chinese pulled back the troops before a conflict situation arose. However, jsut as in 1962 it was the Chinese who intruded in DBO and pulled back their troops at a time of their choosing after destabilizing Indian leadership. Its strategic message was perhaps the same as in 1962: friendship was no trade off when it came to territorial claims. Perhaps the new Chinese leadership intention in DBO incursion was to remind India that the 1962 message still remained valid. It will not be forgotten by Indian policy makers in future when they are tempted to try and play down Chinese transgressions as they keep count of them running into hundreds.
Though the purist or idealist may brand the upsurge of popular feeling kindled by the DBO intrusion as jingoism, such popular feelings, given a lease of life by the Chinese, cannot be wished away. So Prime Minister Li would be starting his Indian visit with a disadvantage because he would be remembered more as a leader of the power that rattled the sabre rather than the one that wanted to strengthen China’s relationship with India with a friendly overture.
Even if the Indian government which had assiduously worked for building a meaningful relationship with China would like to forget and forgive the whole DBO incident as bad chemistry between the two nations, Indian people are unlikely to do so for some years to come. And public opinion is increasingly conditioning Indian politics, including the foreign policy prescriptions. Regardless of the merits of this development, no political leader can afford to ignore this reality as public opinion shapes his journey to portals of power in New Delhi. The Chinese leadership does not appear to have understood the working of these political compulsions in India.
While Chinese may despise the Indian media as irresponsible, it cannot ignore the Indian media that had constantly reminded the people of the Chinese incursion and its ramifications during the last 20 days. Though the Chinese do not seem to have understood it, this is how free media works in a huge unwieldy democracy – like a huge supermarket with a wide choice of opinions including some irresponsible ones.
The elected governments appear to have realized it is difficult to exercise control over electronic with the same ease with which they muscled the print media. So they have tried to leverage the advantage of reaching out to the people on the real time using the visual and electronic media. The Chinese do not seem to have realized the importance of using it to access the Indian people although the Indian government seemed to have realized it sooner than later, and did so with some success. If China wants to rework its strategy, it would perhaps achieve more success by projecting its ideas through Indian media than castigating it.
From the foreign policy perspective, we do not know exactly what China has gained by the DBO exercise. But one thing is certain; they have lost the valuable mileage gained in building bridges with India. It is in the long term interest of China not only to keep its relations with India on an even keel but add value to it.
Though the Chinese incursion was not very well covered by foreign media, it is sure to have rung bells of alarm among countries like Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and others who have their own problems in handling contentious territorial claims of China, in recent times. No doubt India would now be more inclined to build upon existing strategic alliances existing with like-minded allies in Asia.
It is probably equally a setback for India’s policy prescription which emphasized peaceful intentions in its handling of problem areas between the two countries. Despite public pressure, it had refrained from adopting the muscular ‘hot and cold’ method of alternating power assertion and friendly parleys (as the Americans do) in dealing with China. Even in the DBO incursion, India had done so.
However, the Chinese decision to pull back came only after India showed its strategic teeth when its offer to resolve the issue through parleys failed. It came about only after Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid stood firm and informed the increasingly restive public that his two week-long efforts to resolve the issue through talks had proved unsatisfactory. He also indicated that he was having second thoughts on visiting China on May 9, if the Chinese do not vacate the areas of intrusion. There were also other news stories hinting at Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh extending his proposed visit to Japan by a day to hold strategic parleys with his Japanese counterpart. These moves came in tandem with the news of Indian troop reinforcements in the affected areas and discussion on Indian military plans. Cumulatively, these moves seem to have resulted in Chinese pull out of troops.
From strategic security perspective, the DBO incursion has validated Clausewitze’s cliché ‘war is an extension of diplomacy’ emphasizing diplomacy and power assertion mutually reinforce each other and the use of the mailed fist as much as the kid glove when necessary. But one lesson we cannot miss in this experience is that while every opportunity to resolve problems peacefully should be used, the option to use strategic power should considered in early stages.
The episode has shown the fragile nature of India-China relations which continue to be bugged by unresolved border issue despite successes working together in trade and commerce and on global issues. So the Chinese will continue to be tempted to use the border issue as the strategic ace to politically trigger confusion and confrontation within Indian democratic set up when it suits them. To foreclose this option to the Chinese, we need to insist on the Chinese to produce their maps which has been a long pending demand. Otherwise, endless rounds of border talks would be an exercise in futility.
On strategic front, despite all the well meaning plans to strengthen the infrastructure in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, the progress is too slow for comfort. There is a need to show urgency in getting the job done rather than explaining the delays if we want to strengthen our strategic readiness. In this regard, we can learn from the large scale Chinese involvement in building the infrastructure in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in their strategic interest, regardless of its impact on India-China relations. Our development activity in border areas should be carried out wholly focused on national interest, than what China or any other country feels about it.
This brings up the question of India’s strategic relations with the U.S. Far from ganging up with the U.S. against China or any other country, India need to take its strategic relationship with the U.S. beyond the current low profile relationship between the armed forces of the two countries in its own long term strategic interest. The difficult exercise of building a multifaceted strategic relationship with the U.S. cannot be avoided anymore because the Afghan situation may reach criticality in 2015 disturbing our strategic environment, around the same time as Sino-Pak strategic relationship becomes more robust in the region. Of course a national consensus would be required for this and if the nation wills it can be achieved.
( The writer, Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, who served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- mail:email@example.com)