China being strategically cornered globally in 2013 is a reality and this is likely to continue till such time China does not change its strategic postulations. Therefore this should have stiffened the Indian establishment to stand firm in facing up to the Chinese aggression recently in the Daulet Beg Oldie sub-sector of Ladakh.
Sadly due to absence of “Lateral Analysis” of threat assessments, India went down tamely to Chinese political and military coercion and in an avoidable display of weakness by India.
Also in play in India submitting to Chinese coercion was the regrettable trait in India’s political leadership of all political dispensations, and that is the obsessive mind-sets of “Risk Aversion’ when it comes to standing-up to Chinese military provocations. On national security matters the apex leadership seems to be ill-advised.
Consequently, India’s strategic stock globally and in Asian powers capitals has crashed. Contrast the responses of Japan to Chinese military provocations in the East China Sea. Contrast the responses of smaller countries like Vietnam and the Philippines to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Strategic discourse in India since the April 15 2013 Chinese aggression into Indian Territory nearly 30 kilometres deep has been focused rather too narrowly in terms of China’s military aims pertaining to the India-China Occupied Tibet border dispute.
Receiving pointed attention in most strategic discourses is the “Draft Border Defence Cooperation Agreement” handed over by China to India on May 5 2005. Rightly perceived is that there were no reasons for a new Accord when a slew of Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreements exist signed from early 1990s to 2005.
Rightly divined by Indian strategic analysts is that the Chinese in projecting this new Accord had a devious military aim of “freezing” Indian Army’s on-going military build-up on the borders with China Occupied Tibet, having themselves completed a massive build-up and deployments of Chinese military and related infrastructure in the militarily subjugated Spiritual Kingdom of Tibet.
Freezing India’s military build-up on the borders through this Chinese stratagem would ensure India’s vulnerabity to Chinese political and military coercion in border settlement negotiations that China may have in mind now.
As usual the Indian establishment has not found it prudent to take India in confidence on Chinese motives for renewed aggression into Indian Territory. Some perfunctory response emerged that the latest Chinese aggression was a ‘stand-alone’ incident and was like acne on the fair complexion of good India-China relations!
Contextually, what needs more in-depth analysis is as to why China’s new generation leaders have significantly diverted from China’s till March 2013 stance that the Border Dispute was a “ Complex Issue left over by History” and would not offer quick solutions to the latest stance spelt out curiously at a briefing at the Indian Foreign Office that both countries need to “redouble their efforts to push forward formal framework negotiations for boundary settlement) so that we can reach at a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution at an early date”.
The Indian establishment has in relation to strategic assessments on China, has traditionally not been noted for “lateral analysis” as to what factors push or impel China to resile or deviate from established stances of long standing. Both the Indian establishment and the Indian strategic community now need to indulge in detailed “lateral analysis”.
The assessment after a lateral contemporaneous review of the Asian security situation that I wish to offer is that China today is “strategically cornered” and this opens strategic windows of opportunity for India to break-out of its self-imposed mind-sets of bending backwards to placate China’s strategic sensitivities.
China Strategically Cornered Globally: A Contemporaneous Review
China stands strategically cornered when a review is made of China’s relationships with the United States and Russia both at the global level and the regional level. Also need to be surveyed is the Chinese relationships with Asian majors like Japan and India and the entire South East Asia region (with the exception of Cambodia) which has polarised towards the United States and implicitly against China.
The United States and China figure as ‘Prime Threats’ in each other’s military threats perceptions. Rhetorical flourishes do not provide a fig-leaf to hide United States Grand Strategy of “China Containment” laced with softeners of political engagement.
China’s aggressive military brinkmanship in the East China Sea against Japan and in the South China Sea against the Philippines and Vietnam carries the potential of United States being drawn into a military conflict with China.
The United States “Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific” enables the United States to besiege China as never before with the re-deployment of US Forces in the Western Pacific.
China’s so-called strategic partnership with Russia is fraying despite exchange of high level exchanges and flowery rhetoric. Russia has been strategically concerned with China’s concealed strategies of Sinification of Russia’s East Siberia and the Far East.
Coming close on the heels of the US Strategic Pivot to the Asia Pacific is the announcement of Russia’s Strategic Pivot to the Asia Pacific covered by me in an earlier Paper. Strategically obvious would be the main conclusion that flows from such a Russian strategy is that Russia and China are bound to have a clash of strategic interests in the Asia Pacific region. Balancing the United States may be a Russian aim but also lurks the truism that balancing China would also now appear in sharper contours as a Russian strategic aim in the years ahead.
China’s Major Strategic Aim Currently: Secure its Southern Flank with India
Coming to analysis of China’s strategic flanks, the major conclusions that emerge from the above survey are as follows: • China’s Eastern Flank is strategically vulnerable to China’s prime military threat from the United States in the Western Pacific. Unending chains of ‘explosive flashpoint’ exist from North Korea, Taiwan, and East China Sea and South China Sea disputes. These flashpoints are of China’s creation and carry the potential of China getting involved in armed conflict with the United States and its Allies. • China’s Western Flank in Xinjiang is volatile and turbulent and carries the potential of being exploited strategically by China’s adversaries. • China’s Northern Flank shows no signs of armed conflict with Russia but becoming militarily tense for China as Russia has started on a military build-up of its military capabilities in the Far East. China would consequently need to divert its military formations to the Northern borders as abundant caution. • China’s Southern Flank is the most dangerous for China as it faces its main Asian military rival on this flank. An intense China-India military stand-off operates on India’s Himalayan heights with China Occupied Tibet.
Historically, it needs to be remembered that China first submitted to a boundary settlement with Russia before it embarked on renewed military brinkmanship with India and its neighbours in the Western Pacific, notably Vietnam. In other words it secured its Northern Flank first before military brinkmanship on other flanks.
In 2013, China despite its colossal accretions to its military power would be unable to afford military confrontations and limited conflict on all its flanks.
Since China today faces its most potent strategic and military threats on its Western and Eastern Flanks, China’s strategic planners would be prudently strategizing in terms of securing its Southern Flank with India. For besides its military confrontation with India as a powerful rival, China also faces the prospects of internal rebellions in Tibet and Xinjiang, which a strategically timid India so far has not exploited.
With its Southern Flank with India secured through a Boundary Cooperation Defence Agreement with India which would also facilitate converting India’s borders with China Occupied Tibet into an International Border by pressurising India. This would then release China to face forcefully its main military threats on its Eastern Flank. It would also facilitate China converting the Line of Control to an International Border seamlessly.
India’s Strategic Window of Opportunity in China’s Contextual Security Environment
Survey of China’s current security environment suggests that China is strategically cornered on all flanks and from all directions. In Asia China has no ‘Natural Allies’ or political well-wishers except Pakistan and North Korea. Both these states notwithstanding their nuclear weaponistaion can hardly add strategic ballast to China in the Asian balance of power.
This strategic reality opens many windows of advantages as far as India’s strategic options are concerned. In such a strategic and favourable military situation, India’s political leadership has to find in themselves the sagacity and audacity to bargain with China from a position of relative advantage.
As a starter, India should soft-pedal and not sign any Boundary Cooperation Defence Agreement. The Indian policy establishment and political leadership need to analyse deeper as to what impels China to all of a sudden seek a new Boundary Cooperation Defence Agreement unless through it China wishes to impose new lines of control on India’s borders with China Occupied Tibet.
This may also be an attempt to arrest India’s on-going up gradation of military infrastructure along the Northern Borders, however tardy India’s progress is in this direction and however inadequate in India’s war preparedness.
A Boundary Cooperation Defence Agreement should follow a Final Boundary Settlement and not precede it.
Strategic windows of opportunity rarely last for long and need to be grasped and be exploited at the first instance. India is currently being presented with one such major opportunity with a China strategically cornered on all its flanks.
The challenge is for the Indian political leadership to grasp this strategic moment when China may be ready to negotiate to offer quid pro quos to secure its Southern Flank on the India-China Occupied Tibet Himalayan heights.
The Indian political leadership must discard its traditional strategic timidity and ‘Risk Aversion’ fixation when dealing with China.
(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group. The writer, Dr. Subhash Kapila, is Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )