The April 15 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) camp in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the Ladakh sector on the India-China undemarcated border is definitely worrying. It is not the regular intrusion of patrols who come in, drop some markers, and return. It is a camp which can turn into a permanent Chinese post in a contested area which held on peacefully for more than twenty years.
The two countries have invested much in stabilising the borders through various agreements and protocols starting with the Peace and Tranquillity Treaty (PNT) in 1993 when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited Beijing. All such agreements have been signed at no less than the Prime Ministerial level.
The ice was broken between India and China when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took the initiative to visit China. The Chinese position on the border issue became sharp in the run up to the visit. Then Chinese Premier Li Peng, reportedly adopted a hard line. It was Chinese pre-eminent leader late Deng Xiaoping who retrieved the situation through his personal intervention.
Although that was some years before Deng Xiaoping enunciated his famous strategic theory of “hide your strength, bide your time”, he was trying to secure a peaceful environment for China for economic development. He also advocated if the country’s various territorial issues could not be solved immediately, they should be shelved, if needed for the next generation or even a hundred years and to develop relations in other areas.
India-China relations have come a long way since then. China is now India’s biggest trading partner, though the contents need urgent assessment from the Indian side. Cheap and shoddy Chinese goods are coming in while exports to China are of more strategic nature like iron ore and other basic material. Trade still remains heavily in China’s favour.
The Chinese leaders have agreed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s strategic view that there is enough space in Asia for both India and China. But there are other players like Japan and the new US pivot to Asia, with US President Barack Obama’s rebalancing in Asia apparently to reaffirm US position for economic reasons which, of course, required building stability through security intervention.
The Chinese strategic think tank was content with US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which allowed Beijing to dominate Asia especially its maritime claims with Japan and the South East Asian countries.
Unfortunately, the Chinese leadership has been actively considering from as early as 2003 the concept of China as the “Central Kingdom”. This is not an idle concept but a very serious one from the time of the great Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Mao was neither an economist nor a social manager. Otherwise, the disastrous “Great Leap forward” and the “Great People’s Cultural Revolution” would not have been unleashed by him. He was a ruthless politician. Becoming the fifth nuclear power in 1964 was the first significant step towards the central kingdom syndrome.
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy was to maintain a stable environment to build a strong economy which was to be ploughed into military and high technology.
They are following the basic security platform. Development and security are interdependent, and a strong military ensures peace under China’s conditions.
This strategy in turn led to the PLA becoming not only a military force but also a political force. The Party commands the gun, and the gun protects the Party. This mutual interdependence is almost one of the most unique political structures in the world. After years of study Chinese official researchers have concluded that the Soviet Communist Party fell because the armed forces were depoliticised in the sense of western military practice.
The first two generations of communist leadership in China led by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and their contemporaries fought in the liberation war and, in fact, led revolutionary movements. Both were, therefore, able to control the military leaders. Since then, successive party chiefs Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and currently Xi Jinping have not been military leaders, though Xi’s father fought in the liberation war’s long march and Xi himself has worked in the PLA in civilian roles.
But the Party-PLA interdependence has given the PLA strong policy strength, even though the PLA (except for a few exceptions) are aware their future also depends on the power of the Party. Jiang and Hu had to buy PLA loyalty and not command it. Xi also has few other options.
Chinese strategists especially the military believe strongly that Deng’s theory of keeping a low profile had served the purpose at a certain historical period. In the recent past with its economic, strategic and diplomatic power China is in a position to demand its own sphere of influence – a Chinese version of the American Monroe doctrine and, perhaps, a Marshall Plan.
Beginning early 21st century Chinese strategists unveiled the theory that the part of the globe between the Middle East / parts of Africa and the Pacific Ocean should be vassal states of China, the Middle Kingdom. Later Hu Jintao’s “Rise of China” theory had to be tempered to “Peaceful Rise of China” theory given the alarm it raised among its neighbours.
From 2008, however, China started publicising its military strength through massive military exercises including with nuclear weapons, and national military parades. The message was clear to Asia, forcing Japan for the first time in 2012 to describe China as a threat.
Displaying its move to space warfare, DF-21D ship/aircraft carrier killer missiles, Area-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability to counter US intervention, informationized warfare, and emphasis on winning “local wars”, Beijing has put most of Asia on notice. That if the US intervenes in its interest the cost of the damage will be made unacceptable.
In the last three years, China started talking about its “core interests”, that is, any foreign intervention here will be met with massive military force. The “core interests” have been clearly denoted as the security of the Party, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. It is now pushing at the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, as well as the Senkaku Islands (Diayoutai in Chinese) with Japan, and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea partly claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, but also wholly claimed by Vietnam.
China’s assertive behaviour militarily backed on the above are ongoing and well known. India has been cautioned against joint oil/gas exploration with Vietnam in Vietnamese held maritime territory. Close reading of these developments suggest that the PLA is holding the upper hand.
The PLA is in charge of protecting and securing China’s territorial integrity and not an inch of their territory will be conceded. They have not clarified if disputed territories will be negotiated in give and take, but there is no indication that such a solution is being considered with Japan and in the South China Sea.
The foregoing may be necessary to try and understand the Daulat Beg Oldi incident. The Indian defence ministry statement that the PLA camp has been established 19 kilometres inside what India considered as the perceived line of control (LAC), therefore, raises concerns.
Although the LAC has not been delineated on a common map, both sides are very clear about each other’s perceptions. Were there some provocations from the Indian side? Indian border guards and the Chinese are in an eye-ball to eye-ball situation, though neither has made any threatening gesture.
On March 19, addressing a group of journalists in Beijing before leaving for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit in Durban, President Xi Jinping told an Indian journalist that “ The boundary question is a complex issue left over from history, and solving the issue won’t be easy”. This is the standard Chinese position and did not unnecessarily disturb anyone in India. Both sides are aware of the complexities of the issue, and after 16 rounds of talks not much has progressed. But the border was stable and not a shot has been fired by either side. In fact, border meetings have been held at local levels including feteing each other at times. Unreported in the media, however, there have been certain stand-offs, though not major. An ambience of calm was maintained.
Surprisingly, following the BRICS summit and meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan singh, President Xi told the Chinese news agency Xinhua (March 27) that “China and India should improve and make good use of Special Representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”. This was a total contrast to his March 19 statement to an Indian correspondent.
All powers in China stop with Xi Jinping. He is the Party Chief, he is the military head as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and he is the President of the country. Xinhua reports are taken as authentic and official.
To a China observer, it would mean that a decision was taken at the highest level that is the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, to discard the historical baggage of deliberations, and resolve the issue politically given the new global development of peace over conflict.
The Xinhua report (March 27), among a lot of positives from both sides, reported at the end (i) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India will abide by the political guidelines set (2005) by the two sides, and (ii) India recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China and will not allow Tibetans to conduct political activities against China in India. Then came the April 15 incident of the PLA setting a camp 19 Kms into Indian perceived territory.
The shifts are perplexing. This raises the question whether Present Xi was forced by the Party Central Committee and the PLA to change his position for the reasons given below or was the April 15 decision taken without consulting President Xi independently by the PLA. To note, around 25 percent of the Central Committee membership of the Party is from the PLA, a proportion much bigger than the size of the PLA.
The political guidelines agreement was signed when Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi in 2005. Later, the Chinese wanted to delete article 4 of the agreement which says no populated areas will be exchanged in the border settlement. This effectively made China cede their claim on Tawang.
On the other hand, China is highly concerned about Tibet and activities of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama’s set up in India. They strongly suspect that India has not done enough to curb their anti-Chinese activities in India, and the self-immolation of Tibetans in Tibet /China is being encouraged by the Dalai Lama to embarrass China intentionally. They also suspect an American hand in this.
At the same time, preparations are on for China’s new Premier Li Keqiang to embark on his first visit abroad to India from around May 20. Premier Li will, of course, go to Pakistan to reassure Islamabad and the Pak army that relations with India do not diminish relations with Pakistan. This is a routine practice.
Premier Li’s India visit does not yet seem to be under question. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid is to visit Beijing on May 9 to both try and diffuse the border situation and work out the process of LI’s visit.
The Maoist era of continuous revolution in China is well and truly buried. It has been replaced by an ambience of continuous debate when experts are allowed to comment in the open, sometimes even questioning actions of the government e.g. North Korea, South China Sea.
It is evident that the new Chinese leadership of Xi and Li are trying to create a new foreign policy to play a global role commensurate with China’s status. Xi Jinping’s first foreign tour as president included Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo, with the BRICS summit fitted in, to create a new relationship with big powers, emerging powers and developing countries in a sweep.
Li Keqiang’s tour is similarly poised with India as an emerging power to contend with, Pakistan an old ally which needs be tempered in the context of peace and stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia, (critical areas for Beijing) and readjust relations with the US among other things in the Afghan and Asia Pacific contexts. Xi recently favoured discarding the cold war mentality, zero-sum game and espouse progressive relations, albeit without compromising on core interests. Hence, opening up a confrontation with India at this point of time does not make sense.
It must also be recognized that neither the Chinese Foreign Ministry nor the official media displayed arrogance and acrimony. The Defence Ministry., which is the civilian arm of the PLA, followed the Foreign Ministry statement. Importantly, India has not been blamed. The message is to resolve the problem through friendly negotiations. The Chinese official media has since maintained silence on Xi Jinping’s March 19 and March 27 statements.
The incursion has put the Chinese foreign policy in an awkward situation. It seems that the PLA decided to take a hard line, and the government cannot openly chide the PLA. It may be recalled that the Chinese decision to give a stapled visa to the Indian commander in Kashmir, Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, was a PLA decision. That froze India-China military exchanges for a year. The issue is squarely in President Xi Jinping’s lap.
Unfortunately, India for years have swept all Chinese anti-India actions under the carpet. The word from the top was not to provoke the Chinese even if India was at the receiving end. There was hardly any official protest when China decided to heavily invest in infrastructure in Sashleam Valley in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), which is a disputed area between India and Pakistan. China intervened to stop Asian Development Bank (ADB) funding in a project in Arunachal Pradesh, with Beijing claiming it as a disputed area. India virtually did nothing, conceding its stated position of undisputed sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh.
Such examples are galore. China cannot be blamed for thinking India is an easy walk over because India allowed the perception to grow. Home Minister Shinde made another gaffe saying the April 15 incident took place in no man’s land! There is nothing called ‘no man’s land’ along the India-China border.
It would be wise for the Indian government to brief Parliament and the people where it stands on the border negotiations.
At the same time India has not depended on its own strength to stand up to China. There is a Chinese saying “Respect the strong, blackmail the weak”. Is India facing a blackmail ?
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)