top of page

Reading China on Sino-Indian Border Issue

The Chinese Communist leadership has perfected the art of saying things and giving signals leaving it to the other side to decipher and understand. Their internal speeches and documents are similarly crafted bemusing the common people. Meanings of major speeches and documents are explained in Party Study Sessions as and when required. Many times top leadership speeches are not published for months as they are first discussed in the politburo and the Central Committee of the Party to decide what to give out and how. They also follow up by giving unsolicited advice and ‘talking to’ to foreign interlocutors on how to behave with them. It is like the teacher talking to kindergarten children. What is dismaying is that many countries including India tend to follow the Chinese dictates. What is difficult to understand is that the Indian foreign affairs establishment has highly experienced China Watchers, yet they go into some kind of freeze. On the other hand, some turn ballistic. This writer does not claim to be a Pundit, but has enough experience to try and read the tea leaves.

What has upset the Indian public is not the Chinese intrusions into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but the manner in which they have been done, and how the Indian government has responded to each of these. Certainly, the LAC has not been demarcated, but soldiers/border guards of each side are well briefed by their respective senior officers on the perception and holdings of each side. There are normal overlapping by patrols of either side, but not of consequence.

The recent three intrusions by Chinese PLA troops in the Western Sector bordered on aggression. They brought soldiers from both sides face to face or even to eye-ball to eye-ball situations. It is normal for Chinese soldiers posted on the Indian border to be taught about the 1962 India-China border war, when under armed and under clothed Indian soldiers were routed. But they have not been suitably briefed that the Indian armed forces have gone well beyond 1962, many are battle experienced, well armed and well clothed for the conditions. The Chinese army fought a war way back in 1978 against Vietnam and suffered heavy losses. -2- Even then, the PLA strategy is to push and provoke, test Indian resilience, and gain actual ground for claims when the real discussions on delineation starts. This is a dangerous policy because one bullet fired by either side can incite a local conflict.

Alarmed by the Chinese aggressive action on the borders, some Indian strategists believe Beijing is creating a situation to launch larger attacks in selected sections of the border, to occupy Indian territories strategically important to them. There is a reason for this view. China is strong now and would want to control as much of territory as possible and then talk on resolution of the border issue. Given more time, India will become stronger militarily and economically and would thwart any Chinese misadventure. This thesis is supported by China’s aggressive behaviour backed by military strength to aggrandize maritime territory from other claimants involving the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands currently in Japan’s possession in the East China Sea.

There are serious concerns, however, on China’s policy on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. From 2008, China started pushing the Spratly Islands claimants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. By 2012 China’s policy changed from assertive to aggressive. China’s claims on the Spratly Islands have been questioned by some well known Chinese strategists. Ding Gang, a senior editor of the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily wrote (Sept.26 and 27) in the Global Times and the People’s Daily that the Chinese map making the claims lacked validity. Another expert, Zhu Feng of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, warned that China’s aggressive behaviour was making its neighbours come together in a united front against it. The US pivot to Asia (Asia Pacific region) has given some hope to these countries. But till now China is not deterred. It is trying to neutralize the US through trade and economic inducements, but the apprehension among its neighbours remain high.

The Chinese official media has been high profiling the country’s economic and military strength, at times suggesting they can prevent US intervention in case of a military conflict in the region. At the same time they are holding out the -3- economic carrot to its South East Asian nieghbours. This is an important factor because these countries are largely dependent on economic and trade exchanges. The ASEAN countries enjoy more than $350 billion trade with China. This is a big stick for Beijing, but they have not yet calculated the impact on China if such trade relations were suspended or stopped. China’s main imports are raw materials and FDI. Without these, China will also have to kneel. This knife cuts both ways.

China would want to describe the intrusions across the LAC with India as local incidents with little or no consequence. Where China or even India is concerned, military adventurism is not of local making. The Depsung (Daulat Beg Oldi) intrusions by the PLA was well crafted to send a message to India in the run up to their premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India. The Chumar incident when the Chinese took away the Indian army’s surveillance equipment has relevance to Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s China visit. The more recent Chinese intrusion in the Spanggur area with banners claiming Chinese territory was aimed to pressure India to sign the Chinese proposed new Border Management Agreement. Neither government has disclosed what the Chinese proposal is. But from Chinese behaviour it appears China means to prevent any further strengthening of Indian military infrastructure along the LAC, because the Chinese have a huge advantage by building excellent infrastructure while India was dithering for more than two decades.

To interpret no Chinese protest to the recent Indian Cabinet to raise a 50,000 mountain strike corps in the Eastern Sector as comfort is no solace. They registered their protests earlier when the discussions were on in India. In response, they havae already fortified their position and laid railway lines to the Eastern Sector. If India agrees to the Chinese proposal on the borders agreement, then they will have their cake and eat it too. -4- On recent Indian media reports and discussions the Chinese intrusions, the official China news agency Xinhua (July 23) accused the Indian media of sensational reporting harmful to India-China relations. Yet, they had amnesia about Maj. Gen (rtd.) Luo Yuan’s warning on the eve of Defence Minister Antony’s visit to China. The Xinhua article pontificated of India-China trade and accused the Indian media of souring the atmosphere before Li Keqing’s visit to India (over the Depsung intrusion by the PLA). This was a “talking to” to India, charging that the India media was sowing misunderstanding between the two countries. It is well known that what the Xinhua puts out is not independent but on the lines dictated by the party and the government. The message, therefore, is that of the Chinese government.

The aim is to constrict Indian views and opinions. Though the Indian media is free, Indian officials have fallen into this trap by unofficially advising Indian journalists to desist from bring out the truth. If Indian free voices are silenced, China has won its game. Reading Chinese media reports that the new Chinese party chief, President and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi Jinping, is trying to restrain the PLA would be wrong reading. What chairman Xi is trying is to counter corruption and fall in professionalism in the PLA. Xi has a revolutionary, military and reform background. He wants a lean and mean military machine. A fat and indolent PLA is not only a concern for the national security but more importantly for the security and the legitimacy of the party. -5- Indeed, the “Party Commands the gun”. The party is huge, currently with 85 million members. It controls everything including the state. For over a decade, however, the party has been weakening because of endemic corruption and indiscipline. There is serious concern about it. The PLA, the party guardian, therefore needs to be strengthened. The PLA is also demanding its pound of Flesh. The Central Military Commission (CHM) has been gradually gaining power in policy decisions. The Chairman of the CMC is the party chief, currently Xi Jinping. This is in tune with the party’s supremacy. Rest of vice Chairman and members are all PLA men. The PLA has a disproportionate representation in the party’s Central Committee, over 30 per cent.

In November 2011, the PLA created the ‘Strategic Planning Department (SPD) under its General Staff Department (GSD). PLA justified this new department as the army was rapidly modernizing for more sophisticated operations.

The stated charter of the SPD includes studying critical strategic issues, and development of the PLA and their implementation. The then Vice Chairman of the CMC Gen. Guo Boxing urged the PLA to establish smooth and efficient cooperation with the Central government ministries and local authorities. Ni Lexiong, a military expert further clarified the agency would also deal with economics, trade, energy, security, cultural and even diplomatic issues. (For more details see SAAG Paper No.4806 dated December 7, 2011).

-6- In 2008, Party Chief and President Hu Jintao gave the responsibility of Psychological Warfare, Media Warfare and Legal Warfare operations to the PLA. Called the “Three Warfares”, these are potent weapons in the hands of the PLA along with SPD. From the PLA’s strategy psychological warfare/operations essentially involves using military manoeuvres to scare the opponent. This is backed by the massive military power which are reported in the official media to “shock and awe” the opponent. These tactics are being used in the South China Sea, and may be used against India increasingly.

In his variety of speeches and instructions to the PLA Xi Jinping has emphasized fighting and winning local wars. This was there earlier, but Xi seems to have given greater emphasis, on it. Local wars refer to getting back territories that China claims as its own under the illegal occupation of other countries. Such territories include the Spratly (and Paracel) Islands in the south China sea, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands under Japanese control in the East China Sea/Sea of Japan and, of course, Arunachal Pradesh and the Western Sector of the India-China border.

The PLA gives little weightage to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). From the statements of the MFA spokesperson as stated above, the PLA seriously encroached on the MFA’s turf and that of the Propaganda Department in some area. Lately, the MFA has begun to fall in line with the PLA. Whatever position and agreements that state Counsellor and Special Representative Yang Jichi puts forth in his meeting with his Indian counterpart are cleared by the PLA. Clearly, the PLA -7- has acquired a dominating position on territorial and security issues. The PLA has also extracted concessions from the Party Centre. The aggressive acts of the PLA along the Sino-Indian border results from the PLA’s powers and strategy. They aim to pressure India into a border agreement of their drafting. The lectures to India in the Chinese media on new relations with India, berating the Indian free media, and talk of the growing bilateral trade should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.

By accommodating China, India will be perceived in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai and the PLA headquarters as a weak state. China is well aware of India’s potential. They will behave if India implements a strong border policy, and its Look East Policy, with emphatic confidence. China does not respect India’s sensitivity, and this urgently calls for reciprocity from India. We need to follow more foreign policy decisions like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Japan visit.

( The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

0 views0 comments


bottom of page