The recent India-China face-off in the biting cold of the 16,000 feet above sea level Depsung Bulge appears to be fitting in with the pattern of growing China’s aggressive and assertive policy witnessed since 2008.
It is well known that there are two perceived Lines of Actual Control (LAC) on the two sides along the unresolved India-China border. Several agreements between the two countries starting 1993 kept the borders generally stable and without serious incidents. When a platoon of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pitched tents in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) at a point, considered 19 kms. Inside Indian territory by India, the balance was disturbed. The Indian forces also reciprocated leading to an eye-ball to eye-ball situation, though there was no show of arms by either side.
Just in case the PLA was still under the 1962 illusion when the it gave a rubbing to a rag-tag Indian army who did not even have winter boots, the Indian army chief Gen. Bikram Singh decided India was determined and capable of defending its territory. Gen. Singh briefed the Indian cabinet on different options his army had to eject the PLA.
The matter was resolved by the two sides diplomatically through established channels. On May 05, the Chinese army moved back as did their Indian counterparts from their new forward positionsot a shot was fired. What else happened between the diplomats from the two sides is not known, but status quo ante was restored.
Instead of reducing trust the deficit between the two sides, the incident exacerbated it. The Indians learnt once again reading Chinese lips can be deceptive. Their mind has to be read, and that can be done to an extent if Chinese actions not only towards India but towards other Asian nations and the world at large can be plotted on a graph starting 1949.
The Indian foreign policy establishment was quite upbeat with their perceived India policy of the new Chinese leadership. Ignoring Chinese President Xi Jinping’s March 19 observation that resolving the India-China border issue “won’t be easy”, the Indian side weighed on Xi’s subsequent discussion with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Durban, and his statement to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua (March 27), urging the two sides to quickly work out parameters to resolve out the boundary issue. The Indians were further encouraged when the Chinese decided that the new Premier Li Keqiang’s first overseas visit would include India.
Li Keqiang’s India visit appears to be back on track. It, however, stood to be derailed if the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) incident had not been resolved. In that case India-China relations would have suffered a huge set back.
The Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had from the time of the first UPA government in 2004, put improvement of relations with China on high priority, second only to improvement of relations with Pakistan. Dr. Singh also declared there was enough space in Asia for India and China to work and develop together. It was a clear message to Beijing that an India-China partnership could be the engine of peace, stability and development for Asia at large, not the general concept of Asia focussed on the Asia-Pacific region only.
Dr. Singh, however, has been dismayed more than once by Chinese action. Finally, when China attacked his visit to Arunachal Pradesh in October 2009, he was forced to take a strong stand. Then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao went forward to retrieve the situation. There is no Wen Jiabao now, who also tried to promote democratic values and freedom of speech in China.
It must be put on record that the international community was closely watching how the DBO interface between India and China would end. It was a test case for China’s aggressive behaviour beyond Japan and the South China Sea. The India-China border negotiations, not having completed the second stage in a three-stage process, were dormant. Why did the Chinese decide to disturb the equilibrium when on the one had there were new signs that under the Xi-Li leadership, Beijing was trying to recalibrate a foreign policy in a more inclusive direction?
In this stand-off, signals from China were totally opaque. After the March 27 Xinhua report of Xi Jinping’s positive stand when reference to historical problems on the border issue was dropped, the Chinese media went silent on the subject. There were no negatives and no positives. Finally, the Chinese foreign ministry took a vague stand on the issue and the proposed visit of Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing on May 09, as a preparatory consultation for Li Keqiang’s visit was left unclarified.
But Beijing’s intransigence provoked an Indian public outcry as evidenced by the statements of Indian opposition leaders and Indian media reports. This was no ultra-nationalist drum beating. The Indian public and media are not tutored by the Indian government on nationalism unlike what the Chinese Communist Party does. The public opinion in India has also learnt the lessons of 1962 and would not allow the government to concede paramount national interests.
Finally, Foreign Minister Khurshid had to take the position that his visit could not take place unless the Chinese troops withdraw from DBO. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also extended his visit to Japan for a day to meet Japanese politicians. The message was India could play the same game. The Indian foreign policy community which includes the media can no longer remain silent with Chinese objections to enhanced India-Japan relations, India-US relations and India-Vietnam relations among others.
China has had a free hand till now in obstructing sovereign Indian rights on the India-US civilian nuclear agreement and India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG). On its part, China has reduced the India-China border length to 2000 kms, thereby siding with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, and made infrastructure construction in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) which India considers its sovereign territory under the instruments of Partition of India in 1947. Under a 1963 agreement, Pakistan illegally conceded over 5000 Sq.kms territory of POK to China. And, of course, China continues to beef up Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
Internationally, there are no two opinions that China made Pakistan a stand alone nuclear power, tested Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb in its Taklamakan test site, and gave Pakistan the blue print of the nuclear bomb.
If China finds the Indian advance (aircraft) landing strip (ASL) in the Depsung Bulge overlooking the Chinese road to Pakistan as a strategic threat, India will not be concerned. This ASL was used by India till 1965. It is in Indian territory, and China had not objected to it previously. All these issues have to be reconciled for an improved relation between the two countries.
The Global Times, an adjunct of the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, carried an intemperate editorial on May 02. It castigated the Indian media, especially the Times of India of writing unfriendly articles to influence the Indian mainstream society. It advised the India media and the political media to be ”balanced”’ and blamed the Indian government for not “clarifying the truth” of the “intrusion”’ whatever the Chinese version of the truth is. Finally, it warned that “China will not ignore provocation”’ suggesting a Chinese military adventure. In so many words, the editorial claimed that the Chinese troops had pitched tents in Chinese territory!
It is known that the Global Times is an aggressive newspaper. Most of its articles can be ignored. But an editorial cannot be.
The Chinese probe in DBO was a tactical error even if they were trying to test India’s resolve. It could have ended in a huge strategic blunder if China would have persisted in DBO. The Chinese apprehension that India was strategising itself with the US and Japan to encircle China is born out of characteristic suspicion of Chinese Communist Party. New Delhi has repeatedly assured China and others that it continues to prosecute an independent foreign policy. When the US says India is the “Lynch pin” of their Asia policy the target is not China. There is much more in India-US relation, and constraining China is not in that calculation, at least not on India’s part. Beijing should have realized by now that US President Barack Obama in his second term is readjusting America’s Asia pivot to a much more realistic relationship with China.
At the same time, China cannot grudge development of India’s relations with other countries whether they be Japan, Vietnam, the US, or with Nepal, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. This is India’s sovereign right.
With the second largest economy in the world, a speedily developing military might poised to project its real power in the Indian Ocean as the recent Chinese defense white paper indicates, and a promised quantum jump in 2020-22 of its comprehensive national power (CNP), China considers it has arrived as a great power to challenge the US.
India, too, is a rising power. But its influence is soft, collaborative and non-exploitative. China’s growing influence is seen by the international community increasingly as insensitive and aggressive backed by military power, as well as hegemonistic and exploitative of poorer nations as in Africa. Even Chinese experts have opined that China has no friends in its neighbourhood. It is not trusted by its neighbours, and that includes Russia. China needs a friendly and cooperative India. Prosecuting an enemy relationship with India can jeopardise its interests in Afghanistan, Central Asia and elsewhere.
China’s behaviour with its neighbours, especially with India on the DBO incident, has alarmed the international community. If they chose to wear blinkers, so be it. But it will be dropping a huge stone on its own feet. When premier Li Keqiang visits India late this month, a red carpet will be rolled out for him. He will, however, be well advised to come with the understanding that 1962 is history but India has learnt lessons and moved way ahead. President Xi, Premier Li and the rest of the top Chinese leadership including in the PLA would do well to tear apart the proverbial ‘string of pearls’ to encircle India and throw it in the deepest waters of the Indian Ocean.
Recent developments in China’s strategic foreign policy suggests that the leadership is facing a serious dilemma. They are under pressure from the demons and hallucinations that they have created over the last decade by discarding Deng Xiaoping’s policy of keeping a low profile, and attempting to implement Emperor Qin Shi Wangdi’s policy of violent subjugation of perceived enemies.
Obviously, there is a serious clash of ideas in Zhongnanhai in Beijing. How this debate is reconciled will negatively impact the fate of 21st century Asia or the earlier popular saying that the 21st century is Asia’s century. The Beijing leadership would do well to note this adage is hardly mentioned any longer. They must ponder why?
Time is of essence, but time has not yet been lost. There is plenty of space in the world as in Asia, for all to work together. There cannot be a China unipolar Asia. The US is retracting from an unipolar America concept following the demise of the Soviet Union. If China decides to fill in the space vacated by the US, it will be a recepie for conflict. China’s access to energy and raw material sources can be better ensured through peaceful means.
Alfred Thayer Mahn’s strategy of “one who rules the oceans rules the world” has become the new bible among some Chinese strategists. That strategy,
however, does not in its totality endure today. It has served its time. Other countries are not lotus eaters sleeping in blissful oblivion.
If China wants others to believe in its propaganda of “harmonious relationship” and “peaceful rise of China”’ it will have to walk the talk. The decision lies squarely with China.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)