My op-ed in Mint: Managing “armed co-existence” with China

A realist appraisal of the trans-Himalayan context

In today’s Mint Sushant and I argue that more than worrying about an unlikely Chinese invasion, India ought to focus on managing the armed co-existence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. Excerpts:

Chinese scholars have suggested that this is due to Beijing’s assessment that no Indian political leader will be able to sell the compromise to the public. While this might be true, it certainly is self-serving. If the leadership in Beijing were merely waiting for Indian public opinion to hit the Goldilocks moment for a territorial compromise, they would hardly be backtracking on their own prior commitments, not least by amplifying China’s claims to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

While the risk of even a limited military conflict are overstated, it is true that there is indeed a state of armed coexistence—to use Mao Zedong’s phrase—along the line of actual control (LOAC). “You wave a gun,” Mao said, referring to Nehru, “and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage.”

The Great Helmsman was speaking metaphorically. In reality this means that each side must expect incursions from the other. At the same each side must ensure that these don’t get out of hand. This is one lesson from October 1962 and there are signs that it is a lesson that has been learnt. Note that much of the recent furore over red-painted boulders and helicopter-dropped canned food in Ladakh was mainly due to a hyperventilating media—the official reaction from both the Indian foreign ministry and the armed forces played down the incidents.

While eschewing paranoia, alarmism and irresponsible rhetoric, a state of armed coexistence requires astute management. First, Indian and Chinese officials—civilian and military—must communicate across all levels. The establishment of a hotline between the heads of government must be followed up with communication links and better contacts between military commanders at operational levels. Despite appearances, the Chinese government is not monolithic and India must develop independent links to its various power centres.

Second, India must continue to invest in conventional defences to ensure that the military balance across the Himalayan frontier remains stable in the face of the PLA’s rapid modernisation. This calls for careful planning as to the type of military assets used and the areas where they are deployed, to minimise the risk of miscalculation by either side. Also, as Admiral Sureesh Mehta said in an important speech a few days before he stepped down as navy chief, “on the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent.”

Third, India must avoid creating needless suspicions in Beijing over its Tibet policy. John Garver, a noted scholar of India-China relations, determines that Mao’s profound misreading of Nehru’s strategic intentions over Tibet was one of the main drivers of China’s decision to go to war with India in 1962. New Delhi must not allow the Tibetans’ struggle to unduly determine how it is perceived by the Chinese leadership.

Finally, not everything about India-China border issue lies in the domain of foreign policy. It’s not only about ‘development’ of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. It is about making them part of the political, economic and social mainstream. [Mint]

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