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]

Pro forma protests

Sit up and take note when China doesn’t protest, not when it does

There is no need to get too worked up about China registering its protests at President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. As long as the border issue is not fully and finally settled, China will hold on to its position that parts of Arunachal Pradesh are really Chinese territories illegally occupied by India. So registering a protest pro forma is part of the routine. Not protesting would have been unusual: and India would see it as a ‘concession’. Just why would China concede anything just like that?

Nothwithstanding China’s protests, both the Indian prime minister and president have visited the state in the last couple of years.

For a good overview of the dispute and the way forward on its settlement, check out India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond by Mohan Guruswamy and Zorawar Daulet Singh, reviewed in the April 2009 issue of Pragati.

But China might not want a settlement of the border issue at this time, for the dispute itself is a containment device.

On territorial compromises with China

It’s not at all trivial

It’s a seductive argument. That the longstanding border dispute between India and China is trivial. Aksai Chin, which China controls and India claims is not even habitable. Portions of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims are both populated and economically useful. Surely, then, it makes sense for India to agree to a border settlement that swaps Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh. It is the political difficulty of selling the compromise to the emotional Indian people, Arvind Kala writes, that is preventing India from settling the dispute. [Related Post: McMahon’s line and Aksai Chin]

One problem: it is China that is unwilling move ahead towards settling the border dispute. The reasons why it chose to do so underlies why Mr Kala’s arguments are flawed: first, the border dispute is not ‘trivial’, but as even Jawaharlal Nehru recognised, the manifestation of a geopolitical power struggle between India and China. Second, Aksai Chin is not ‘useless’ to India, not least because it is vital to China. And finally, China is not a ‘friend’, no country is. Indeed, Mr Kala fundamentally misreads the nature of international relations when he declares ‘nations are like human beings’, ‘shaped by emotion’. It is possible that it is this anthropomorphism that leads Mr Kala to misleading conclusions. But if at all an analogy can be made, it is more appropriate to say that nations are like wild animals, existing under the law of the jungle. The zoomorphism apart, nations do what is in their interests. And at this time, resolving the dispute is not in China’s interests.

Just like in the case the dispute over Kashmir, it is not uncommon to hear well-meaning people suggest that a territorial compromise is the ticket to peace. But it is naïve and dangerous to believe that giving away territory will automatically cause the other side to go away and leave India in peace. That’s because, by its very nature, a compromise that leaves both sides satisfied will not change the underlying balance of power.

A corollary to this is that a mutually satisfactory solution to the border dispute is only possible when the balance of power is stable and both countries are well reconciled to it. That is hardly the case at this point in time—when India and China are both jockeying for power in Asia and beyond. At this time, it is to be expected that both will be sensitive to relative gains and losses, and for that reason, unwilling to settle the dispute.

Afterword: From one of Nehru’s letters to chief ministers:

“It is a little naïve to think that the trouble with China was essentially due to a dispute over some territory. It had deeper reasons. Two of the largest countries in Asia confronted each other over a vast border. They differed in many ways. And the test was as to whether anyone of them would have a more dominating position than the other on the border and in Asia itself. We do not desire to dominate any country and we are content to live peacefully with other countries provided they do not interfere with us or commit aggression. China, on the other hand, clearly did not like the idea of such a peaceful existence and wants to have a dominating position in Asia.” [As quoted by Kuldip Nayar in Dawn]

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

Related Posts: K Subrahmanyam, Brahma Chellaney & Manoj Joshi

How to beat China in the borderlands

Be more like India

How should India respond to China’s building of road, rail and communications infrastructure in areas adjoining the unresolved Himalayan border? Excerpt from an article in the July 2007 issue of Pragati:

Clearly then, there is an urgent need for India to review the way in which it engages China.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is caught in a reactive mode—building infrastructure in remote border regions in response to China. If done with due care to the environment this is a positive outcome of the rivalry between the two countries. Yet roads and railways do not always buy affection and China in any case can build them much faster than India can.

A far more effective way for India to bring its most distant citizens into the national mainstream would be to empower them through tangible political equality. Reconstituting the Rajya Sabha along the lines of the American Senate—and giving states like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland the same number of seats as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the rest—will not only be far more effective than big, leaky development programmes but is also more democratic. It is also be a move that China cannot match. [Pragati]

Related Post: The Catapult excoriates the Indian government for playing down reports of recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory