Reports of more than a dozen Chinese incursions during July-August across the poorly-defined Line of Actual Control (LoAC)—the de-facto border separating India and China—have surfaced, barely three months after a tense border face-off in mid-April when a Chinese platoon set up tents about 12 miles inside Indian Kashmir. That standoff almost derailed the first ever visit to India by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in late May, and ended with the withdrawal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops on May 6.
Mutual antagonism has persisted along the border ever since the 1962 China-India border war with frequent border skirmishes and standoffs. Negotiations over drawing the official borders have dragged on for so long that they now carry the distinction of being the longest-running border negotiations in the world. This is fitting as the LoAC is the longest border in the world that has yet to be demarcated and delineated.
Premier Li Keqiang expressed optimism about resolving the border issue in the near future when he finally visited India in late May. Moreover the latest incursions occurred soon after Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited China in June to discuss measures to maintain “peace and tranquility” along the LoAC. Recently, Chinese and Indian Special Representatives also held their 16th round of boundary talks.
Still, the prospects of an early border settlement are not bright—indeed, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing each other’s “perception” of where the LoAC runs.
Some had hoped the growing economic interaction between China and India would help resolve the border dispute. In fact, the opposite has proven true; namely, trade itself has become a source of friction as India’s trade deficit with China has soared from $1 billion in 2002 to $40 billion in 2013. A 2012 Pew opinion poll showed that only 23 percent Chinese and Indians hold a “favorable” view of each other.
The failure to resolve the border row has little to do with the substance of the issue, and everything to do with the interests of some of the parties. There is indeed a fairly good understanding of where the LoAC lies. This is evident from the fact that no incursions were reported for a decade from 1988 to 1998.
It was only in 1998—notably, the year India tested nuclear weapons— that PLA border patrols again began routinely made forays across the disputed 2,400-mile-long LoAC to try and establish new territorial claims. Indian military has recorded nearly 600 incursions over the last 3 years alone. For their part, Chinese officials deny any transgressions and accuse the Indian side of patrolling on the Chinese side of the LAC.
It’s therefore clear that some in China view the unresolved border dispute as working in Beijing’s favor. China’s aggressive patrolling along the unsettled border keeps India’s military forces tied down on multiple fronts, tests Delhi’s resolve, heightens its anxiety, exposes its strategic vulnerabilities, and diverts scarce resources away from its naval modernization.
Moreover, independent analysts see parallels between China’s land forces penetrating the LoAC into Indian Territory and China’s maritime forces attempting to expand its maritime presence eastwards. Also indicative of this trend is Chinese maritime forces harassment of Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino forces well within their exclusive economic zones. Whether on the high seas or in the icy Himalayan ranges, the PLA does not shy away from using assertive military tactics and an implicit threat of force to seize what it claims to own. Belligerence, brinkmanship, intimidation, risk taking, and controlled escalation have long been part of Chinese diplomacy.
But by engaging in simultaneous territorial disputes and coercive diplomacy China has renewed fears across Asia over its wider territorial ambitions. This has led to discussions in regional strategic circles about a “Triple Entente involving Tokyo, Hanoi, New Delhi to counter the Chinese octopus spreading its tentacles all around Asian periphery.” There is a growing consensus in Asian capitals that a robust regional response to the PLA’s rejection of the territorial status quo may well be needed to maintain peace and stability in Asia.
The net result along the LoAC is that it has heavily militarized, as tensions rise over aggressive patrolling and their military drills. Since 2000, the Chinese have put in place a sophisticated military infrastructure in Tibet: five fully operational air bases, several helipads, an extensive rail network, and 36,000 miles of roads—giving them the ability to rapidly deploy 30 divisions (appx. 15,000 soldiers each) along the border, a 3-to-1 advantage over India. China’s economy and military expenditure are already 3 times the size of India’s. In addition, the PLA’s strategic options against India will multiply as Chinese land and rail links with Pakistani Kashmir, Nepal, Burma, and Bangladesh improve. Through a combination of trade, aid, resource extraction and infrastructure development, as well as arms sales and naval bases, Beijing has extended its strategic perimeter in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
India has responded to the Chinese buildup by unveiling its own border infrastructure development projects, and deploying combat aircraft, cruise missiles, and mountain warfare divisions to fortify its northern borders. The Indian government also recently approved a new mountain strike corps (40,000 soldiers), apart from two infantry brigades and two armored brigades, to plug operational gaps along the border. However, New Delhi’s bureaucratic and economic constraints could delay force expansion plans.
Still, India’s belated efforts to bolster its military position via stepped-up border patrols, and the construction or activation of new outposts, airstrips, surveillance, and roads have riled the PLA. The PLA tactics of pitching tents and flag marches to smashing bunkers and snatching surveillance cameras show strong disapproval of Indian countermeasures.
On the eve of Indian Defense Minister Antony’s visit to Beijing on July 4, a hawkish PLA Major General (ret) Luo Yuan warned India not to “provoke new problems” and “stir up” trouble through its plans to increase deployments along the border. To freeze the status quo, Beijing has proposed the conclusion of a new “Border Defense Cooperation Agreement” that would effectively reduce fortifications on both sides of the border. Not surprisingly, New Delhi has countered by proposing a broader accord designed to prevent border flare-ups, incursions, and especially the actual use of force under any condition.
So far conflict has been avoided. But with the PLA expanding its presence to both the east and west, and China’s neighbors shedding their defensive mindsets, there is a real risk of a miscalculation and a major catastrophe. The combative streak speaks to a profound shift underway in Chinese foreign policy. Specifically, China is abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s directive of trying to “hide and bide” it’s time in favor of “seizing opportunities,” taking the lead and showing off China’s newly-acquired military capabilities and economic clout to shape others’ choices in Beijing’s favor.
Of particular significance is the growing disconnect between the PLA and Foreign Ministry. Chinese diplomats often appear to be caught by surprise when the military engages in provocative actions. This was the case again during the Depsang plateau intrusion in Ladakh in mid-April 2013 that overlooks the Karakoram Pass, China’s gateway to Pakistan.
According to a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Chinese diplomats took several days to even determine that an intrusion had occurred and “[i]t took threats from New Delhi to effectively kill two state visits and possibly a third before Chinese troops pulled out.” While Chinese diplomats may be playing “catch-up,” China’s new leadership appears to support the military hardliners’ attempts to change the territorial status quo through a provocative “forward policy.”
My recent discussions with China’s South Asia experts also confirm an inherently conflicted view of India. The broad divide is between the hardliners who want to nip “the India challenge” in the bud before it becomes a serious threat, and the pragmatists who want to partner with a rising India whenever interests converge and leverage its market and resources to strengthen relations. The first viewpoint is represented by the PLA strategists; the second by old India hands, foreign policy mandarins, and think tank community.
Hardliners see India as a “soft state” that is hamstrung by a fractious polity, poverty, and religious and regional fault lines. They seem convinced that China’s growing wealth and the unequal strategic equation will eventually force India (and others) to capitulate and acquiesce to China’s primacy. Many assume that the Indian state—plagued with terrorism and insurgencies internally and under strategic pressure on multiple fronts externally—will eventually unravel.
Military officers focus on India’s great power ambitions, its military spending and weapons acquisitions, and the developments in India’s naval and nuclear doctrines. They opine that rising powers like India and China are likely to come into conflict as their capabilities, ambitions, and interests grow.
PLA admirals and analysts similarly express indignation over India’s oil exploration in the South China Sea, its statements in support of “freedom of navigation” and the proliferation of its security dialogues with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the United States. Growing angst over Indian naval forays in the Pacific Ocean led one analyst to ask: “Are we all ready to accept India as a Pacific power?” Aggressive patrolling along the LoAC would surely help the PLA keep Indian military’s focus on its land borders instead of widening its navy’s horizons in distant seas.
Some fear that the Indo-U.S. cooperation in defense, space, and maritime spheres would prolong U.S. hegemony and prevent the establishment of a Sino-centric hierarchical order in Asia. As such, they believe that India and other countries that partner with the U.S. to counter China “deserve Beijing’s wrath.” A crucial means of “victory without bloodshed” (bing bu xue ren) in Chinese strategic tradition is to intimidate the hostile country into capitulation through provocation, brinkmanship, coercion, controlled escalation, and a shift in the balance of power. The aim is to convince the enemy, who is militarily weak and/or tied down by other security concerns, that the overall “correlation of forces” has shifted to his disadvantage and thus to force him to concede. In any case, some PLA hawks believe that China would prevail in a conflict with India and reap broader strategic rewards.
Pragmatists, on the other hand, are optimistic about China and India’s ability to maintain peace and stability in accordance with their own self-interests. They point to burgeoning trade ties and collaboration on issues like climate change. Some Chinese pragmatists call for co-opting India in a newly scripted “Look West” policy to counter America’s “pivot to Asia” (i.e., the West of China, meaning South, West and Central Asia and beyond). The “pivot to the West” school favors a quick border settlement so as to “reset” India ties and drive a wedge between India and the U.S. and Japan.
The dominant viewpoint holds that relations between Asia’s giants need careful management and conflict avoidance strategies. Even as they have failed to settle the border dispute, both sides have refrained from aggressive rhetoric since 2009 and no shots have been fired since 1987. Both desire a peaceful security environment to focus on economic development and avoid overt rivalry or conflict.
Still, the volatile agents of nationalism, history, ambition, strength, and size produce a combustible mix.
Therefore, both sides are arming for an all-out conflict. Strategic thinkers in both Beijing and New Delhi are bitten by the “containment” bug. Both countries aspire to the same things at the same time on the same (contested) continental landmass and its adjoining waters. Neither power is comfortable with the rise of the other. Asia has never known a time when China and India were growing strong simultaneously, in such close proximity and with disputed frontiers and overlapping spheres of influence.
In the absence of a border settlement, tensions on both sides of the Himalayan divide will remain high as both militaries reinforce their strategic positions and engage in a battle of wits. Subduing India, preferably without striking a blow, remains a major Chinese policy objective.
Dr. Mohan Malik is professor in Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). These are author’s personal views and in no way reflect the views of the Asia-Pacific Center or the U.S. Department of Defense.