For the last few weeks, Indian media is completely taken up by what is happening in the vicinity of Tri-junction where India, China and Bhutan meet. The Chinese media is even more obsessed. However, it is attempting intense psychological warfare with party mouthpieces such as People’s Daily and Global Times, spewing venom against India. By and large Indian media’s response has been measured. Why in 2017 has China suddenly turned a new leaf and adopted enhanced aggression as its policy towards neighbours? Our military and diplomats should wrestle this thought and that’s what we need to contribute to.
Father of China’s current modernisation, Deng Xiaoping, gave it the most pragmatic direction as early as 1978. His doctrine was all about internal strengthening of China with stable borders, choosing the non-military route for nation-building, and comprehensive strength before turning to transformation of the military. In the last few years, China settled around 23 continental boundary disputes with many neighbours, except India and Bhutan. As an element of its global power aims, it could not afford to have strong neighbours. Freeing India from land-based disputes through agreements would have meant that India would have the latitude to pursue two things inimical to Chinese interests. First, it could focus its forces against the Pakistani threat sans the looming threat on a second front. A weak Pakistan is not in China’s interest; it being in China’s camp offsets the US domination in Southwest Asia. Second, with settled borders in the north, India could focus on its maritime strength. The maritime zone from China’s eastern seaboard to Persian Gulf is its vulnerability. It is through these sea lanes that China receives bulk of its energy supplies. It is also one of the conduits in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
For almost a decade, China has been needling India on the border at locations of its claim lines. It has signed a series of agreements on maintaining the status quo pending resolution, but has not moved ahead even in delineating a Line of Actual Control. This affords it to conduct ‘walk in’ operations and aggressive patrolling. These actions force the Indian Army to be on alert, divert resources towards the northern borders and remain continental in security approach rather than focus on its vital maritime zone.
PM Narendra Modi’s aggressive foreign policy, although looking at China for cooperation, also focuses on developing strategic equations to safeguard Indian interests. The emerging US-Japan-India equation and increasing maritime security cooperation through the Malabar series of exercises is not something China approves of. While it is fully aware that the Sino-Indian trade of $80-90 billion is an important driver of its economy, it can’t afford to allow India the development of comprehensive national power matching that of China as that could spell competition in power equations.
If the above rationale for China’s strategy is understood, there is no difficulty in perceiving that after having achieved a virtual domination in South China Sea, and given little credence to the judgment of International Court of Justice on the row, China was strategising its next step. With issues in East Asia creating turbulence, attempting to browbeat Japan may be tough. PLA activities in the Himalayan belt have been progressively calibrated to higher level in Aksai Chin, Central Sector and Arunachal Pradesh. On the politico diplomatic front, China’s refusal to budge on the admission of India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist, were steps to girdle India. Chinese activities in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal were also coordinated for strategic messaging.
Two things probably irked China and acted as triggers. First, the refusal by India to budge on visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh. Second, absence of India and Bhutan from the BRI meet in Beijing. In terms of choice of the location to trigger a standoff, there are two possibilities. Doklam is not disputed by India, but by Bhutan. Was the intent to test the strength of India’s commitment to its neighbour? Failure to come to its aid would be a moral climb down for India. On the face of it, this area has two advantages for China. One, it offers scope for strategically threatening India’s vulnerability—the Chicken’s Neck. Two, it creates a complex situation with greater messaging potential. Whether China has thought this through as strategy, is difficult to surmise.
Both sides cannot withdraw sans some loss of face, and war is no option. The issue is, even diplomacy is not an option as China refuses negotiation till India withdraws. Localised conflict is also not feasible as the one who suffers will retain the option to expand to other areas. The situation is a bind from where some routes towards resolution can only emerge as rhetoric reduces and mutual face-saving methods are arrived at, possibly at the initiative of Bhutan, which needs to play a greater role in the diplomatic messaging.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps