It is possible the Chinese may have bitten off more than they can chew. Beijing has rubbed three main countries of the Indo-Pacific region — Japan, the United States and India — the wrong way. This new triple entente constitutes a formidable coalition in the Indo-Pacific region to keep Chinese aggressiveness in check and will be difficult for Beijing to fend off.
China’s historic bogeyman, Japan, has sent Beijing a clear signal. The Japanese people have just given, perhaps, their most nationalistic post-War prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a majority in the upper house to go with the two-thirds majority his Liberal Democratic Party enjoys in the lower house, mainly because of his strong stance against a bullying China. To add to recent provocations in the Senkaku Islands area, Beijing ordered most of its flotilla, which had taken part in a massive joint exercise (“Joint Sea 2013”) with the Russian Pacific Fleet involving 19 warships, to return from the north by deliberately cutting west through the Soya Strait separating the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Russian Sakhalin Peninsula, steaming round the Japanese archipelago and crossing the Tsushima Strait between the southern Kyushu Island and the Korean peninsula.
China exploited Japan’s limiting its sea territory (from the 12km) in the Soya narrows to 5.6km to facilitate the passage of nuclear-armed ships of the Yokosuka-based US Seventh Fleet. In the context of growing tensions, Tokyo’s Defence White Paper pointed to China’s attempts to “change the status quo by force based on its own assertion [of territorial claims]” — don’t we know it! It was followed up with Japan “nationalising” some 400 small, outlying islands and rock outcroppings that almost doubled its sea territory to 4.47 million sqkm and hinted at a deliberately proactive defence policy.
In the process of decamping from Afghanistan, the United States is seeking to implement its “rebalance” strategy involving a military build-up in the Far East. Indeed, with the extant Chinese maritime disputes with Japan and the countries of the Southeast Asian littoral, especially the Philippines in mind, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, vice admiral Scott Swift, recently warned China against succumbing to “the temptation to use coercion or force in an attempt to resolve differences between nations”.
Two of the three pillars of the Indo-Pacific security architecture that can stabilise the evolving “correlation of forces” are solid. The third is India — the confused laggard in all matters remotely strategic. As usual, New Delhi is thrashing around clueless, despite being repeatedly smacked around by China. The incident in April this year in Ladakh’s Depsang Valley was not a one-off thing. Mid-June the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units again crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), ransacked the Chumar observation post the Chinese at the time of the earlier event had wanted dismantled. Except, this facility is actually a strategically-located post at a height affording a panoramic view of the PLA disposition in the valley below, and which the Indian Army had rigged up for remote 24/7 photo-imagery. The PLA intruders destroyed this surveillance system. As if to prove that such armed intrusions are going to be a monthly occurrence, on July 15-17 and again last week, and then on July 21, PLA troops violated the LAC.
What was most worrisome about these developments were the Indian Army’s initial reactions. It supported the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA) contention of the Chumar post as a “tin shed”, dismissed the June incident as “minor”, and passed off the first July PLA intrusion as “banner drills” — an innocuous unfurling of banners. It is as if the Army Headquarters (AHQ) was trying hard to avoid a rumble with the PLA in the face of the Chinese military’s determined bids to rub India’s nose in the dirt. Elsewhere, at the same time, Beijing was detected funnelling fake Indian currency through the Pakistan ISI gateway to destabilise the Indian economy. And still the Indian government believes China plays by Queensberry Rules.
AHQ’s “shrinking lilly” stance may have been due to the MEA’s insistence that Chinese feathers were best left unruffled with the talks on July 23-24 to negotiate a “border defence co-operation agreement” (BDCA) on the anvil. However, responding with alacrity and in kind to aggressive Chinese patrolling of LAC would have signalled a more forceful Indian posture and provided Indian negotiators leverage more than MEA’s girly policy of complaining, and sobbing in our sleeves. New Delhi may not have agreed to China’s condition that as part of the deal for peace and tranquillity Tibetans trying to escape their PLA-occupied homeland and into India be rounded up and handed back to Chinese authorities — the sort of understanding Beijing extracted out of the Nepalese government. But where else has the MEA stood its ground? Adding more sites for “border personnel meetings” and “hot lines” between AHQ and PLA command, or between the theatre commanders, etc. will not stop the Chinese troops violating the LAC at will. The only counter to PLA incursions is aggressive and like provocative actions by Indian units up to the Indian claim line but with adequate force-surge capacity, which Army needs to build-up, pronto.
Such an approach, however, goes against the callow policy of the Manmohan Singh regime. While the MEA minister Salman Khurshid in the run-up to the BDCA talks stated that the government was working “for peace as much as for tough times”, in practice it seems inclined to achieving peace the easy way — by appeasement. Instead of instituting them against China, tough, punitive, measures are used to cow down small states. With Khurshid expressly helming the effort reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s economic blockade of Nepal in the late 1980s, Bhutan was brought to heel by threats of ending a gas subsidy. Rajiv succeeded in alienating Nepal then, Khurshid has upset Thimpu now. It is certain Bhutan too will nurse a grudge, which Beijing will exploit. Acting cowardly where China is concerned and as a bully with our other neighbours has resulted in geostrategic opportunities the Chinese quickly capitalised on to shrink India’s regional profile, relevance and standing.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com