Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bent over backwards to befriend China. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit has been marred by border incursions, including one that ranks, in terms of the number of intruding troops, as the worst in many years. Modi coined his “inch toward miles” slogan to underscore how India-China collaboration could positively transform Asia. But the slogan more aptly describes the salami-slice strategy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to use stealthy incursions to incrementally change facts on the ground.
The PLA is taking advantage of its rising political clout at home to escalate border incursions. It has been undeterred even by Xi’s visit. After all, in the run-up to Premier Li Keqiang’s New Delhi visit last year, the PLA staged a deep, three-week-long intrusion into Indian territory.
Enjoying increasing autonomy and soaring budgets, the PLA of late appears ready to upstage even the Communist Party of China. Ideologically adrift, the party is becoming dependent on the PLA for its political legitimacy and to ensure domestic order. The PLA sees itself as the power behind the throne, encouraging it to assert its primacy.
China’s expanding ‘core interests’ and its willingness to take on several neighbours simultaneously point to how the PLA is calling the shots. With the PLA gaining political muscle and boasting financial assets and enterprises across the nation, it is seizing opportunities to nibble at neighbouring countries’ territories, besides driving an increasingly muscular foreign policy.
The more powerful the PLA has become at the expense of the civilian collective leadership, the more China has presented itself as a tiger on the prowl by discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum ‘tao guang yang hui’ (keep a low profile and not bare your capabilities). It is as if China has decided that its moment has finally arrived.
This structural transformation parallels the one that occurred in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia, the Japanese military gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, opening the path to aggression and conquest.
The PLA’s increasing clout has led China to resurrect territorial and maritime disputes and assert new sovereignty claims. Such assertiveness also helps the party to turn nationalism into the legitimating credo of its monopoly on power. But as the latest Ladakh intrusions show, the PLA is ready to strike even at the risk of drawing attention to the wrong issues during a Chinese presidential visit.
Whereas the Indian military continues to be shut out from the policymaking loop in a way unmatched in any other established democracy, the PLA has repeatedly blindsided government leaders with military actions, weapon displays or hawkish statements, prompting US defence secretary Robert Gates in 2011 to warn of “a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China. The recent rise of a new Chinese dynasty of ‘princelings’ or sons of revolutionary heroes who have close contacts in the military has narrowed that disconnect.
Xi best symbolises the political ascent of ‘princelings’. Indeed, what distinguishes Xi from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the PLA, which regards him as its own man. Xi is the only civilian figure in the twin central military commissions. It is thus possible that the latest Himalayan incursions were deliberately timed, with Xi’s knowledge, to reinforce his message to India that China will not compromise on territorial disputes and that the onus is on New Delhi to settle Beijing’s claims.
The PLA’s political power poses an important challenge for India, paralleling the one it faces on Pakistan, where the military and its intelligence agency dictate foreign policy. India also confronts the strengthening nexus between China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory, and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. Indian diplomacy faces the dilemma of how to deal with these regional adversaries, given that the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors.
In fact, China’s foreign ministry is the weakest government branch, often overruled or simply ignored by the PLA. This is a key reason why India’s border talks with the Chinese foreign ministry since 1981 have gone nowhere. The Indians can stay put in this process for another 33 years and the Chinese side will continue to merrily take them round and round the mulberry bush.
Last year’s three-week military standoff in Ladakh indeed highlighted the ‘information lag’ of the Chinese foreign ministry, whose version evolved from expressing ignorance about the intrusion, to dismissing Indian claims as “speculation”, and to finally acknowledging an “incident” and “standoff” with India. A day after India disclosed that the standoff was over, the Chinese foreign office remained utterly ignorant of the development, saying it was awaiting “the latest information”.
With China rising as a praetorian State, India’s fumbling responses to the increasing Chinese incursions do not bode well for its Himalayan security. India still deploys border police to fend off such incursions. But the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, with its defensive training and mindset and under the Union home ministry, is no match to the PLA’s aggressive designs. The Chinese border provocations and India’s meek calls for ‘flag meetings’ to end standoffs highlight the diametrically opposite civil-military equations prevailing in the world’s two demographic titans, underscoring India’s imperative to formulate a concerted strategy to counter China’s posture of aggressive deterrence.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.
The views expressed by the author are personal.