As the LAC heats up, reading China’s playbook
The stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces at Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh continues with both sides reinforcing their respective positions. While tensions may be reduced through continuing dialogue in mechanisms put in place over the past several years, the key issue is whether Chinese troops agree to vacate the area they have occupied by violating the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
China would be content if, after altering the facts on the ground, the stand-off is defused, say by a limited disengagement of a few metres between the troops, leaving most of the encroached territory in Chinese hands. China may agree to vacate the occupied area but expect concessions in return. These could include a halt to border infrastructure development on the Indian side of LAC, even the dismantling of built up structures. In the Doklam stand-off in 2017, the forces of the two sides disengaged. China halted additional road-building activity but continues to consolidate its position in the occupied area. The bottom line — facts on the ground remain altered to China’s advantage although India’s action forestalled further ingress. Therefore, unless India is able to find an effective counter-strategy to this pattern of Chinese behaviour, incidents of the kind we have seen at many points on LAC are not only likely to continue but to intensify.
There is another feature to the Chinese playbook. This is evident at the India-China border and in other theatres such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and the Yellow Sea. Each Chinese action, taken in isolation, may not be regarded as threatening enough to require a strong and countervailing military riposte. Over a period of time, however, a string of such “isolated” incidents add up cumulatively to a significant change in the balance of power on the ground. China’s dominance of the South China Sea, its occupation and militarisation of several offshore islands, have reached a point where only a major military offensive, perhaps even war, may be necessary to reverse Beijing’s advantage. As is apparent, such risky actions are unlikely. At the most, one may expect the now alerted major powers, to prevent any further gains by China. So this is another important part of the playbook — incremental advances short of the threshold of a likely military response from adversaries, but resulting over time in a more favourable balance of power.
We have seen this at the India-China border over the years. There has been
constant nibbling activity which the Indian side confronts, but it is unable or unwilling to go on a military offensive to reverse Chinese gains. We have to understand these salami-slicing tactics and develop an effective counter-strategy. This may require the ability to use the ambiguity of LAC to make asymmetric gains in zones where we have a tactical advantage. Only then will there be some bargaining chips available with us to restore the status quo.
There is a third element in the Chinese playbook that needs attention. China calibrates its posture towards any country based on a careful assessment of the balance of economic and military capabilities. This may sometimes go wrong because Chinese leaders are relatively insular and self-centred in their outlook. There is a cultural predilection towards tactical agility, even deception, in interState relations and little patience with notions of statesmanship. After the 1962 war, China’s default position on the border was the so-called package proposal, essentially formalising the prevailing status quo. In 1985-86, after the Wandung incident in the eastern sector, the package proposal was reinterpreted to mean that a settlement required India to make “meaningful concessions” in the east, the area of largest dispute, for which China would make appropriate-though-undefined-concessions in the western sector. Subsequently, it was conveyed that in any settlement, Tawang would have to be “returned” to China.
What we now see is a further moving of the goalposts, with China’s behaviour suggesting that the ambiguity over the precise alignment of LAC gives it the opportunity to trigger incidents at points of choice in order to make both local, tactical gains but to also convey a larger message that it has a stronger hand when dealing with India.
Some analysts suggest that India should not provoke China by moving closer to the United States (US), the implication being that distancing from the US and other countries which China regards as adversaries, would somehow lessen the pressure on India. This is strange logic. It suggests that decisions on India’s foreign policy are being made in Washington but should that be replaced by their being made in accordance with Chinese preferences instead? India’s foreign policy should be made in New Delhi in India’s best interests. It has been New Delhi’s experience that strong relations between India and the US, indeed with other major powers, give India greater room for manoeuvre and ability to manage the China challenge. The more isolated India is, the greater its vulnerability to Chinese pressures.
At this juncture, no military alliance with the US is on the cards. But building and strengthening a strong and credible countervailing coalition of major powers, which share India’s concerns about the China’s predatory predilections, is prudent policy even as India must marshal its energies to reduce the asymmetry of power with China which is at the heart of our current predicament.