The message is clear: China pressing forward to create new buffer zones
The ongoing confrontation between India and China has taken a dangerous turn. While all details are not known yet, a violent clash broke out after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops refused to follow a disengagement plan that had been agreed upon by the two sides. We know the casualty numbers on the Indian side but have only unconfirmed reports about the Chinese side. It is too early to conclude anything about the military situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). What is clear is that China is willing to escalate militarily for the small pieces of land it has occupied around Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley, and the Hot Springs.
The PLA’s behaviour is unusual when judged against the benchmarks of China’s own conduct in previous territorial disputes with India. So far, the Chinese tendency to initiate a military conflict has been correlated with the stakes involved in the territory for Beijing. Let us consider three regions whose status has or had been a bone of contention between the two countries — Tibet, Aksai Chin, and Sikkim.
These three case studies provide ample variation in the nature of dispute and the extent of military escalation by China. India was not a direct party to the dispute in Tibet. New Delhi’s interest was in the kind of relationship it would have with Tibet, and hence the kind of autonomy Tibet would enjoy under Communist rule. The Chinese leadership, however, believed that India wished to create a buffer zone in Tibet.
Aksai Chin, on the other hand, has been a direct dispute between India and China.
Sikkim’s status was a contestation between the Indian government and the Chogyal in Sikkim. China was the third party which would have liked Sikkim to continue as a buffer zone. So, the Chinese stakes were highest in Tibet and lowest in Sikkim, with Aksai Chin in between.
The case of Aksai Chin, however, was linked to the fate of Tibet. India’s claim on Aksai Chin was annoying for China because the territory provided, in 1950s, the most viable link between China and Tibet. Other routes, from Qinghai province in the north and Sichuan basin in the east, were subject to adverse weather patterns, difficult terrain and a Kham insurrection, which the Chinese believed was being supported by India along with the American Central Intelligence Agency.
Moreover, Indian claims over Aksai Chin were inconsistent over time. Jawaharlal Nehru’s position on Aksai Chin hardened when Sarvepalli Gopal, a historian with India’s ministry of external affairs, studied historical documents and convinced the PM, in 1960, about Indian claims over the territory. Given that THE Dalai Lama had fled to India in 1959, the change in Indian position on Aksai Chin could have come across to the Chinese leadership as linked to New Delhi’s “designs” over Tibet.
The most convincing explanation of China initiating a war against India in 1962 has to do with Tibet. India’s inconsistency over Aksai Chin and Nehru’s flawed Forward Policy — raising posts and conducting patrols in the disputed areas — definitely contributed to the war. But they were mere confirmation to the Chinese leadership of their prior beliefs about India’s designs on Tibet.
In contrast, India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1975 did not elicit a military response from China. The Chinese stakes were the lowest in Sikkim, and that could explain why the PLA did not escalate the 1967 clashes in Sikkim. Aksai Chin was a theatre of conflict in 1962 but Indian moves in that region, when considered separately from their implications over the status of Tibet, would not have prompted a full-fledged war.
The current crisis involves new intrusion points which were not part of the Aksai Chin dispute. There is an argument that the Indian decision to effectively nullify Article 370 and create a new Union Territory of Ladakh in August 2019 could have led China to believe that India intends to change the status quo in Aksai Chin. This is a tenuous claim because the fact is that the Indian position and claims on Aksai Chin haven’t changed. India’s map before and after the amendment of Article 370 look exactly identical, except for the addition of an extra line between Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and this line is hundreds of kilometres away from the LAC around which the disputes lie. The nullification of Article 370 also does not, in any sense, affect India’s ability to alter the status quo in Aksai Chin.
It seems far-fetched that the decision to issue a new map after the creation of Ladakh as a separate UT — which, to reiterate, is identical to the old map — indicates any Indian territorial “design” over Aksai Chin. The PLA’s behaviour also does not show that Article 370 has much relevance to whatever it has been up to. For instance, even the recent intrusions involve one in Naku La in Sikkim which has nothing to do with Article 370. PLA has undertaken similar unilateral actions, albeit on a lower scale, in 2013 (Depsang) and 2014 (Chumar), much before Article 370 was amended.
Beijing has inserted itself into the Kashmir dispute by signing off on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, also much before August 2019.
The trend is clear: China is moving forward into territory where it has neither been a disputant nor does it have high stakes. But since the economic and military gap between the two Asian giants have widened, China is pressing forward to create new buffer zones. With every crisis, China aims to expand its claims and create new limits for the Indian patrols. With the widening capability gap, the old standards of behaviour — military action only when the stakes are high — are no longer applicable. With fewer material constraints, China is creating new areas of interest, new buffer zones, new standards of behaviour, and new realities on the ground.
(Kunal Singh is pursuing a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The views expressed here are personal)