China is raising LAC heat as part of a plan

Updated on Dec 22, 2022 10:31 PM IST

In the absence of strategic trust, this constant testing of waters should worry not just India but our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacifiic

Beijing routinely renames places in Arunachal Pradesh to assert its claims. Despite New Delhi’s dismissal of these propaganda stunts, they make news. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Beijing routinely renames places in Arunachal Pradesh to assert its claims. Despite New Delhi’s dismissal of these propaganda stunts, they make news. (Shutterstock)
ByShruti Pandalai

Indian military planners often describe China’s actions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as conforming to Chairman Mao’s stratagem of da da, tan tan (fight fight, talk talk) — the idea being that China talks not because of an actual desire to reach a solution, but as a tactic to gain time, be deceptive and send a strong message to third parties. Beijing’s end goal doesn’t change, so offering to talk doesn’t imply fighting stops.

That description fits with what has transpired in the Tawang sector, the clashes coming two months after India and China agreed to hold more talks between military commanders to resolve remaining issues along the LAC. The pushback underlines that New Delhi has come to terms with Beijing’s talk-and-strike strategy, albeit at a cost. Yet the bigger and more uncomfortable reality is that unpredictable escalation is the new normal along the LAC. In the absence of strategic trust, this constant testing of waters should worry not just India but our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Clearly, Beijing seeks to keep the LAC alive. Differing perceptions or patrol clashes have happened before, but what’s changed after Galwan is mirroring deployment patterns and escalation assessments on both sides. Since China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet and is upping propaganda efforts to assert its legitimacy, the escalation in Tawang is worrying on multiple fronts. The Indian Army has been tracking China’s upgrading of infrastructure and mobile connectivity in Tibet and the mushrooming of dual-use border villages across the LAC. These assessments line up with reports of increasing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activity in the Tawang and Walong sectors, where reports say the PLA is reinforcing its posts, increasing their patrolling and stepping up violations of the Indian border.

Beijing routinely tries to rename places in Arunachal Pradesh to assert its claims. Despite New Delhi’s dismissal of these propaganda stunts, they make news. Similarly, the 20th National Party Congress cemented the centrality of Galwan in China’s military propaganda. As a precursor to Xi Jinping’s arrival, footage from 2020 was part of a montage showcasing the party’s successes. An injured PLA commander’s presence in the Great Hall was prominently featured. Xi’s call to the PLA to win local wars caught eyeballs. China’s new Central Military Commission saw big promotions awarded to three PLA generals who are key actors in the Western Theatre Command, which borders India. This command has been working specifically on limiting India’s ability to conduct offensive operations. The difference between what China says and what China does has clear implications for India.

First, while India may strive for mutual sensitivity, respect and interest, China continues to see India from a third-party prism. Take the Chinese objection to the India-United States (US) military exercise. Beijing called it a violation of border agreements signed in 1993 and 1996 — ironic because China has no veto on Indian decisions and rich, given Beijing tore up decades of agreements and protocols with Galwan.

Two, this denial of Indian agency stems from long-standing disdain for parity with India. India’s aggressive infrastructure push, especially in Arunachal — airports, all-weather tunnels, roads fit for heavy armour movement, coupled with attempts to retain border populations with a boost to tourism, reviving indigenous culture and economic incentives — aim to catch up with China. While Chinese propaganda relentlessly slights these efforts, it blames infrastructure development for triggering escalation.

Three, this aversion to parity translates to “status-dilemmas” where China sees US-India cooperation not simply as a balance of power politics but also as a balance of status. China’s Asia watchers often blame India for bad relations, and stereotype it as an obstacle. Academic Liu Zonghyi recently rebuked India for “taking advantage of US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, as an “opportunity to contain China’s rise”. These perceptions endure in Beijing’s strategic calculus.

Four, if Chinese actions along the LAC are driven by third-party prisms, then India and its partners need to shore up signalling, both externally and internally. No matter what Beijing says, Quad has rattled its assumptions. As scholar Ye Hailin noted, “China should target the US’s Indo-Pacific alliance system, based on the principle of using power to divide and demoralise.”As Quad capitals manage their China relationship, they should strive to keep out even fringe speculation on grand bargains with Beijing. This narrative amplifies anxieties of the Indo-Pacific region and plays into China’s hands.

Finally, on narratives, India put the facts on the ground first on the Tawang clash, not ceding grounds for speculation. However, the bigger battle lies in thwarting Chinese attempts at painting “Tawang as a core interest”. Ongoing efforts to de-legitimise the 1914 agreement that validates the McMahon Line, the assertion of theological links to Tawang, the whitewashing of repressive Tibetan taxation practices, cultural appropriation of independent tribes, and mind games engineered to exploit socioeconomic and ethnic fault lines will continue. India will need to be battle ready, not just on the ground but also in the cognitive domain.

Shruti Pandalai is fellow, MP-IDSA

The views expressed are personal

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