Has China bitten off more than it can chew?
I have argued before that in advancing its territorial claims, China uses carefully calibrated tactics. Each move it makes may not be threatening enough to invite a significant military response, but several incremental actions cumulatively lead to a material change in the situation. Small nibbles lead to a giant bite.
We have seen this unfold on our borders. It has been practised with success in the South China Sea (SCS). In earlier track-2 meetings, Chinese interlocutors would say that they did not claim the whole of SCS but only the various islands and waters around them. When asked about the nine-dash line, they said that it was a legacy of the Guomindang government. It will be recalled that when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had pointed out to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that Chinese maps were showing large chunks of Indian territory as part of China, Zhou explained that these were old Guomindang maps that had not yet been revised. Sounds familiar?
Chinese interlocutors later began to assert that SCS were “historic waters” where China had certain legacy rights, but did not explain what these were. They still maintained that China was not claiming the entire stretch of waters as sovereign territory. Once formal submission to this effect was made to the United Nations, the obfuscation could no longer stand. The process of actual occupation, dredging and militarisation then began in earnest and still continues. At each step of this creeping process of occupation, neither the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) nor the United States (US) felt threatened enough to take countermeasures. Reversing the changed facts on the ground will require large-scale military action, which is not realistic.
The lesson to be drawn is that the counter must come swiftly and at an early stage before the map has been redrawn through such tactics. India changed its pattern of response to Chinese nibbling with the Doklam operation in 2017. There is no doubt that this came as a rude surprise to the Chinese side. The sharp and aggressive official reaction and the flood of vituperative Chinese media commentary reflected that. Here was a nibble that had invited an unexpected and out-of-character “disproportionate” response. The impasse lasted for over two months, but was eventually resolved. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit hosted by President Xi Jinping at that time was an important reason for the resolution.
In contrast to Doklam, the operations in eastern Ladakh were not the usual nibbling kind, but backed by deployment of a large number of troops and weaponry. The aim would have been to substantially change the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to China’s advantage, making any Indian effort to reverse the gain a risky and costly affair. The skirmish at Galwan with unprecedented loss of life may have been unexpected and not necessarily part of the original script. This is why the rhetoric on the Chinese side, compared to a smaller incident at Doklam, was much more muted and remains so.
The plan would have been to occupy territory falling within the category of “differing perceptions” of LAC and prevent any Indian presence and patrols in these areas. Another aim would have been to neutralise any Indian advantage from improved border infrastructure such as the Darbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) road and revived Advance Landing Grounds (ALG) at DBO, Fukche, Chushul and Demchok.
What China did not expect was that India would not confine its response to managing the border dispute but would extend it to attacking Chinese commercial interests in India and aligning itself more closely with its Quad partners. The Indian side has upped the ante by taking two steps, one military and one economic — occupying the heights in south Pangong and by permanently banning 59 Chinese apps. Earlier, the signal given was that these commercial actions could be reversed if relations came back on an even keel. The onus is now on China to escalate both on the border, but importantly in other dimensions of the relations. Should China seek to push India out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation? What about India’s membership of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or the BRICS Development Bank? Should it lead in disbanding BRICS which may bring it into conflict with Russia and other members? Should it retaliate commercially, which it has not done so far?
There have been multiple rounds of talks at the military-to-military level, which have not registered any progress towards disengagement of troops. External affairs minister S Jaishankar acknowledged as much in a recent statement.
The fact that both sides find continuation of talks useful is positive, but it appears that the initiative is no longer on China’s side. Jaishankar has stated quite unambiguously that other aspects of India-China relations could not be insulated from the disturbance to peace and tranquillity on the border. The reaction from the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was to urge that the border situation should be delinked from other aspects of bilateral relations, knowing full well that this is no longer possible. China has miscalculated and does not know how to extricate itself. Has it, for a change, bitten off more than it can chew?
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal