NEW DELHI – In a classic replay of its old game, China intruded stealthily across the disputed, forbidding Himalayan frontier with India recently and then disingenuously played conciliator by counseling “patience” and “negotiations.” The incursion bore all the hallmarks of Chinese brinkmanship, including taking an adversary by surprise, seizing an opportunistic timing, masking offense as defense and discounting risks of wider escalation. Occurring at a time when India has never been so politically weak, the intrusion was shrewdly timed to exploit its political paralysis and leadership drift.
What China did was to audaciously violate border-peace agreements with India by employing coercive power on the ground. Then, armed with leverage from its encroachment onto the icy heights of the Debsang plateau — which overlooks the Chinese highway linking the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang — it embarked on coercive diplomacy by setting out military demands for Indians to meet.
In doing so, it presented India with two equally objectionable alternatives: Either endure the Chinese ingress into a strategic border region controlling key access routes or meet China’s demands at the cost of irremediably weakening Indian military interest in a wider strategic belt extending up to the disputed Siachin Glacier and the Karakoram Pass, which links China to Pakistan. After a three-week standoff, China withdrew from the occupied spot but only after India blinked by making concessions that it has since tried to rationalize as granting China a “necessary face saver.”
The plain fact is that India conceded something to help end the standoff, while China — in a triumph for its coercive diplomacy — conceded nothing. By merely positioning a single army platoon of up to 50 soldiers on the mountain-ringed Debsang plateau, it got India — without having to fire a single shot — to agree to do what its earlier efforts had failed to accomplish, including a significant attenuation of Indian defenses in that border area (the scene of recurrent Chinese military forays in recent years) and a commitment to formally discuss other Chinese concerns.
India wilted just when China was coming under adverse international spotlight for intruding into Indian-controlled territory after expanding its “core interests” and provoking territorial spats with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Instead of raising China’s diplomatic costs for aggression, India rewarded the aggressor with concessions.
It brought itself under pressure to clinch a deal so that its foreign minister could go ahead with a scheduled trip to Beijing to lay the ground for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s New Delhi visit nexd Monday. Li’s stopover in New Delhi on his way to his country’s “all-weather ally” Pakistan, however, is unlikely to produce a breakthrough on any of the issues that divide China and India.
To bolster its larger game-plan and to aid its strategy of encroaching on Himalayan land bit by bit, Beijing insisted India degrade its defenses by dismantling a key forward observation post, destroying bunkers and other defensive fortifications, and halting infrastructure development near their de facto border known as the line of actual control (LAC). China, meanwhile, builds up an offensive capability to strike without warning.
In forcing India to start demolishing bunkers before officially terminating the standoff and softening it for further bargaining, China has vindicated its coercive diplomacy. And having openly challenged India’s belated, fumbling moves to fortify frontier defences against a rising pattern of Chinese border provocations, it will now hold the threat of unleashing its coercive power again.
More fundamentally, China’s incursion has wreaked lasting damage on the dual Sino-Indian border accords of 2005, a development scarcely conducive to ensuring Himalayan peace and tranquility. One pact relates to military confidence building and the other defines political parameters for border peace and an eventual frontier settlement.
While the political accord enjoins the two parties to “strictly respect and observe the LAC and work together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas” (Article IX), the military agreement mandates that “if the border personnel of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the Line of Actual Control or any other reason,” they “shall cease their activities in the area, not advance any further, and simultaneously return to their bases,” without putting up “marks or signs on the spots” (Article IV).
China openly violated these accords by pitching tents in Indian-held territory, provoking an extended face-off, and publicly justifying its actions. Notwithstanding the “face-to-face situation,” its troops refused to retreat and raised provocative banners such as, “This is Chinese Land” and “Go Back.” If one side violates agreements with impunity, how can their sanctity or value be preserved?
Even so, the incursion has shown in poor light India’s leadership, which mysteriously replaced army troops with border police to patrol the frontier and kept mum for a week on the intrusion. The corruption-tainted government’s political siege at home has left it little space to consider how its capitulation — pathetically disguised as a win for quiet diplomacy — could embolden the adversary.
It is as if history is repeating itself. Just as a 1954 pact on peaceful coexistence paved the way for China’s nibbling at Indian territory, culminating in the 1962 full-scale Chinese military attack, India lulled itself into complacency by signing the 2005 accords, which have yielded a sharp escalation in cross-frontier Chinese forays and border incidents, including the PLA’s 2007 destruction of Indian army bunkers at the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan trijunction.
For China, agreements are just a tool of deception to lull the enemy. As Sun Tzu famously said, “All warfare is based on deception.” If the past is any guide, the latest intrusion will not be the last. Rather, it is the first major shot China has fired across India’s bows to alter the Himalayan status quo in its favor by employing coercive power short of war.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.