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China-India: coercion easily trumps diffidence

by Brahma Chellaney

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.

  • Gaurav

    Japan should not worry as both japan and india are strong enough to face china.The political leadership of india is not weak as opposition has publically said that they fully support government for taking any required action against china.

    • Kelly farrel

      I don’t think so.

      We only hope that mental stability of chinese leaders is in good state, but we have example from 40 years ago in 1970′s when chinese ruling leaders agree to get into military confrontation with USSR about one very small island “Damansky” – chinese leaders was mad because they agree to attack the nuclear neighbor and today when many secret documents now open we know that in that Soviet-China conflict USSR planned a plan B with nuclear bombing of China. Chinese leaders makes such provocation because they have the president Nixon’s support of USA, so we was in real situation of potential Third World War with nuclear disaster (Nixon warned USSR that USA will protect China with nuclear weapons too) – and all about some very little useless island on the river which chinese communists rulers desire to get – they get it after all (soviets agree to transfer the rights to chinese for island) by risking whole world about that stupid island which is so small that noone can live there only the border post is placed…this is example of stupidity or madness of humanity…

      • Zafar

        Correct me if i am wrong, Nixon went to china to beg, them not to help NVietnam whom which China was funding etc… Nixon was useless leader who had no idea how to deal with international situation let alone swagging some threat…

  • Peter_T

    Author should read about Nehru’s Forward policy during the 1950′s when going back to history.
    Author also should research the 2005 agreement that both side will not build any permanent structures between the 20km of disputed area between China and India’s LAC lines which India recently broke by setting up the bunkers in Chamur. China protested the construction of the bunkers as a break of the 2005 agreement to no avail which then leave it little choice but creating a face off. India and this author cannot use 2005 agreement to berate China since India broke that first.

  • haavbline

    “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.”

    Premier Li Keqiang make India, not Pakistan, not Germany, the FIRST country of his official visit as a premier to a foreign country. Mr. Chellany, being a well-known ‘geostrategist’, which for him simply means ‘China-bashing’, surely realize it means enormous goodwill and substance. Yet he marginalize and distort this fact as a ‘stopover to Pakistan’. When someone is willing to tweak clear and simple facts to suit his agenda, how much credibility remains for his ‘thesis’?

  • flip

    India cannot match China miltarily – now and very likely in future. China has vast reserves ($3 trillion) that can easily be used to procure sophisticated armaments.
    The question arises – why did US, that has been trying to woo India into a partnership did not speak out in defence of India. The only statement that came out from US was to settle the differences amicably.
    India alone is not prepared for a war with China and under under these circumstances had no alternative but to bow under pressure from China. India does not need another humiliation similar to 1962.

  • Ken5745

    The author’s shrill China bashing went unabated throughout three articles in two months, one article on 29 April followed by two articles on 18 May, all on the same theme.

    It is strange that Mr Chellaney has made no disclosure to his audience about the much-maligned McMahon Line, arbitrarily drawn up by the British raj, which encroached into Chinese territory, after a one-side agreement with Tibet, a province of China but not with the Chinese Government.

    Only when the McMahon Line impasse is settled will there be lasting peace in the Sino-Indo border..

    But meanwhile diplomacy between China and India is in progress to address the dispute so that both China and India can remain “Hindi-Chini’ bhai bhai” ( friends”).

    • sangos

      The current LAC is aligned to the traditional boundary between Assam and Tibet.