It is almost two months since Indian and Chinese soldiers became locked in a standoff at Doklam in the Sikkim Sector. The faceoff was triggered when a team of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was prevented by Indian troops from extending a class-5 track in the Dolam Plateau area which is part of Bhutanese territory. The Indian Army acted in response to a request from the Royal Bhutan Army under the terms of the 2007 Bilateral Friendship Treaty. Moreover, the PLA’s track building is in contravention of the 2012 Agreement between the Special Representatives of India and China, whereby the status quo was required to be maintained in the said area until the resolution of the trijunction in consultation with Bhutan.
Post 1962, there have been numerous border incidences between the Indian and Chinese militaries; Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdrong Chu two decades later. In the recent past too, the Depsang Plateau and the Chumar-Demchok area witnessed face-offs in April 2013 and September 2014, respectively, with the latter intriguingly coinciding with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India. Incidentally, the current Chinese incursion in Bhutan happened around the time of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States.
Given the opaque Chinese system, deciphering the intent of its Communist leadership poses a real challenge. According to the eminent scholar Derek Bodde, those who deal with China are often bewildered when the actions of its leadership send mixed signals, making clear interpretation extremely difficult. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) draws from its ancient thinkers. Its actions are always deliberate, like the moves on a checker board. It is imperative to gain an insight into the Chinese psyche and decode China’s strategic calculus in order to effectively cope with its grand designs.
The PRC’s assertiveness around its periphery is attributable to its age old belief of a ‘subdued neighbourhood’ being an essential prerequisite for stability. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger has brought out that the PRC perceives itself to be a returning power and does not view exercising influence as unnatural. Alastair Johnson, an expert on Chinese strategic culture, has stated that there is no pacifist bias in the Chinese strategic tradition but only realpolitik. Nations are either friendly or hostile. This is why servile countries such as Pakistan and North Korea are generously rewarded, while those like India or Vietnam which counter China’s aggressive behaviour invite its wrath.
Chinese thinking since ancient times advocates mitigating a threat by eliminating it. Thus, during the period 1950-85, the PRC opted to use force eight times. When confronted with a stronger adversary, non-coercive means may be adopted as an interim expedient.
China’s grand strategy encompasses three concise objectives: safeguarding sovereignty, maintaining stability, and sustaining economic progress. Any danger to the Communist Party is perceived as an ‘existential threat’. Sovereignty implies, besides external non-interference, safeguarding core interests, control of the South China Sea, unification of Taiwan, and integration of claimed territories with the mainland including South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh). In the pursuit of these vital national interests, the use of force remains an option.
President Xi has emerged as an all-powerful leader. Designated as a ‘Core’ leader and addressed as ‘Chairman’ (Zhuxi), he is poised to join the league of Mao and Deng. During the forthcoming 19th Party Congress in November, Xi is set to consolidate his grip further. The earlier policy enunciated by Deng that China should “bide time, hide capability and not to claim leadership” has undergone a visible shift under Xi. Xi’s ‘China Dream’ envisions a ‘prosperous and powerful’ China restored to its past greatness.
In the Chinese concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP), hard power is the key component. China’s military culture lays immense emphasis on the ‘strategic configuration of power’, creating a favourable disposition of forces to obviate actual fighting. By exploiting its asymmetric edge to coerce smaller nations, China has effectively pursued the surreptitious strategy of ‘fighting and talking concurrently’ in order to extend its control over the South China Sea. China’s military doctrine of “Local Wars under Informationalised Conditions” envisages short-swift engagements to achieve political objectives. Under President Xi, the PLA is in the process of path breaking transformation to emerge as a modern military in the coming decades.
Internationally, PRC remains a lonely power. It has used diplomacy effectively to exploit differences among the adversaries to its advantage. China’s threat assessment perceives the US and Japan to be the prime security concerns, while India is seen as a potential threat. As US and Western countries yield space, China under Xi has pronounced itself as a champion of globalization and sustainable growth to fill the void. Major initiatives like the ‘Belt-Road’ and ‘Maritime Silk Road’ have been launched in a quest to shape a Sino-Centric global order.
The PRC’s action at Doklam is in consonance with its policy of intimidating smaller neighbours. Apparently, China did not anticipate India to step in. The Communist leadership is infuriated with India for abstaining from its signature projects. New Delhi’s growing proximity to Washington and Tokyo has also irked Beijing. Given its focus on the Western Pacific, the mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, economic imperatives and internal stability concerns in the run-up to the forthcoming Party Congress, China will avoid an armed confrontation with India, despite its rhetoric. However, it will keep up the pressure militarily and pursue aggressive diplomacy to deal with the issue.
The PRC has pursued the policy of delinking complex political issues from economic ones. It enjoys strong trade linkages with the US, Japan and Taiwan, despite serious political differences. Beijing will continue with its policy of marginalising New Delhi politically in international forums, while seeking to avoid a negative economic fallout.
In its efforts to engage China, India has followed a policy of appeasement. And its responses to PRC’s misadventures have been in the form of crisis management. To effectively cope with the PRC’s hostile attitude, India needs to evolve a pragmatic China policy centred on core national interests. Some essential facets which merit serious consideration are summarised below.
Firstly, given the PRC’s policy of asymmetric coercion, India has no option but to narrow the existing CNP gap between the two countries. Developing strategic partnerships, initiatives like ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’, ‘Act East Policy’ and counter balancing strategies are steps in the right direction.
Secondly, national security policy needs clear articulation, based on a realistic threat assessment. Apex organizational structures require streamlining to telescope the decision making process. The current format of military modernization demands a holistic review.
Thirdly, in an era of ‘limited wars’, a ‘joint military doctrine’ is a sine qua non and ‘tri service theatre commands’ are prerequisites for synergised application of the war waging potential. In the prevailing scenario, facing the PLA’s Western Theatre Command are India’s seven Army and Air Force commands, which is a serious lacuna. In short engagements, the timely application of requisite combat power at the point of decision is critical. This calls for creating essential infrastructure on highest priority.
Lastly, the border management mechanism needs to be revamped. A single nodal agency is required to coordinate the functions of the various organs. Operational control astride the Line of Actual Control ought to rest with the Army. A well calibrated response mechanism must be put in place, with disputed vulnerable areas effectively dominated and troops fully prepared to meet any eventuality. Paramilitary Forces deployed for manning the borders require urgent upgrade to match the PLA’s Border Regiments.
While many seem to know China, few understand it. In the desperation to engage the PRC, there is a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture. Given the conflicting interests coupled with unresolved issues, relations between India and China are bound to be marked by contradictions, leading to frequent confrontations. However, through deft diplomacy, differences can be managed. While solutions to vexed problems may not be on the horizon, disputes turning into conflict can be avoided in the larger interest of both nations.
The Chinese are shrewd negotiators with tremendous stamina and penchant to sit across the table, but with equals. India must, therefore, firmly stand its ground and forthrightly safeguard its strategic interests. To deal with China on a level footing, the Indian leadership needs to make pragmatic assessments, possess the courage to accept home truths and display audacity for bold decisions.
The writer has served as Defence Attaché in China, North Korea and Mongolia; commanded a Division in the Eastern Sector; and currently is Professor of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.