A prominent visual media channel has revealed through a video story that almost 14 incursions by the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have occurred recently in the Ladakh sector in just two weeks, with four additional incursions across the Indo-Tibet border in Uttarakhand.
The Indian Army calls these ‘transgressions’ because there cannot be ‘incursions’ across an undefined line which is what the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is, with perceptions being different, and even claims being hazy.
However, what is important is that six months after the reset process in Sino-Indian relations was triggered at Wuhan in April 2018, the Chinese have decided to once again robustly establish their claims.
In the interim, there has been a contestation of perceptions within India on whether the PLA’s Doklam infrastructure construction and troops deployment has offensive content or not. It is also important to note that the transgressions were happening even as the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US was underway, and the follow-up diplomacy to that was in progress. While complimenting the media channel for having focused on the issue which has largely gone unreported, it is important to take an analytical view of the same to determine the ‘why and what next’ of these transgressions in the rapidly altering international strategic environment.
Most of my post-Doklam assessments clearly focused on telling a few ‘stories’ which are important to briefly recall.
- China wants no general war with India, but war has a spectrum, and it remains at liberty to select a lower-end of the spectrum to achieve its aims.
- If it does not involve transgressions in its claim-lines or more, it would have ipso facto accepted Indian claims and weakened its ability to coerce India, in the ongoing power game in Asia.
- India is perceived as a serious competitor for power in Asia and later in the world; keeping it coercively subjugated and psychologically under pressure will always remain a part of the Chinese strategy.
- Most importantly, China cannot afford any negative alteration in the power balance which controls the oceans, especially the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean because through that run the sea lines of communication (SLsOC) which sustain China’s current and future financial growth; energy transported from the Middle East and shiploads of containers of manufactured goods which move to the lucrative markets there, Europe, South Asia and Africa.
The Indian Navy, the crucial entity which enables this balance, can also upset it. It competes with the Indian Army for resources from the pie of the national exchequer for expansion and modernisation. To prevent upsetting the power balance, China’s strategy aims at focusing India’s attention on the security of the Himalayan front and the western borders with Pakistan. This ensures that the bigger chunk of the Indian strategic resources go there, and psychologically, India’s policy planners are forced to focus on the apparent inherent dangers in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
It is difficult to get rid of the ghost of 1962 when frequent rogue actions by the PLA, not necessarily all aggressive, keep us glued to the Himalayan front; that is the Chinese intent.
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Interestingly since the 1967 Nathula incident which led to large-scale casualties on both sides, not a shot has been exchanged between the two armies. It is actually simultaneously admirable and laughable that in mid August 2017, patrols of the two sides in the Pangong Tso sub sector, actually engaged in throwing stones at each other. Thus, while transgressions have been ongoing intermittently, there has been a total restraint on mindless violence.
Only A Major Border Goof Up Can Shake-Up a Complacent Govt
So how does this activity help the Chinese besides keeping Himalayan claims alive? The video analysis spoke of keeping Sino-Indian and India-Pakistan borders on the boil; that would happen if there was persistence in deployment and a display of resolve to hold ground against all odds, alongside the exchange of fire.
In ‘walk in’ operations, that intent is never displayed. In fact, many analysts have conjectured that the recent India-Pakistan re-establishment of ceasefire was also at behest of the Chinese.
Another of the issues highlighted has been the potential needling of the Modi government to show it in poor light, and reduce its chances of re-election.
Unless there is a major embarrassment on the border, no government in India is going to feel electoral pressure. In fact transgressions actually help the government of the day to project its own muscular capability. Doklam gave the Modi government far greater self-confidence in dealing with the northern borders. If the intention was to draw attention away from Doklam as some have conjectured, it must be remembered that the reinforced Doklam deployment is right under the nose of Indian troops. It is no tactical deployment which will assist in any war fighting effort. It is simply intimidation of non-military minds.
Total Indian Commitment to US Interests Still Elusive
At best, what the PLA was attempting to do with the recent transgressions was making up numbers in terms of activity after a reasonably quiet period. Every analyst had concluded that there would be many more Doklams to keep claims alive and intimidate India and its army, especially since during the actual 72-day-long Doklam standoff, the PLA did not exactly cover itself with glory.
October is the best month to do this before the winter sets in and these areas become impassable. Most of all, what observers need to remember is that the Chinese intent is clear – to keep the border issue alive; it helps in intimidation and prevents India balancing its land and maritime strategies.
Simultaneously continuing with engagement and a USD 90 billion annual trade with India helps keep it away from cementing full equations with powers inimical to China.
The dilution of India’s commitment to the quad of nations was a result of this strategy. A total Indian commitment to US interests still remains elusive; it is all the effect of the China factor; walk-ins and Doklams ensure that.
(The writer, a former GOC of the army’s 15 Corps, is now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies. He can be reached at@atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)