Chinese Incursion of April 2013 – Assessment Still Relevant – Stance Stronger

Dhiraj Kukreja, Air Power Asia, Chinese Inursions

No international conference, be it in the Western hemisphere or in Asia, is complete without a discussion on the expanding Chinese economy, its belligerent attitude towards its Asian neighbours, and what it would mean for the region and the rest of the world. In India, however, it is only the analysts and strategists that discuss China on a regular basis, while the policy makers and their advisors soft-play any hostile activity on China’s part, reacting only on a need-basis, and continue to believe in the bhai-bhai” slogan even after all these years. Heart-of hearts, the policy makers probably do get perturbed, but do not show their unease, lest any statement or an action by them is misconstrued by China, especially when India too is looking for a healthy economic growth rate and correcting its trade imbalance with China.

          The Chinese have come and gone, but this time their coming was accompanied by oratory and loud noises in the Indian media, Parliament, and other forums, as if China was knocking on the doors of Delhi. A great deal has been written and spoken about the incursion by the Chinese Army (PLA) and what it means for India, with commentators, analysts and strategists all crying hoarse over the response, or the lack of it, by the Indian Government. No national daily, no news channel on TV, was found wanting in expressing opinions or debating the incident. Yet, when the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, departed the shores of India, the rhetoric fizzled out and other eye-grabbing news replaced China. Now that all seems to be quiet on the northern frontier (or is it only a mirage) this paper will make an attempt towards an assessment of the Chinese behaviour, why they did what they did, and would have the temerity to make some suggestions to the policy makers.

Picture Credit: You Tube

Chinese Leadership

          The Chinese leadership has continued to remain unreadable with their sphinx-like stony expressions, not directly stating where they would like to be in the coming decades, thus leading to vague conclusions about their plans for the future. While the Chinese government has always maintained that its development is peaceful and inclusive, and therefore should be seen by other nations as an opportunity and not a threat or challenge, yet its actions in the region and in other forums belie the assertion. The inherent ambiguity in its long-term goals and some actions and iterations made in the recent past, particularly in relation to the territorial disputes with neighbours and claims of sovereignty on the disputed regions, makes it difficult not just for India, but also other neighbours and Western nations to comprehend the motivation behind such behaviour. The unease is further aggravated because of the opacity of the curtain behind which the Chinese government operates.

          The Chinese leadership changes once every decade, the transition being made with the convening of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. During the 18th National Congress held in November 2012, the changeover was as speculated, and Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang succeeded the previous incumbents as President and Prime Minister, respectively. The new leadership which took charge in March, has its hands full with an “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and an unsustainable” economic system, as the outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao stated in one of his departing speeches.

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          The priority for the new leadership is, therefore, the resurgence of the economy, where economic reforms are the call of the day with some political restructuring, but being resisted by vested interests in the party. Another major challenge facing the new leadership is the changing face of the Chinese population; the ‘single-child’ policy and an ageing population means fewer working hands and fewer young workers to contribute towards the maintenance of the senior citizens which could lead to a financial crisis in the coming years.

          Can the leadership tackle these challenges without resorting to reforms? Even in a single-party system that China has, the leadership has to face the people, who are demanding social and governance reforms. The voice of the people can either be suppressed, as it has been done so far, or the attention of the people can be diverted to other issues, as is probably being done by raking territorial and sovereignty issues with neighbours.

          Notwithstanding the ‘warm’ meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the recent BRICS Summit in Durban, and the choice of the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, to visit India as his first foreign country, the underlying fact is that the Chinese Army did venture into Indian territory and when challenged, refused to vacate. As the world has witnessed a peaceful change in China’s leaders, it is not necessary that their attitude and policies towards neighbours and the outstanding issues with them, more so with India, would also change. The leadership has to consolidate its position, particularly with the Army, hence, some ‘adventures’ can be expected, but not leading to an open conflict.

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          While China has not fought a war in the past three decades or so, and may not do so in the next few decades also, it has been adopting belligerent postures against its neighbours in the recent past. Chinese leaders may have been schooled in the Deng Xiaoping Theory of ensuring prosperity through peace, but being the pragmatics that they are, the consolidation of the politics and policies of peace must be viewed through the prism of China’s internal affairs. China alternates between being confrontational with its neighbours at times and taking a softer stand at other times, especially regarding territorial and border disputes. Whether this is a deliberate strategy to keep neighbours off balance, or the result of shifting power equations within the leadership, is difficult to figure out. Irrespective of the spontaneity or otherwise of such hostile actions, China’s leadership will continue to be viewed as unpredictable and as a nation, not averse to flexing its muscles against weaker nations, if it feels that intimidation is required to achieve its ends.

Image Credit: Times of India

The Chinese Military Guile

          In its progress towards achieving its aspirations for world power status, China continues to want to engage the world on its own terms. It gives an assurance to maintain stability in great power relationships while wanting to declare its own power in the relationship. This is tantamount to wanting to do the proverbial act of ‘keeping the cake and eating it too’, thus increasing the suspicion that seems to be permanently attached to all international relationship proposals that China initiates. The assertiveness that is increasingly on display has created a sense of discomfort, further compounded by the sheer size of the Chinese economy and the rapid growth and modernisation of its military capabilities.

Picture Credit: The National Interest

          China faces a basic, yet essential, military dilemma. Its quest for prosperity and economic growth is directly dependent on its ability to carry out sea-borne trade, unhindered by any constraints and challenges, especially from external sources. All its trade routes pass through the East China Sea and the South China Sea, both easy to blockade as they are surrounded by a chain of islands that are controlled by other nations and a denial of access can bring its trade to a standstill. China is acutely aware of the unkind geographical situation and has increased its efforts to counter any challenge that may be posed with efforts to build a ‘Blue Water Navy’ with a carrier-group. Steps have also been initiated to build an asymmetric capability with submarines and anti-ship missiles to deter any adversary (read USA) attempting to blockade the sea routes.

Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning. Picture Credit: You Tube

          China has gained access to the Indian Ocean by participating in the international efforts to combat piracy originating from the African coast. Under the pretext of providing assistance to build ports it has gained a foot-hold in the ports of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar while providing logistical support and maintaining the combat ships on anti-piracy duties; this comes with the caveat of access being provided for Chinese use in what could be thought of as an attempt to circumvent a blockade, if it ever does take place.

          China occupied large tracts of Indian territory in Ladakh during the 1962 conflict, with Pakistan illegally ceding about 5000 sq kms in the Karakoram to it. Using this area as a launching pad, the Chinese are now making inroads into the Indus Valley with military presence reported in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (POK) on the pretext of protecting the widening work on the Karakoram Highway and the construction of a railway line to link Tibet with the Pakistani port of Gwadar. The presence of Chinese troops poses a serious threat to Indian road communications to Ladakh, running through Kargil, as the easiest approach by land to Leh is along this route.

Picture Credit: Outlook Magazine

          It is not only in the Ladakh region that China has increased its presence; it has also developed its infrastructure in Tibet to enable operations all along the North-eastern border (it is common knowledge the kind of infrastructure that the Chinese have prepared in comparison to India’s achievements and hence is not being mentioned here). However, a White Paper, issued on April 16, 2013, by the State Council Information Office, titled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”, provides an unusually clear look into the structures and missions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and has surprised Indian analysts by revealing the Army strength as 8.5 lakh strong against what has always been believed to be 16 lakh soldiers. Notwithstanding the numbers, China’s road and rail infrastructure allows it the major advantage of being able to transfer troops rapidly, both intra-theatre and even inter-theatre. In comparison, India, with its existing rail and road network, would find it difficult to move the Army as quickly to the threatened sector.

Sichuan Ganzi Expressway Tibet. Picture Credit: China Plus

The Current Situation (2013)

          A map of India, published by the Survey of India in 1950, demarcated the political divisions of the fledgling Republic. While the border with Pakistan was clearly depicted as it is now and included the POK area, the borders with China were shown differently. The McMahon Line was shown as the border, except in the extreme East in the Tirap subdivision, where the border was shown as “undefined.” In the Central sector comprising of the present Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and the Eastern portion of Jammu & Kashmir, including Aksai Chin, the boundary was illustrated by a colour wash and denoted as “boundary undefined.” In 1954, without any discussions with China, the ‘colour wash’ was unilaterally replaced by a hard line, depicting the border, and the earlier maps were withdrawn from circulation. China put up objections and also claimed Aksai Chin region of Ladakh as the Western boundary of Tibet; the uninhabited desert region of Aksai Chin has few markers to demarcate the frontier in favour of one nation or the other. This could have been resolved through bilateral negotiations and a mutually acceptable solution arrived at, but it was not to be and the situation is as known today with needless tension and the threat of conflict.

          Well into the 20th century, camel caravans plied from Yarkand and Khotan in East Turkestan to travel to Leh and Kashmir for trading their goods. After crossing the Karakoram Pass into India, the traders would leave their camels at what is now Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), and transfer their goods onto pack ponies for the hazardous journey, over the Saser La, into the more hospitable Shyok river valley that led on to Leh, Turtok or Srinagar. This isolation has defeated even the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has laboured for over a decade, so far unsuccessfully, to build an all-weather road over Saser La that will connect DBO with Leh, Partapur and Kargil. The BRO has failed equally in bringing another road northwards to DBO from the Pangong Tso Lake, along the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC); such is the barrenness and harshness of the terrain. Without road links to the rest of Ladakh, DBO remains an isolated enclave. “The PLA has carefully chosen its spot. Along the entire 4,057 kilometres of the LAC, India is most isolated at DBO, being entirely reliant on airlift. In contrast, the PLA can bring an entire motorized division to the area within a day, driving along a first-rate highway,” says Major General ‘Sheru’ Thapliyal, a former Division commander who has served in that area.

C 130 J landing in DBO. Picture Credit: Indian Defence Analysis

          What then could be the motivation for the Chinese to venture 18 kms into inhospitable and isolated Indian territory? While the motivation can only be speculated, the area is of immense strategic importance to China for the control of Western Tibet and it was for this geo-political reason that it built a road through Aksai Chin in the 1950s and fully secured it in 1962. Tibet is central to China’s strategy in this area; despite massive investments in the region, large numbers of Tibetans remain disaffected due to China’s heavy-handed and uncompromising attitude in dealing of the situation, while it seeks assurances from India on the dealings with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile.

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          Another possible explanation for the Chinese adventurism could be the building up of infrastructure along the border by India and its military modernisation program. While both, the border area infrastructure development and the modernisation programme, have been delayed by many years, India has made an attempt to get its act together since 2000 and has been making huge defence expenditures, much to the concern of China.

          Whatever be the Chinese motivation to venture into Indian territory of harsh terrain, it is a fact to be accepted that the boundary in that region is defined only by a notional Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is neither marked on mutually agreed maps, nor is defined by any specific geographical features. Notwithstanding the years of acceptance of the LAC through many rounds of talks, overlapping claims continue to be made up to the LAC and beyond through aggressive patrolling by both the militaries.

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          It could not be a mere coincidence that the incursion came some months after the changeover of power in China and the associated statements thereafter.While Xi Jinping, after meeting with the Indian PM on the sidelines of the BRICS conference in Durban, has been quoted in the Chinese media as saying that Beijing regarded its ties with New Delhi as “one of the most important bilateral relationships”, he has also been making the standard remarks after such a blatant border intrusion that the border problem “is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won’t be easy”.

          Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier, surprised many by making India as his first international stop, while the President chose Moscow for his first visit. It needs to carefully studied, whether this is a new international strategy that the duo would be adopting to ensure China has its rightful place in Asia by dealing with ‘powerful neighbours and partners’ while it asserts military power against smaller neighbours such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

          The joint statement after Li Keqiang’s visit to India had the usual phrases such as ‘strategic consensus with like-minded states’ and referred to India and China as the ‘largest developing countries promoting multi-polar world, economic globalisation, cultural diversity and information revolution’; China, in its bilateral relations with India, however, conceded little to Indian demands in river water resolution, status as a nuclear state, trade imbalance and territorial dispute resolution. On the other hand, the border dispute did feature prominently in the discussions, but did not cast a shadow over them.

What in the Future

          2013 is not 1962. But with such an aggressive neighbour, India cannot be too calm and complacent in its responses and when it comes to modernising its military and replacing obsolescent equipment, the attitude has to be one of urgency. The current storm does tell us that undecided frontiers are not mutually beneficial for two neighbours as they can so easily become the grounds of a clash that neither may be looking for. The restraint shown by both nations did avoid a confrontation but can India continue to take such incursions quietly? The Indian Government was not inclined to initiate a military confrontation for whatever reasons, even when the Army was ready to forcibly evict the Chinese; it should, however, know where the national interest lies and increase the pace of the build up of its infrastructure in the border areas and that of modernising the military, as the insecurity in the Chinese minds appears to be at the root of this current crisis. Any attempts to appease China would not be in our interest, as docility on India’s part would only embolden it for further incursions.

          China seems to have abandoned its slogan of ‘peaceful rise’ by picking fights with its neighbours in the West as well as in the East, such as Vietnam, India, Japan, Taiwan and so on. This can prove costly to China and India should learn lessons from it; not that India has picked fights with any of its neighbours, but India has slowly lost the goodwill in the neighbourhood. China has implemented the strategy of ‘string of pearls’; India cannot undo what China has achieved, but it should attempt to minimise the damage being done. India should resist any further security arrangements that China may attempt, say with Sri Lanka or another nation, by offering better terms. Similarly, India should push its ‘Look East’ policy with vigour and convince the ASEAN nations that joining hands with India in defence, trade and diplomacy, is better for all in the long term. But first, India needs to wake up from its slumber and face reality.

China’s String of Pearls. Image Credit:

          On the domestic front, parochial politics must take a back seat against national interests. This would help India fast-track its economic development and strengthen its hand when dealing with China, for while China is India’s largest trading partner, the reverse is not the reality. Such a situation impacts India both economically and diplomatically when dealing with China. India needs to build on its strengths for it to be taken seriously, or be prepared for further surprises.

          The current Chinese incursion in Ladakh, and the ongoing stand-off with Japan and Taiwan on the disputed island territories, goes to show that the new Xi-Li leadership combine is unlikely to deviate from the policies of their predecessors. While the latest incursion need not have been blown out of proportion, it need not have been played down either; India would do well to reaffirm its territorial claims with some aggressive behaviour and smarter diplomacy with other nations to put pressure on China.

          When the British left in 1947, they left behind them an ambiguous border with China. While the Indian official position had no doubts where the border ended and where it began, China was not too happy with the situation. Today, India’s territorial dispute is only restricted to the approximately 4000 km-long border with China; on the other hand, China has resolved its border dispute with Russia only in 2004 while continuing with other disagreements with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines. It should, therefore, be relatively easier for India to come to a border agreement with China through negotiations from a position of strength, for which the Government needs to be more proactive.

          Li Keqiang spoke candidly about his vision for a stronger partnership between the two nations, saying that world peace “cannot be a reality without strategic trust between India and China…. that will be a true blessing for Asia and the world”. Sincere words one hopes, for the continued mental peace of the citizens of both nations, but Chinese motives and words, often are vague. With no intention of rejecting Premier Li’s statements, India should use realpolitik to deal with China, lest the ‘Bhai Bhai’ becomes ‘Blah Blah’.        

This Article was written for Defence and Security Alert (DSA) in 2013, and has since been updated

Author: Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja (Retd). The views expressed are the author’s own.

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Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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