Understanding India-China Standoff – A Basic Primer

JP Joshi, air power asia, Border Stand-off, India-China,

India has thus far, politically, and as a nation, been very diffident about dealing with China possibly haunted by the ghosts of our defeat in 1962, when China regularised its encroachments into Indian territory, and converted these into the present day Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Aksai Chin area, an area the size of Switzerland. This area was/ is very important for China’s logistic infrastructure, as it connects the Chinese occupied Tibet with Xinjiang region. The military has all along been advocating that China is a long term threat, but considering the state of the economy, the political dispensation did not think it was the right time, to go beyond the diplomatic levels for solving this border/ LAC issue. General Bipin Rawat, then COAS, while speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi in 2017, while commenting on Doklam, had opined, “As far as northern adversary is concerned, the flexing of muscle has started. The salami slicing, taking over territory in a very gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about and remain prepared for situations emerging which could gradually emerge into conflict.” Without political backing, a higher defence budget allocation, & the logistic and military infrastructure in place, the military can effectively & efficiently tackle only limited, local skirmishes that are purely tactical in nature.

Picture Credit: news.sky.com

The political attitude has seen a noticeable change with the new political dispensation at the Centre, especially after the Chinese initiation of the 2017 Doklam incursion. The govt stood by the military decision, to not back off. The eyeball to eyeball confrontation finally led to the status quo being restored, albeit after a long standoff of nearly 2.5 months. The Chinese have built large logistical infrastructure all along the borders, whereas the Indian govt has not been very pro-active in this area. This too has changed on the Indian side, and is possibly, (along with the abrogation of Article 370 & declaration of Ladakh as a union territory in Aug 2019, & the revised Indian map of the area thereafter) one of the major reasons for the current standoff in the Galwan area, which seems to be a part of a pre-meditated and planned military operation at a much higher level than the hitherto-fore localised skirmishes between patrolling troops on the border.

Indo-Chinese border has many areas that are not physically delineated on ground due to the rugged & inhospitable topography, differing perception of the border/ Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the maps themselves, as also the fact that these regions are uninhabited regions that are inaccessible during a large part of the year.

Map of the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh showing the LoC and the LAC. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

India has much to gain by analysing Chinese actions in the past, both domestically and globally. This will help evolve a strategy on how to deal with the Chinese threat in the present, and future, which cannot be wished away, as China shares a large border with India.

Tiananmen Protests/ Massacre

04 June 2020 was the 31st anniversary of what is popularly known as the Tiananmen square massacre in Beijing, in which pro-democracy protests were mercilessly crushed by the Chinese government, using the full might of their military, in urban settings. Official Chinese government announcements shortly after the event put the number of dead at around 300; this included civilians and soldiers, including 23 students from universities in Beijing. Official sources also stated that some 5,000 soldiers and police, along with 2,000 civilians were wounded. Chinese authorities thereafter actively suppressed discussion of casualty figures immediately after the events, and the unofficial estimates rely heavily on eyewitness testimony, hospital records, and organized efforts by victims’ relatives. As a result, large discrepancies exist among various casualty estimates. Initial estimates ranged from the official figure of 300 to independent sources claiming that the death toll was anywhere between 2700 – 3400, with the highest estimate being that of the then British Ambassador, who claimed that about 10,000 had died. The international community, human rights organizations, and political analysts condemned the Chinese government for the massacre. This has in no way deterred the Chinese from doing what they wish within their own borders, or even in international maritime regions, or its own border territories with neighbouring states.

Tiananmen square massacre in Beijing. Picture Credit: asahi.com

South China Sea and Spratly Islands

The Chinese government has been in constant conflict with neighbouring countries over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea (SCS), with the infamous nine dash lines drawn in the SCS map being used to proffer the Chinese case, but with China not precisely articulating what its concept of these nine dash lines means. This concept is a form of Chinese strategic ambiguity and is a useful tool to buy time to figure out what it wants to do, or how it wants to progress its claim on the area. China’s claims do not pay heed to counter claims on areas in the SCS by surrounding countries like Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In addition, China’s claim of sovereignty over SCS has been resisted by various countries like the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc, including India. Considering the uncertainty due to the China factor, Japan had initiated a Quad Security Dialogue with the USA, Australia and India in 2007. This needs to be formalised and strengthened.

The QUAD. Picture Credit: steemit.com

In January 2013, the Philippines formally initiated arbitration proceedings against China’s claim on the territories within the nine dash line that includes Spratly Islands. Paracel islands have already been annexed by the expansionist China, just like Tibet. An arbitration tribunal was constituted and it was decided that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) would function as registry and provide administrative duties. On 12 July 2016, the arbitrators of the tribunal of PCA agreed unanimously with the Philippines. They concluded in the award that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources, hence there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the nine-dash line. Accordingly, the PCA tribunal decision is ruled as final and non-appealable by either country. The tribunal also criticized China’s land reclamation projects and its

South China Sea with the Paracel & Spratly Islands and the Chinese Undefined 9-dash line, along with claims of other neighbouring countries. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, saying that it had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment”. It also characterized Taiping Island and other features of the Spratly Islands as “rocks”, and therefore is not entitled to a 200 nautical mile EEZ. China however rejected the ruling, calling it “ill-founded”. Taiwan, which currently administers Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly Islands, also rejected the ruling.

Chinese artificial islands in SCS. Picture Credit: the-levant.com

Treaty on Handover of Hong Kong to China

The handover of Hong Kong from UK to China occurred at midnight on 01 July 1997, when UK ended administration of the colony, and returned control of the territory to China. Hong Kong became a special administrative region (HKSAR) under the Chinese leadership, which agreed to maintain and retain HKSAR under the “one country, two systems” principle for the next 50 years, i.e. until 2047. This implied China maintaining the governing, financial, and economic systems separate from those of mainland China. China did not live up to its commitment leading to large scale civil disobedience demonstrations in Hong Kong, starting 2014. These were widely reported and commented upon by foreign press and observers. Responding to growing criticism of China, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on 30 June 2017 commented that the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s handover, is a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning.” Not only did this statement immediately raise concerns about China’s 50-year promise of the so-called “one country, two systems” framework implemented in Hong Kong, it also cast doubt on China’s future commitment to international law at large. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, to which China is a signatory, provides that “every treaty in force is binding upon the parties.” The Sino-British joint Declaration not only provides the specifics regarding the handover, but also consists of a list of commitments China made to uphold the financial, economic, and political institutions and the freedoms and rights of the Hong Kong people, encapsulated in the general idea that Hong Kong will enjoy “a high degree of autonomy.” The recently passed China’s new national security law subverts Hong Kong’s rule of law. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed the National People’s Congress (NPC) decision means Hong Kong is no longer politically autonomous from mainland China.

China’s New National Security Law Subverts Hong Kong’s Cherished Rule of Law. Picture Credit: thewire.in

China’s Handling of the Corona Pandemic

It is known that Corona virus originated in the Wuhan province of China; some of the first symptoms reportedly appeared in the first half of December. However, there are unauthenticated reports that the Chinese govt was aware of this virus sometime in mid November.  The Chinese govt is not very forthcoming on the Corona virus breakout and wishes to tightly control the narrative surrounding its origin and spread. The Chinese govt informed the WHO on 31 Dec 2019 of the first cluster, and officially declared a lockdown in Wuhan on 23 Jan 2020 at 10 am. The virus had by then been transported to many countries across the globe. China was reportedly aware of the human to human transmission capability of the virus, but did not stop international travel from Wuhan province. UK, France, Germany, US and most other countries blame China for the corona virus pandemic. It is being said that the pandemic, which has killed a large number of people could have been prevented, had China disclosed information at the right time. China did not behave as a responsible nation with its disclosure, (timing, transmission characterstics, and extent) with regards to the information on the Corona virus.

Picture Credt: qz.com

Chinese Governance Structure

It is also a known fact that the top leader in China exercises absolute power over the vision as also the day to day functioning of the country. Most programs are undertaken centrally with institutions having minimal say against the vision of the leader; Mao’s visionary ‘great leap forward’ lead to the largest famine in human history, which was responsible for deaths that are estimated to vary between 18 to 45 million. Deng followed Mao and was known to be a reformist, but the ‘Tiananmen massacre’ took place under his watch. Jiang came to power in the aftermath of Tiananmen protests, and did relatively little except to provide relative stability, peaceful transfer of Hong Kong from UK, centralisation of power, but is also considered responsible for extensive corruption and collusion of business and political elites. Hu succeeded Jiang. Hu reintroduced state control in some sectors of the economy that were relaxed by the previous administration, and was conservative with political reforms. His tenure was characterized by collective leadership and consensus-based rule. At the end of his tenure, Hu voluntarily resigned from all positions in 2012 paving way for the present leader, Xi Jinping. Xi has significantly centralised institutional power by taking on a wide range of leadership positions, including chairing the newly formed National Security Commission, as well as new steering committees on economic and social reforms, military restructuring and modernization, and the internet. A personality cult has developed around him. Xi has been labelled as a dictator by some political observers, citing an increase of censorship, mass surveillance, deterioration in human rights and the removal of term limits for the Presidency under his tenure. It is amply clear that China’s actions are dependent largely on one person who is generally heads all three instruments of power available in China; the state, the party and the military.

All powerful Xi Jinping. Picture Credit: scmp.com

Lessons from China’s Past Unilaterism

From all of the above it emerges that absolute power is vested in one person who generally controls all the three power centres of China. Xi happens to be that ‘paramount leader’ since 2012. Tiananmen square and Hong Kong are reminders that the Chinese leaders do not consider dissent as a right of every citizen, or even a large part of the citizenry, and can thus go to any extent to suppress the freedoms of the citizens. Any country that considers its own citizens with such contempt cannot be expected to be fair to other countries/ humans. The South China Sea brings out the fact that China is a master at staking claims on territories that have no legal/ historical basis, except some strategic obfuscation/ ambiguity by drawing some dashes and lines on the maps, like the initial 11 dash lines by the ROC, corrected subsequently to the 9 dash line by the PRC, in the SCS. Even when China lost the case in the PCA, it has refused to comply and continues to bully its small neighbours, who stake their claim on the islands in the SCS. China does not honour its treaties in the true sense of the word, when its own strategic interests dictate a different course of action, as is evident from the Hong Kong handover treaty, as well as the compliance of the PCA judgement on the SCS. The Corona virus pandemic will have to be investigated independently by the WHO to come to any final conclusion on the extent of Chinese culpability in spreading the virus. Prima facie, China acted irresponsibly in passing on information to the world body, which could have helped lessen the impact of the virus, and fewer deaths due to COVID.

Xi Pushing Military Modernisation and Unilaterism. Picture Credit: straitstimes.com

The India-China Strategic Equation

India and China have vastly different governance structures, and are also at different levels of economic, military, scientific, technological levels. China has centralised power in one person with hardly any practically effective checks and balances; the person heads all the seats of power; the state, the military, as well as the Communist party. This is in direct contrast to a parliamentary democracy like India, where-in every decision of the govt can be, and is, questioned, both inside and outside the parliament.

China’s nominal GDP (est) figures for 2019 are at $14.140 trillion, with a per capita GDP of over $10000; India’s corresponding figures stand at $3.202 trillion and $2338. China’s military budget is $177.6 billion with active personnel over 2 million; India’s figures are $66.9 billion and 1.4 million. Scientifically and technologically too China is way ahead of India. Considering that this disparity has existed for many years, it is evident that China has an edge over India. Qualitatively the Indian military is better trained and relatively more battle tested and ready than the Chinese, who have fought no real wars, and is composed of children mostly born under the ‘one child’ regime. India needs to thus be realistic in its approach in tackling the Chinese threat, starting with the immediate, while keeping the short, medium, and long term in mind.

Image Credit: thesun.co.uk

The Way Forward

India must continue to resist Chinese troops at the border; continue with military and diplomatic level talks to diffuse the present situation at all the four inflamed areas; and politically seek to boost political, diplomatic & military ties with the nations of the Indo-Pacific region. The Modi/ Morrison virtual summit of 04 Jun 2020 is a step in the right direction, where-in the two nations agreed to elevate their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and also signed a crucial agreement for reciprocal access to military logistics facilities, allowing for more complex joint military exercises, and improved interoperability of the two militaries.

India, Australia sign on ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ In Virtual Summit. Image Credit: lokmarg.com

India will need to develop closer relationship with other countries in the region, and beyond, on the basis of shared democratic values, rules based multi-lateral systems, an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, respect for transparency, strengthening and diversifying supply chains for all critical goods in different sectors of the economy. There is an urgent need to formalise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as the Chinese threat is now real, and growing.

Bilateral trade between China and India touched US$ 92.68 billion in 2019, with the trade deficit widening to US$ 56.77 billion in 2019 in China’s favour. India will need to cut back on non essential imports from China, as a first step. Trade that funds the Chinese war fighting capability, which is being used against our national interest, needs to be completely stopped at the opportune time.

Image Credit: indiamart.com

It is very important to build and maintain physical infrastructure which can facilitate holding on to our claimed territories, even in remote, inaccessible, and inhospitable terrain. For the sake of lasting peace, the claims and counter claims need to be settled once for all, with mutual give and take, and thereafter the border should be mutually agreed to, with on ground delineation by observers from both countries. This is vital to safeguard our national sovereignty. In case this is not done, then the grounds for future conflict would continue to exist.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Picture Credit: nationalheraldindia.com

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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