Dealing with China
Since April, troops of India and China have been facing each other at three places in Ladakh (Pangong sector, Galwan sector and Hot Springs). There have been minor skirmishes, but now the situation is that of a standoff, which, many analysts consider, is likely to be a prolonged one. Because, the Modi government, like its predecessors, cannot take the easy option of declaring that since the Line of Actual Control(LAC) in the border has not exactly been identified and accepted by both the countries, perceptions of the LAC differ from time to time by their respective troops, that in these cases the two countries have devised ways to settle the differences through their local commanders and diplomatic means and that there is nothing to worry as both New Delhi and Beijing are committed to “the maintenance of peace and tranquilly” along the LAC as per their bilateral Agreement on 7 th September, 1993.
Committed to nationalism that the Modi government is ( at least, professes so), it cannot hide the facts like its predecessors that since 2002, the Chinese have been systematically transgressing the LAC into the Indian side. If the so-called perceptions vary, then why is that we have not come across a single instance of the Chinese complaining of Indian transgression? And, what is worse, the Chinese have not necessarily gone back to their previous positions after the diplomatic or local-commander-level talks have defused the situations in the past.
In fact, in the present case, as Lt. General (Retd) HS Panag, Northern army commander 2006-2008, has written elsewhere, “the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km. There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok.” More worryingly, the territory the PLA has actually secured may be many times more because, he asserts, “the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km. Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase exponentially.”
Another distinguished military veteran, Lt Gen(retd) Vijay Oberoi, Vice Chief of the Army in 2000-2001, has also written that on the 489 km-long LAC in Ladakh, the “traditional disputed points” at Trig Heights and Demchok, are “now expanded to ten” with China raising fresh disputes on the Pangong Tso and at Chumar. General Panag, therefore, cautions that, “In Galwan sector, the PLA has secured the heights north and south of the Galwan river with. The PLA seems to have come across the LAC for 2-3 km in the valley and then climbed up the heights. It is also possible that it climbed the heights from China’s side of the valley and then moved along the heights westwards up to 3-4 km. What matters in mountains/ high-altitude is the control of the heights. The valleys become untenable when surrounding heights are with the enemy. It is likely that the PLA has secured the heights with two battalions with one held as reserve at the LAC…. it is pertinent to point out that there are no differing perceptions about the LAC along the Galwan River. The intrusion here is deliberate to threaten the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) Road and prevent us from defending it by securing the Galwan valley and the heights north and south of the river.”
On Hot Springs, General Panag adds, “As per my assessment, at Hot Springs/Gogra, the PLA with nearly a battalion has almost surrounded the post and effectively denied the approach to Kongka La pass, which lies on the LAC but is not held by us. The aim here is to prevent road construction by India to the Kongka La pass. At Hot Springs and Kongka La, which is 4-5 km away from Hot Springs, there is no “differing perception” about the LAC.”
Let us realise that consistency has never been a virtue for the Communist rulers of China in settling their border disputes with the neighbours. They have used different principles for different countries. And this is the biggest bottleneck in arriving at an amicable solution to the present faceoff between the Chinese and Indian troops.
It may be noted that China shares land boundaries with as many as 14 neighbours (North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) and maritime boundaries with four(Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea). If its claims over the whole of South China Sea is to be conceded, then Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia will come to the picture, leave alone Taiwan that China claims to be its own.
With most of these countries, China has had “disputes” over the territories; it has fought full-fledged wars with three of them- India, Vietnam and Russia. And, if voices emanating from the Chinese media are any indication, China is ready to fight a second war with India.
As a communist country, it is quite understandable when it says that Beijing does not believe in the sanctity of all the “unequal treaties”, that were the “imperial products” when China was weak – and all these pertain to ‘British India”, Russia and Japan. But it considers all the treaties or territorial gains made by the powerful Chinese emperors in the past to be sacred and non-negotiable. In other words, for the communist rulers in Beijing, territorial gains by a “strong” China in the past are sacrosanct, but territorial concessions or adjustments made by a “weak” China in the past are profane or blasphemous.
For instance, the Chinese say that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia (Khan was then ruling over Beijing as well) and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation. Secondly, why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?
The problem with the Chinese version of history is where to draw the line. After all, it is also a fact that the pre-Mongol history of Tibet was militarily glorious. In the eighth century, the Tibetan empire was expanding at such a pace that at one time the then Chinese emperor had to flee his capital and a Tibetan nominee was put on the Chinese throne! Peace was restored in the year 821 with the conclusion of a Treaty, which laid down clearly the boundaries between China and Tibet. It read: “Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the East is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet….”
But then, China has a selective knowledge of history. It has always believed in the dictum, and this is the first principle of its border-settlement strategy – “might is right”. Under this principle, it has annexed Tibet. And it has absorbed a part of Mongolia – Inner Mongolia.
When China thinks that it is militarily not that strong to completely overwhelm the other party, it talks of the importance of “mutual trust and benefit”, seeking cooperation towards a “win-win” solution for everybody to succeed. And while pursuing this second principle, the Chinese ‘talk” (in mandarin, there is no equivalent to the word “negotiate”) sees everything as a “zero-sum game”, in which they set out to “win-lose” you. Their bargaining technique is based on Sun Tzu’s secret: “To subdue the enemy without fighting.” They will weaken you psychologically to have their way. And in this they utilise “the external forces” against you– the unfriendly international factors, existence of other enemies but China’s friends( like Pakistan in the case of India), and the carrot of the Chinese economic power that can be of help to you if you agree on a border-settlement. And if, this tactic does not work, then the Chinese will withdraw from the bargaining table and keep the things as they are till they are in a position to fight back.
In fact, in the Chinese strategic thoughts, the idea of “Wei Qi” occupies an important place. It talks of checkmating and achieving victory through attrition rather than through forceful intervention. Wei Qi encapsulates the idea of a protracted campaign to gain relative advantage and in between emphasises strategic flexibility.
Many a time, the Chinese have succeeded by utilising their second principle. The Russo-Chinese border was finally settled on the basis of this second principle after differences over 40 years (that included a war in 1969). It was not that there were serious territorial adjustments by both the sides in the end; the agreement was termed as “a refinement of the original border line” for laying “the crucial foundation” of Sino-Russian “strategic partnership”.
Sometime, while working on the second principle China emphasises more on the economic component to buy over the other party. This it has done very successfully with North Korea and Kazakhstan. North Korea’s excessive dependence on China for food and security is too well-known for an explanation. The situation was all the more crucial for North Korea in 1962(soon after the Korean War) when it was “induced” to sign an agreement delineating the 1416 km long border with the giant neighbour. In the case of Kazakhstan, with which it shares a border of 1700 km, China settled the issue in 1998 by offering a lucrative economic package, including investment in one of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil fields, a 3,000-km gas pipeline across Kazakhstan and a 15-year economic co-operation programme. It has played the same route of economic-inducement in stabilizing border issues with Afghanistan, Pakistan (includes parts of Kashmir) and Myanmar.
In fact, in the case of Myanmar, China has even abdicated its opposition to the “unequal treaties” imposed on it by the imperial powers. For instance, it is totally opposed to the McMahon Line of 1914 that marked the effective boundary between Tibet and India (and Burma, then under the control of British India), and which India is committed to in settling the issue with China even now. But China has always rejected the Indian suggestion by describing the McMahon Line as “the product of imperialism”. But China did not hesitate to accept the validity of the eastern end of the same McMahon Line as the basis to delimit a section of the Sino-Burma border in the boundary agreement with Myanmar (Burma) in 1960. In reality, China needed friendship with Myanmar for a variety of reasons, stretching from exploiting that country’s oil and natural resources to the strategic linkage through roads, bridges and river-way between the Bay of Bengal and its Yunan province.
There is a corollary to this second principle of China’s border-settlement, which we may refer as the third. Under this, economic inducement will be the primary motivation for the other party to agree with the Chinese, but in order to ensure that this succeeds, the Chinese will stake a very big claim on the territory to begin with, but all of a sudden they will get down to be seen as the most reasonable and accommodative for a friendly relationship with you. This the Chinese have done with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
China and Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement in 1999, defining 900 out of 1,100 km of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Accordingly, Kyrgyzstan received “70% of the disputed territory”. The demarcation of the boundary was finally completed in 2009. In the meantime, China has offered to help Kyrgyzstan build a power grid in the South, which would be the largest inter-governmental project between the two countries. That this agreement is still unpopular in Kyrgyzstan and there have been ethnic tensions over the issue (because of which China had temporarily closed its border in 2010) is a different issue.
Similarly, China reached an agreement with Tajikistan in 1999, by forgoing “95 percent” of its original territorial claims. Apart from offering substantial economic assistance and investments, China was prepared for substantial concessions as it thought that a border settlement with the Tajiks will be helpful in controlling the surge of violence in its Xinjiang province that is beset with Islamic fundamentalism and Uighur separatism.
It is obvious that none of the above three principles of China has exactly worked with India, at least so far. Now, it cannot overwhelm India militarily; it cannot cite international factors to be unfavourable to India to seek a compromise; and it cannot afford to induce India economically for complying with the Chinese boundary- position. Nor for that matter has China enhanced its reputation as a sincere party, given its scant regards for its own promises towards a compromise in the border issues.
In 1960 and then in between 1980-85, China was talking of a “package deal”, by which it was prepared to accept an alignment in the Eastern Sector as understood by the McMahon Line, provided India conceded Aksai Chin to China in the Western Sector. But after 1985, China went back on the offer and claimed territories in the eastern sector. In 2005, China had said that any eventual border agreement with India would not affect ‘settled population’, but now it has broken that promise by hardening its claim on Tawang, a major town in Arunachal Pradesh.
China has a serious credibility-paucity. In 1998, it signed a peace agreement with Bhutan, promising to ‘maintain peace and tranquillity on the Bhutan-China Border Areas’. And it now talks of 1890 –Convention between British India and China that apparently demarcated borders between Sikkim and Tibet. China claims that under this convention, the Doklam valley, where the Indian and Bhutanese troops have stopped the Chinese transgression, came under Tibet.
But then, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1959, “This Convention of 1890 also defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet; and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is thus no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region. This clearly refers to northern Sikkim and not to the tri-junction which needed to be discussed with Bhutan and Sikkim and which is today the contentious area. And once more, let us not forget that the 1890 Treaty was an unequal treaty as Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan were not involved.”
Nothing could be said more aptly than the above on the Chinese duplicity. But then what can India to retrieve the situation? Obviously the standard local level military talks and diplomatic parleys at the official level are not working. Over the last two months many rounds of such talks have been held, the latest being on 6th June between the Corps Commander based in Leh and the Chinese Commander( Lt General Harinder Singh, XIV Corps Commander, and Major General Liu Lin, Commander of South Xinjiang Military District, in itself a rare phenomenon) in the Chushul-Moldo region. But to what effect? Nothing concrete seems to have emerged out of this meeting.
The Chinese side never indicated that it will retreat from the areas that they have captured. Nor are they going to stop protesting against the infrastructural developments in our side, something the Chinese are relentlessly doing in their side. And yet our Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that said that the meeting “took place in a cordial and positive atmosphere. Both sides agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas in accordance with various bilateral agreements and keeping in view the agreement between the leaders that peace and tranquillity in the India-China border regions is essential for the overall development of bilateral relations. …Both sides also noted that this year marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and agreed that an early resolution would contribute to the further development of the relationship.’ A typical bland diplomatic statement!
One finds it really surprising how India has overlooked the fact of massive militarisation of Tibet as a whole, which, given the huge upgradation of military infrastructure there enables the PLA to rapidly mobilise its troops in the Indo-Tibet border for a military offensive against India anytime. But then, our governments – whether UPA or NDA- seem to have invariably joined forces with all those who sympathise with the Chinese behaviour. These pro-China elements in India may not be exactly fifth columnists, but one thing is clear. All of them literally hate the United States. They are sure that China is the only country that can challenge the United States and end the so-called unipolar world or American hegemony. They, in the process, underplay the fact that in the name of multipolar world, China is striving for a unipolar Asia, where, true to its theory of “Middle Kingdom”, China will not allow another pole, whether it is India or Japan, to make Asia truly multipolar, let alone the world. Historically speaking, that has been the Chinese tradition. China throughout ages has done everything possible to halt the growth of Indian influence and dent India’s eminence.
A 1974 poem by Mao Zedong displays the scorn with which China viewed India. The poem is like this:
“The tiger avers its head,
The tattered lion grieves,
The bear flaunts its claws,
Riding the back of the cow,
The moon torments the sun,
The pagoda gives forth light,
Disaster comes to birth,
The olive is seen waving.”
As John W Garver explains, what Mao meant by this poem was that the tiger was the United states, the lion the Great Britain, the bear the Soviet Union, the moon the Islamic countries of West Asia, the sun the rich countries of the West, the pagoda the Vietnamese revolutionary struggle, and its light the prospect of imminent victory. A pagoda giving forth light is a common Chinese literary smile indicating good fortune. The phrase disaster comes to birth referred to Mao’s dictum that either revolution would prevent war or war would lead to revolution, while the olive branch referred to the people’s desire for peace. The cow was India, which, according to Mao, has no talents and is only food or for people to ride and for pulling carts. The cow could starve to death if its master did not give it grass to eat. And even though this cow may have great ambitions, they are futile. In other words, it is not a new thing for China to reduce India’s potential, downgrade its image and diminish its influence.
If anything, these illustrative, not exhaustive, examples expose the limitations of the “Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” syndrome. As Teresita and Howard Schaffer, two former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia, have written elsewhere, the dominant view within China is that although India’s ambitions for a greater global role were “understandable,” in light of its improved economic performance, but in the end these are unrealistic. The argument here is that India is not yet ready for a major global role, that China’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP) exceeded India’s by a factor of three or four, and that the gap was widening. Many in Beijing also view that India’s missile programme is 10 years behind China’s. On the vexed border issue, the Schaffer couple found during their visit to China that no one there “expected this issue to be resolved within his professional lifetime; the best that could be hoped for was to manage it”. They were given a succession of presentations on 1960s-era opportunities for solving the border that had been squandered by India’s “excessive” ambitions. Solutions that might have worked in the 1960s, they heard repeatedly, were “no longer possible in light of the two nations’ power gap.”
What can India do to checkmate the Chinese designs? One factor is favourable to India at the moment, and that is the international opinion. Because of the Chinese aggressive designs everywhere – from Japan to Taiwan to Hong Kong to South China Sea – and now India, almost all the major powers of the world, including the United States, have understood and agreed with the Indian position. But that is not enough.
It is worth quoting well-known military analyst, Prof. Bharat Karnad, in this context. He would like India to do the following: “Well, Delhi can follow what I have been advocating over the last 20-odd years. In no particular order (1) ask Beijing to shut the f…k up on Kashmir, and take to wagging an admonishing finger at Beijing on every forum now that it has tethered the freedom loving Hong Kongese to the Chinese Communist totalitarian yoke; (2) publicly initiate negotiations with Taipei to upgrade the extant trade and consular relations into a full fledged diplomatic relationship with the sovereign state of Taiwan, and use Taiwan’s manifest superiority in high-technology to upgrade India’s manufacturing base, and industrial and military wherewithal — a perfect riposte to Beijing’s recently raking up the Sikkim status issue; the “virtual participation” in President Tsai’s investiture ceremony by BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan ought to be a precursor event; (3) officially bury China’s spurious “one country, two systems” policy by withdrawing support for it with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong and also Tibet, the last on the legally sound basis, I have long advocated, of Tibet not being genuinely “autonomous” in any way and hence no part of China as Delhi had originally recognized it, thereafter India should spearhead a worldwide “free Tibet” Movement; (4) openly support the Uyghur cause and use the OIC to mobilize the Islamic opposition to China’s systematic denigration of the native Muslims there and for turning Xinjiang into a vast prison camp for the natives; (5) cut-off imports of all goods from China, and having done that negotiate small incremental increases in access to the Indian market in return for strict reciprocity in trade and commerce combined with a heavily punitive regime to prevent small and big time traders within India from transacting any goods from China, and the formalization of LAC as formal border; (6) as current chairman presiding over WHO, use the underway scrutiny of China on the Covid-19 issue to skewer China and pillory it as an opaque and irresponsible state not worthy of respect from the international community; (7) for God’s sake, use the precedent of China’s secretly transferring nuclear weapons and missile technologies to Pakistan to pay back Beijing in the same coin, even if 40 years too late, by onpassing the very same technologies, or better still, the nuclear warheaded Brahmos cruise missile, to any state on China’s periphery desiring the ultimate means of militarily keeping Beijing quiet. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, are you listening?!, and (8) by way of meta-strategic arrangements, minimize China’s global salience by weaponizing BRICS by excising China from it and getting Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa (BRIS) into a loose and informal security coalition; and to complement it by sewing up a similar coalition to India’s east — the ‘Mod Quad’ — the Quadrilateral of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of rich and capable Southeast Asian countries minus the unreliable United States. It is an organic security scheme that will permanently box in China politically, militarily and economically with a marginal, extra-territorial, role for the US should it want one.”
Militarily, Prof. Karnad adds, “As detailed in my earlier writings and at length in a chapter in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), there is a practical solution, the only one, staring the country in the face, short of the Modi sarkar committing 3%-4% of GDP every year for the next 15-20 years for the purpose of achieving an all-aspect force for the China front that is as large as it is sophisticated, and matches up with the PLA on all counts. Such gigantic fund sequestration being unlikely, my solution is unavoidable. It requires the implementation of far reaching measures — the army reverting to 5-7 year colour service for jawans and in lieu of pensions a one-time grant to demobilized jawans (to slice the pensions/payroll expenditure by half or thereabouts), majorly derating the Pakistan threat, rationalizing the three strike corps into a single composite corps, and diverting the freed up manpower and relevant war materiel to raising two additional offensive mountain corps equipped with light (30-35 ton) tanks, for a total of three such corps each with, among other things, integral air assault/air cavalry units for taking the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan plateau. “.
As for me, while broadly agreeing with Prof. Karnad, I will stress on boycotting Chinese goods, something I advocated way back on April 14, 2008 in “The Tribune” newspaper ( Probably I was first in the country to advocate it on record). Under the title “Gandhigiri against Chinese Dadagiri”, I wrote that “the main component of rising Chinese power is its economic strength, particularly its foreign exchange reserve, that is, dollars. And this the Chinese have earned through export of their goods, which they produce cheaply by their cheap labour, in markets all over the world. In fact, for the most part, the Chinese enjoyed a system of “one-way free trade” in open markets of the Western countries while protecting its own market against western goods under some pretext or the other. As a result, the balance of trade was always in favour of China, and, that, in turn, endowed it with more and more dollars. This is the case even now.
“In this age of the WTO, which ensures free trade, there cannot be any ideological ground to stop Chinese goods entering any country. But what we can do here is to adopt the Gandhian tool of boycott. Let us pledge ourselves not to buy Chinese goods. Once this Gandhian practice gains momentum, that is, if more and more people in the world, particularly in the United States – the biggest market for the Chinese goods, voluntarily stop buying Chinese products, it will have a salutary impact on the Chinese rulers.
“The lopsidedness of the Chinese economy is so acute that an overwhelming majority of the Chinese people themselves continue to be too poor to buy their own country’s products. Once the Chinese rulers are unable to find buyers for their goods, their economic power will decline and their arrogance will evaporate. Let ‘Gandhigiri’ prevail over Chinese ‘dadagiri’.”
My theme is more relevant today than in 2008 when I wrote on it.
By Prakash Nanda