How should India respond to another surge in Chinese transgressions at several places along our Himalayan frontiers? Over the past 15 years or so, strategic analysts have recommended two diametrically opposite approaches.
The first, advocated by sober defence traditionalists and by hawks, is that we should hold the line along the Himalayas and escalate the conflict if we have to. They point out that Indian troops enjoy favourable positions in many places, and our strength has been bolstered over the past 10 years with more mountain forces and better infrastructure and equipment. The objective of this approach, they contend, is to make the Chinese realise that they can’t ‘win’ this game.
The second approach, generally favoured by diplomats, economists and many politicians, is that we should defuse the situation through talks and negotiations, because we cannot afford tensions and adversarial relations with China ‘at this time’. Even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, India’s development agenda required that we do not get distracted by military conflicts, not least with a more powerful neighbour, which is also an important economic partner.
Transgressions are an instrument of Chinese policy
The political resultant of these two approaches gives us the situation we have today. There is a pattern of ‘normal’ transgression of the disputed boundary by both India and China to ensure that the respective claims are protected. Over and above this, there is a pattern of creeping but consistent forward movement by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — which not only fortifies new positions on its territory but also transgresses into areas that we presumed were de facto ‘settled’, at least at the local level.
When Indian troops resist this and the field-level mechanisms fail to resolve the matter, the situation flares up and becomes a political challenge for the Indian government. We first try to underplay the issue, then official spokespersons exchange strong words and finally top leaders talk to each other. A few formal or informal summits later, things quieten down for a year or so, until it happens all over again.
While this keeps the tension levels down for a while, it does nothing to discourage China from expanding its transgressions. Furthermore, it hands Beijing a cheap instrument to apply pressure on the Indian political leadership. Just look at the current discourse — no one knows why the Chinese are doing this now. Beijing won’t tell us, for that would defeat its purpose. Because we do not know what exactly caused the Chinese response, we ask ourselves whether it was due to 5G, FDI policy, the WHO investigation, the Article 370 move, the new road in Nepal, some new military positions on the border and so on.
So, a few skirmishes on some remote, barren Himalayan valleys and India starts considering whether it should get onto the back foot on so many issues concerning China. Little wonder the Chinese refuse to tell us where their claim lines are. Little wonder that they don’t tell us why they are upping the ante now.
Shift the maritime balance in East Asia
We find ourselves in this unhappy situation because we have failed to literally think out of the box. Escalating the conflict on our borders is not in India’s interests beyond a point because having to fight a war will set us back. Relying on talks to kick the can down the road plays into Beijing’s hands.
A better approach — as I have argued for well over a decade — is to shift the conflict away from our Himalayan boundaries to the waters of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India should demonstrate that it is willing and capable of influencing the maritime balance in East Asia, where China faces off a combination of the United States, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and sometimes Malaysia and the Philippines as well.
Warning that a cold war is heating up in these waters, James Stavridis, former chief of the US navy, argues that the “key for the U.S. is to gradually bend Chinese behavior without breaking the international relationship in a way that leads into a Cold War or armed conflict. The best way to do that is to bring more international allies into the freedom of navigation patrols…”.
Many countries in the region will welcome a stronger Indian role. Given the maritime balance, a relatively small naval expeditionary force can have a disproportionate impact in a theatre that Beijing is acutely worried about. New Delhi’s message should be: “Do not poke us here and we will not poke you there.”
Utilise ties with Southeast Asian nations
India should have done this in 2010, but it’s still not too late. We must immediately increase naval operations east of the Malacca Straits and follow up with a rapid tri-service expeditionary capability in the Indian Ocean Region. This should grow into an expeditionary command. Instead of informal summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must meet the leaders of Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Timor-Leste. The defence relationships we have built with many Southeast Asian countries over the years can be quietly utilised.
I do not think we can deter China from using Himalayan skirmishes to throw us off balance unless we go on the offensive elsewhere. The South China Sea/Indian Ocean Region maritime domain presents us with the best options: they are far from our borders but not too far; we have the military capabilities to pursue the option; naval power is flexible; and the regional geopolitical context is favourable.
Of course, we can cite many reasons why this is too bold, too aggressive and too risky, and go back to our tried, tested and failed approach. And I can recycle this column again next year.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.