As the Mamallapuram summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded last week, two things became clear. First, China is in no hurry to settle the boundary dispute and India is relatively too weak to force the issue. However, the days of China asserting its hegemony by triggering embarrassing border incidents are over. Second, the preferred phrase used for China by military scholars as well as Army Chief General Bipin Rawat in relation to the Line of Actual Control — “salami slicing” — is a misnomer.
From the strategic point of view, China had secured all Indian territory it needed to before 1962. Following the 1962 War, it vacated all captured territory, barring some strategically important areas in Ladakh as per its claims in Depsang, Sirijap-Khurnak Fort, Kailash Range and Demchok areas, made prior to the war. Since then, apart from the historic territorial claims and the perceived threat to Tibet emanating from India, the confrontations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have been more about China asserting its hegemony by embarrassing India. There has been no permanent ‘salami slicing’.
It mainly stepped up ‘intrusions’ by patrols in areas of ‘differing perceptions’ about the alignment of the LAC or triggered a ‘border incident’ as in Depsang and Chumar in 2013 whenever Beijing perceived a diplomatic or security challenge from India.
All Indian prime ministers until May 2014 responded to Chinese aggression by following a policy of ‘strategic restraint’ — focusing on economic relations while putting the contentious boundary dispute on the back burner. A number of confidence-building measures were put in place through various border defence cooperation agreements (1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013) to this effect.
But things changed in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. While he generally sustained this policy, Modi adopted a tougher stance with respect to border incidents.
China’s ‘salami slicing’ – a misnomer
Over the years, China has managed to create 23 areas of ‘differing perceptions’ to gain tactical military advantage and to needle India. Of these, nine areas are disputed where intrusions or incidents have taken place while 14 are considered sensitive. There are two types of border incidents. One is the routine patrolling up to the respective claim lines by both sides in areas of ‘differing perceptions’. Technically, these can be termed as intrusions and both sides lodge protests at border meetings and through diplomatic channels. The media, particularly in India, blows up these ‘intrusions’, which number 400-500 every year.
The second type of incident is triggered when China intrudes into ‘areas of differing perceptions’ to establish temporary military posts. India responds by deploying its forces to block and threaten the intrusion (Depsang 2013, Chumar 2013, and Demchok and Chumar 2014). Chinese actions are deliberately timed with important visits to assert territorial claims or to simply embarrass India. Such confrontations last one to three weeks before being diffused.
But the tactic of ‘salami slicing’, which Army Chief Gen Rawat said in September 2017 India needs to prepare itself against, isn’t a permanent feature.
Tough posture on LAC
Since Prime Minister Modi’s arrival at the helm of affairs, there has been a visible change in India’s strategic response, both diplomatic and military. Modi set things off by openly playing the ‘Tibetan card’ when he invited the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile for his swearing-in in 2014. During President Xi Jinping’s visit in September that year, when China attempted to embarrass the new government by intruding into Demchok and Chumar sector, India responded aggressively by camping opposite the Chinese troops and to the flanks to isolate the intrusion. Modi even took the unusual step of diplomatically cautioning China during the joint press conference. The situation was diffused by the end of that month.
India’s opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the ‘semi-official’ status accorded to Dalai Lama’s Arunachal Pradesh visit in April 2017 annoyed China. The Chinese responded by blocking India’s move to have Masood Azhar designated as a global terrorist by the UNSC and its quest for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This competitive conflict led to the Doklam crisis lasting 74 days between June and August, when China and India came closest to an actual military confrontation since the Nathu La incident in 1967.
Taking note of the risk of an escalation between two nuclear states, both sides mutually agreed to diffuse the situation. India officially ‘distanced’ itself from the activities of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. China too responded with a conciliatory attitude, paving the way for the Wuhan informal summit in April 2018.
Informal summits and border management
The seriousness of the Doklam crisis led Beijing to conclude that despite the economic and military asymmetry, India had the will and capability to stalemate China in a limited conflict below the nuclear threshold. It also concluded that any assertion of its hegemony through border incidents will be aggressively contested by India even at the risk of an escalation like it happened during 2014 Demchok and Chumar, and 2017 Doklam standoffs.
Consequently, both sides agreed at the Wuhan summit to issue “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.” It was also agreed “to earnestly implement various confidence-building measures agreed upon between the two sides.”
Since Wuhan, the border management has improved. The ‘intrusive’ patrolling in areas of differing perceptions by both sides is better managed. All incidents and confrontations have been mutually settled at border meetings between local commanders.
At Mamallapuram informal summit held on 11-12 October, the Wuhan agreement on border management was reiterated: “…efforts will continue to be made to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
There is a huge difference between India and China in terms of economic and military components of Comprehensive National Power. However, India is the fifth-largest economy and fourth-largest in terms of military strength ranking. It possesses the military capability and the will to stalemate China and give it a bloody nose in a border conflict. As a great power, China cannot risk such a confrontation.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
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