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Border Standoff: Understanding Chinese Motives

Brig (Retd) Rumel Dahiya was Deputy Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 29, 2014

    The recent military stand-off in Chumar-Demchok area in Ladakh region appears to have been resolved without loss of face on either side. The External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj informed the press of this development at New York on September 23, 2014.

    The last year’s incident in Depsang Plains and the recent one almost 250-km South in Demchok and Chumar have some similarities and some differences. In both cases the PLA/People’s Armed Police Forces personnel in sizeable strength had intruded into the territory controlled and claimed by India. Both the incidents lasted more than two weeks each during which the assertiveness of the Chinese troops was on full display.

    However, there were some important differences as well. In the case of Depsang incident, although the area intruded was beyond the 1960 claim line of China and also beyond the farthest line up to which Chinese army had reached during 1962 War, the LAC in this area has not been mutually agreed upon. Chumar area, on the other hand, was never contested till recently and was beyond the Chinese claim line of 1960. This area has always been under the effective control of India. In the case of Depsang incident, there were reports of an armoured division being present at Shahidullah and the intruding troops being in communication with this force indicating that the Chinese were ready to escalate the conflict. Interestingly, there was no concentration of Chinese troops in the near vicinity of Chumar-Demchok area. Last year’s intrusion was termed as ‘accidental’ by China and their Foreign Ministry expressed ignorance about the incident - at least in the initial stages. In case of the latest incident, the issue was publically raised with the visiting Chinese President and he gave assurances that the Chinese troops will withdraw but it took more than ten days for the Chinese to agree to a face saving formula for withdrawal.

    The response from the Indian side during the recent incident was much more robust, particularly because the Chinese were trying to alter the ground situation by demanding to stop a civil work under MNREGA scheme and by trying to build a road in Indian territory across the international boundary (not LAC). The Indian response also displayed a stronger political will. That both the incidents were resolved without a shot being fired from either side, is a tribute to the political maturity on both sides and effectiveness of existing mechanisms established between the two countries. However, there is no guarantee that such incidents will not be repeated in the future unless the LAC, both in Eastern and Western sectors, is clearly defined as articulated by India’s Prime Minister during the visit of China’s President in New Delhi.

    It is worth examining the likely motives that drive the Chinese to raise the ante before the high-level visits. One or more of the following motives are likely to be the driving force behind such incidents:

    Despite PLA being under the firm control of Central Military Commission (CMC) and the Chinese Communist Party, it is still fairly autonomous in taking tactical decisions. By doing so the PLA time and again shows its assertive behaviour. This thus would mean that the President of China and Chairman of CMC either does not have full control over the PLA or has given a certain degree of operational flexibility. It is hard to draw definite conclusions because of two reports, first of which is not in public domain. In August 2014, Vice Chairman of CMC, General Xu Qiliang, is reported to have paid a visit to the PLA/PAPF sub-unit which had intruded in Depsang Plains in April 2013. Obviously such a high level visit to a sub-unit is unusual and one can only deduce that it was to give them a pat on their back for their actions in Depsang. If this report is true, then the obvious conclusion will be that the incident took place with the knowledge and on orders of the CMC.

    In case of the latest incident, although a section of the Chinese media has blamed provocation from India, the official statements from Chinese Foreign Ministry and the leadership have been conciliatory. The statement issued by the Chinese official media after the address of Chinese President and Chairman CMC at the meeting of PLA Chiefs of Staff on September 21, 2014 wherein he asked all military units to implement his orders and to be loyal to the party, may be interpreted as an indication of his unhappiness with the actions of the military commanders involved in the incidents in Chumar-Demchok area, just prior to and during his visit to India as also for not withdrawing despite his public assurance to the Indian Prime Minister.

    Some analysts also attribute the Chinese assertiveness to their desire to incrementally change the status quo to their advantage and set new thresholds through coercion. The Chinese behaviour in the past in dealing with Japan, Vietnam and Philippines lends credence to this theory. The Chinese make tactical withdrawal once confronted with a determined response. China may also be trying to convey a message that economic engagement does not mean that it will compromise on its security interests.

    There could also be purely tactical reasons for such intrusions that is to assess the response of the Indian troops locally and for terrain reconnaissance. But for that the incidents do not have to be stretched for weeks. Yet another reason could be purely psychological. The Chinese would understand that their aggressive behaviour in an asymmetric situation would result in the affected party making representation and that the Chinese conciliatory response would make the victim feel grateful for Chinese consideration.

    There is also a possibility that President Xi, whose anti-corruption drives has already led to the prosecution of top generals including Gu Junshan, Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang, may have tried to sooth the PLA nerves by giving them operational freedom. However, such decisions can clearly end up embarrassing the top leadership. This was, perhaps, the reason for the stern message at the recent conference to the Chiefs of Staff of Army Groups and the General Headquarters on September 21, 2014.

    It is also reported in the Chinese press that the President is contemplating promoting two Generals, Liu Yuan, presently the Political Commissar of the PLA, General Logistics Department and Zhang Youxia, Head of the General Armaments Department of PLA. Both of them are so-called ‘Princelings”. Gen Liu is the son of former President of China Liu Shaoqi and Zhang is the son of General Zhang Zongxun who was a contemporary of the President’s father. One of these two is also likely to be elevated to the CMC sometime next year which will strengthen the President’s position in the CMC.

    Given that Xi Jinping is fast establishing himself as a strong and decisive leader and that he would like to leave behind solid achievements once his term ends, it can be hoped that he will prevent the PLA commanders from being adventurous in the future and that serious attempts will be made by China towards defining the LAC with India. Politically, China is still a fragile state and power equations within the politburo are subject to change thereby leading to unpredictability of Chinese behaviour. India’s interests would be well-served by being vigilant and prepared to respond to any transgression from China’s side, irrespective of their motives.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India