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The Chinese Message and What Should the Reply Be?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • May 21, 2013

    That Chinese troops regularly and frequently intrude across the Line of Actual Control [LAC] both in the western as well as in the eastern sector is rather well known. India often explains this aberration by pointing out that there are differing perceptions about the alignment of the LAC, although Chinese spokespersons have never admitted to this and have always maintained that Chinese troops have never crossed the LAC. China also refuses to come to an agreement on the alignment of the LAC; possibly to retain the option of utilizing different versions as and when required depending upon the political exigencies of the day. That China uses the uncertainty regarding the LAC alignment for wholly extraneous reasons is also rather well known. Witness the threats to India in 1962, 1965, 1967, 1971 and again in 1986. None of these threats had anything to do with the boundary issue or the LAC alignment.

    Let us consider the 1962 events first. Was the Chinese military action in October-November 1962 for territory or as a result of a boundary dispute? Not, if you are to believe Chinese leaders. According to Mao, ‘the major problem was not the McMahon Line, but the Tibetan question.’1 PM Zhou told President Nixon that ‘he [Nehru] was so discourteous; he wouldn’t even do us the courtesy of replying, so we had to drive him out.’2 President Liu Shaoqi told the Sri Lankan leader Felix Bandaranaike and the then Swedish Ambassador to Beijing that, ‘China had taught India a lesson and would so again and again’ [emphasis added].3 Notice none of the then Chinese leaders claimed that there was a ‘boundary problem.’ And to prove the point, Chinese troops went back and north of the McMahon Line in the eastern sector; soon after the Chinese declared a unilateral cease-fire.

    What about 1965? A Chinese government statement of 7 September 1965 made the astonishing claim that, 'India’s aggression against any one of its neighbors concerns all its neighbors’ [emphasis added]and therefore China was right in ‘threatening’ India across the Sikkim-Tibet border! Incidentally, the Sikkim-Tibet boundary line is not only delineated on a map, but fully demarcated on the ground and accepted by the present Chinese government. So it could not have been the ‘boundary issue’ that troubled the Chinese. Similar is the story in 1971. Apart from making verbal ‘threatening’ noises, the Chinese refrained from any military action conscious of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971.

    Let us go a little forward in time. In early 1986, about 200 hundred PLA soldiers intruded into the Sumdorong Chu area in Arunachal Pradesh, some 7 kilometers across the McMahon Line inside Indian Territory. They built wooden shacks and helicopters were pressed into service to support the troops. A little earlier, the then Soviet leader, Gorbachov in a famous speech at Vladivostok in an effort to normalize relations with China, conceded the three basic Chinese demands for better relations. These were [1] Soviet acceptance of the Chinese position that the riverine boundary between the two countries be settled according to the ‘thalweg’ principle i.e. the median line [2] withdrawal of bulk of Soviet troops from Mongolia and [3] to urge Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia. Ever the pragmatists, the Chinese in addition wished to test whether the Indo-Soviet treaty of 1971 still stood firm or was it now of little consequence. The Chinese also wished to test the mettle of the new young Indian PM, Rajiv Gandhi.

    The Chinese stood vindicated when Gorbachov on a visit to India in December 1986 refused to clarify or give an unequivocal answer on Soviet support to India; even when pressed to do so consistently, both at the official and public level. In January 1987, the Soviets withdrew an Armored Division from Mongolia at the height of the Sumdorong Chu confrontation. The Chinese felt reassured that Soviet support for India would not be forthcoming.

    Fortunately for India, PM Rajiv Gandhi not only clearly understood the political import of the far reaching developments in Sino-Soviet relations, but also knew that the Chinese were trying to test his leadership qualities. PM Rajiv Gandhi in tandem with the Indian army moved not only swiftly, but with great alacrity and determination. Between 18 and 20 October 1986, an Indian army brigade was deployed on the heights above the Chinese troops near Sumdorong Chu. But what was even more telling was the deployment of Indian army tanks, both in Ladakh, as well as in northern Sikkim. The appearance of Indian army tanks unnerved the Chinese. The Chinese were caught completely off guard; for they never expected the young Indian PM and the Indian army to show such speed and determination. It was they who blinked first and asked for a flag meeting which was held on 15 November 1986. The Chinese realized that their forward positions could have been destroyed at any time. The Chinese Military Attaché at Delhi and the Tibet Military Commander were both sacked!

    Let us now fast forward to present times. Chinese troops would have never intruded in the Depsang area in Ladakh, some 19 kilometers across the LAC, into the Indian controlled area without express clearance from the Chinese leadership, for the PLA is a highly disciplined force and subject to CCP authority [emphasis added]. Invariably most Chinese military actions, no matter however insignificant, are never open ended or without a political content. They are certainly not ‘local’ affairs. Intrusion and withdrawal are both matters of strategy, policy and political expediency. Witness the events of 1962 and the Sino-Vietnam conflict of 1979.

    If the views of the Chinese leadership are reflected in the official Chinese media, then we ought to pay attention to what the People’s Daily [2 May 2013] said about the events in the Depsang [Tiannan river valley] area. The People’s Daily, opined that China should not ‘indulge India’s bad habits.’ Pray what are these ‘bad habits?’ Would strengthening the border infrastructure, deploying additional troops in the border areas, conducting joint naval exercises with Japan and the US and developing stronger military links with the US constitute ‘bad habits?’ This is what we need to ask the new Chinese PM Li Keqiang to clarify during his talks with the Indian leadership this week. We should be clear what are ‘bad habits’ and equally what in Chinese eyes constitute ‘good habits?’ The Chinese will play hard ball and try to circumcise any strengthening of our border areas and pressurize us to accept their concept of ‘border management,’ thus altering the agreed arrangements of 2005 to their advantage. It would be supine to do so. In the event, India should be prepared for even more ‘intrusions’ that seek to pressure us into further concessions.

    Any strategic analyst sitting in Beijing can easily foresee that China faces a hostile environment on its eastern sea board with on- going quarrels with almost every country ranging from Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. China only ‘all- weather’ friends in Asia are the dubious regimes of Pakistan and North Korea. China is clearly worried at the prospects of a US re-pivot to Asia strategy. This strategy envisages increased US military presence in Asia. China recognizes that states of East and South-East Asia are clearly worried at the rise of China as a military and an economic power and the security implications for them that this presents. They would in all probability seek a US security cover. Therefore it is in China’s interest to break this circle and what better place to start than India—perceived by Chinese analysts to be the weakest link. The Chinese know that Indian polity is fractured, parliament non-functional and decision making painfully slow. They are aware that South Block has let India’s relations with the US become rusty. The Chinese chose the area of intrusion in Ladakh well, for while the US recognizes the McMahon Line as the international frontier, it has no position when it comes to the Ladakh border. The Chinese would have noticed that India did not get any outside support nor should India expect any. The states of East and South- East Asia are also watching very carefully on how we react to Chinese coercive diplomacy.

    It would be extremely naïve to be taken in by Chinese blandishments and flattery about choosing India first for PM Li Keqiang’s maiden venture abroad. If as the Chinese say that they wish to have ‘good neighborly’ relations with India, then what better way to start, at the very least, to agree to exchange maps and demarcate the LAC on the ground in all sectors. This is what India should place on the table and insist on this as a first step. This would be the real test of Chinese sincerity.

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

    • 1. Mao Zedung Sixiang [1949-68] Joint Research Service No. 61269/20 February 1974.
    • 2. Memorandum of Conversation Nixon/Zhou, 23 February 1972. National Security Archives [US]
    • 3. Conversation between Liu Shaoqi and Bandaranaike quoted in Mastny, ‘The Soviet Union’s Partnership with India’, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol.12, No.3 Summer 2010.