The China Challenge?
One of the greatest challenges facing India is its relationship with China.
How should it deal with Beijing? There are broadly two sets of challenges for New Delhi: the legacies of history; and the possibility of conflict as rising powers.
The historical legacy consists of three elements – the border quarrel, China’s relations with Pakistan, and interference in each other’s internal politics. The shadow of the past continues to influence thinking about the present and the course of future interactions. The more contemporary challenges relate to rising international ambition, military modernization, increasing demand for food, water, energy, and rare earth minerals, and growing but unequal bilateral trade. Both countries have grown significantly over the past 20 years, China in particular. The consequences of economic development have been a greater desire to shape the international order, modernize the armed forces, meet the demand for strategic resources, and deepen bilateral trade.
This is a big agenda. Yet, on the whole, the two countries have managed the relationship with some degree of success and have congratulated themselves publicly several times for their success in avoiding conflict. India-China relations have been organized around four “pillars” which have brought a degree of stability to their interactions over the past two decades. The four pillars are: regular summits at the highest political level, in both bilateral and mini- and multi-lateral settings; border negotiations (going back to 1981, almost without interruption); confidence-building measures along the line of actual control/border; and trade (which has gone from $200 million in the early 1990s to $70 billion last year).
The confrontation on the line of actual control in Ladakh in April-May 2013 suggests that the relationship may be more brittle than either government had supposed. In early April, the Indian press reported that Chinese troops were found up to 10 km inside Indian “territory”, that is, beyond the line of actual control in that sector. (The press later amended this figure to 19 km.) While incursions by both sides are a fairly regular occurrence, given the haziness of the line of actual control, this one was thought to be much deeper than the usual straying of a patrol. Furthermore, Chinese troops stayed put rather than pulling back. To the consternation of the Indian military, the Chinese unit pitched tents and held up placards asking the Indian troops to withdraw.
Coming as this did on the eve of the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Beijing, which itself was a prelude to Li Keqiang’s arrival in New Delhi, there was considerable head-scratching in the Indian security community. The Chinese finally withdrew on May 6, and India, in return, dismantled some temporary bunkers which it had built prior to the standoff. The Indian foreign minister then proceeded to Beijing, and Li Keqiang visited India between May 19 and 22. It was, significantly, Li Keqiang’s first trip abroad as Premier, a point that he underlined.
What was the incursion of Chinese troops all about? Indian analysts have been puzzling over this since early April when the PLA were discovered on the Indian side of the line. I offer three alternative explanations.
The first is that the incursion has to be understood as an instance of the general assertiveness that China has displayed over the past 3-4 years going back to the 2008 world financial crisis. This assertiveness has if anything increased since Xi Jingping’s rise, but it certainly has not diminished. In other words, the explanation here is a systemic one: China, on the rise, and increasingly aware of its position since the economic meltdown (which it weathered better than the US and the Western powers, indeed the rest of the world), has chosen to test its power. The incursion may or may not have been directed by Beijing, but once it had occurred and India reacted to it, China was determined to stay put to show that it can impose its will on its neighbours. Staying put demonstrated India’s helplessness and relative weakness and China’s determination and strength. It sent a message not just to New Delhi but also to the rest of Asia and the US, all of which have been looking to India to provide some kind of balance to China. In addition, Beijing may have wanted to see what kind of international reaction there would be to the incursion, just as it has perhaps been testing international reaction in the East and South China Sea.
A second explanation rests on the nature of the bilateral relationship. One variant of this explanation is that China was genuinely concerned about some Indian bunkers that had been built in a strip of land in Chumar in Ladakh which is close to where the Chinese incursion eventually occurred. Local Chinese commanders may have judged this to be a violation of the status quo by India and may have chosen to confront the Indian presence. A second variant is that the Chinese wanted to test Indian responses and capabilities – military, diplomatic, and political. A third variant is that the new leadership of Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang wanted to speed up the process of a border settlement with India, and precipitating a small crisis might have been part of an attempt to shock both countries into focusing on a settlement. A version of this is that China wanted India to react quicker to its recent proposal to sign a Border Defence Cooperation Mechanism. New Delhi had not replied to this proposal for several weeks, and Beijing wanted to provoke India into replying (which India finally did on May 18, with a counterproposal, just before Li Keqiang’s visit).
Finally, we could explain the incursion in terms of China’s internal politics and decision making. One possibility is that an overzealous local commander on the Chinese side decided to take matters into his own hands, perhaps in response to Indian bunker-building and that his actions had nothing to do with Beijing. But the more political explanation is that the incursion and the precipitating of a small crisis was part of an internal struggle within China in the Xi Jingping-Li Keqiang transition. This explanation depends on the argument that factions with the Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army that have been trying to embarrass Xi Jingping ever since the leadership transition began two, even three years ago, and that China’s diplomatic and military assertiveness and various missteps in Asia can be traced back to Beijing’s lack of control over dissenting groups within the political order.
Which of these explanations fits the bill? Indian decision makers will be poring over reports and statements in the coming months to try and figure it out. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to go to Beijing later in 2013. Until then, it is clear that India has decided to firm up ties with Japan and Australia in particular. Just days after Li Keqiang’s visit to India (and Pakistan), Manmohan Singh set off for a highly-publicized visit to Japan; and the Indian Defence Minister travelled to Australia. There was a visibly warmer tone to both visits than might have been otherwise expected. The effect of the Chinese incursion may well have provoked India to seek out friends and allies in Asia in a way that it has been resisting for many years.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.