In 2013, the then defence minister A K Antony, addressing an army commanders conference, had warned that “this hardening Chinese stand on the boundary issue” was unlikely to change with the ascent of Xi Jinping to power. “Therefore, there is a need to constantly develop our capability to achieve minimum credible deterrence, even while we seek a peaceful resolution of the issue,” he added.
The year 2013 was particularly bad in terms of incursions by the Chinese army along the LAC. The UPA government had revealed that there were more than 600 incursions in the preceding three years. The Chinese army was more aggressive in 2013 than before. “Ladakh in particular – in DBO and Nyoma sectors as well as Trig Heights and Pangong Tso lake – is being targeted. Though Chinese troops usually go back after marking their presence, they are increasingly coming deeper and deeper into our territory with the aim to stake claim to disputed areas,” wrote The Times of India, citing army officials. All through 2013, there were reports about Chinese soldiers coming inside the Indian territory, up to 20 km in some cases, and pitching tented camps. There was a 21-day stand-off at Depsang. Apparently, the Shyam Saran report of 2013 too mentioned about India having to lose 640 sq km of its territory due to the aggressive area denial tactics of the PLA.
Antony was right in his assessment of Xi Jinping. He was also right in calling for achieving “credible deterrence”. The Doklam stand-off in 2017 brought the first major test for credible deterrence. This 72-day stand-off saw a significant policy shift implemented by Narendra Modi government – ‘proactive diplomacy with strong ground posturing’. The last time we strongly held on to our ground was in 1986 during the Sumdorang Chu valley stand-off. When the news of Chinese incursions into the valley reached Delhi, Gen. Sundarji, the then Army chief brushed aside political scepticism and launched Operation Falcon to airlift a brigade to Jimithang near Tawang. The Indian army stood eyeball to eyeball with the PLA for several years until the Chinese side agreed to back off. In an unfortunate concession India too agreed to not patrol the valley although it is very much inside Indian territory.
What we are witnessing along Indo-Tibetan border in Ladakh is a repeat of 2013, with a renewed aggression by the Chinese. India’s response would be on the lines of the Doklam stand-off.
The Chinese side has accused India of trespassing into its territory, but dismissed any talk of war. “China clearly has no intention of escalating the border disputes with India,” wrote the Global Times. Yet, questions remain about the intentions behind these sudden surges of aggression. Some experts link it to India’s road-building in DBO area. China sees it as India’s capability enhancement in the region. China reacted negatively to the creation of the Union territory of Ladakh that included Aksai Chin.
China is a growing superpower. Its leadership pretends humility. But its ambitions soar high. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, was his humble best when he recently said that “China has no intention to change, still less replace, the US”. Such statements have to be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, had not Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese strategist, advised the Chinese that the “way of war is a way of deception; when able, feign inability”!
China’s ambitions face a challenge in the region from India, another growing power in its neighbourhood. China is far ahead of India. But India is catching up with higher growth rates bridging the gap quickly. The other challenge for it comes from America.
China largely carries on with its activities unquestioned in Xinxiang and Hong Kong, and island-building in South China Sea. India’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region, its elevation to head WHO Executive Board and President Trump’s manoeuvres are probably what it considers unsettling challenges in its ‘Hundred Year Marathon’.
(The article was originally published in Economic Times on May 28, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)