India, China border emerging as a bigger flashpoint than Taiwan for a short, sharp war; all bets are off?

Source : Firstpost

India, China border emerging as a bigger flashpoint than Taiwan for a short, sharp war; all bets are off?

On 20 October, Chinese soldiers invaded an unsuspecting India over multiple points across the McMahon Line. They also intruded into Ladakh, starting a brief, devastating war. That was in 1962. Nearly six decades have passed. Both countries have managed to avoid a repetition. The boundary dispute hasn’t been solved, yet India and China have been able to get along due to a series of agreements and mechanisms aimed at managing the border, allowing the bilateral relationship to flourish.

There have been occasional conflicts and stand-offs, but the mechanisms in place have largely held. Since the pandemic, however, it is evident that those protocols, agreements and arrangements along the LAC are not working, and both countries need a new modus vivendi. There has been a distinct hardening of position on China’s part as it tries to match territorial control with its boundary claims, and in so doing it has taken a series of audacious, unilateral actions since April 2020, violating at least four agreements that served the purpose of maintaining peace and tranquility along the border.

India has been forced to respond. It has matched Chinese force posture and deployments along the high Himalayas but so far, despite some success, it has been unable to get China to withdraw its massive deployment of troops and equipment from along the border or walk back from the areas where the PLA intruders remain encroached.

India’s main leverage vis-a-vis China (or what New Delhi considers as its chief leverage) — restoration of normalcy in bilateral ties — isn’t working. China has so far given the impression that it is not ready to give up its territorial gains in lieu of restoring normalcy. What’s more, recent developments suggest not only is China unwilling to restore the pre-April 2020 status quo, it appears ready to up the ante. Beijing is taking a series of operational and tactical steps that may only result in further intensifying of tension along the LAC in both the western and eastern sectors, and even a short, sharp conflict to “settle” the differences.

On Wednesday, India responded to China’s adoption of a new ‘border law’ that seeks to formalise Beijing’s territorial gains along its border with both India and Bhutan.

According to reports that cite Chinese State media Xinhua as the source, China’s new law for the “protection and exploitation of the country’s land border areas” passed by the rubber stamp National People’s Congress on 23 October, declares that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of… China are sacred and inviolable”, and the State has been asked to “take measures to safeguard territorial integrity and land boundaries and guard against and combat any act that undermines [these]”.

Though not aimed specifically at India, the text of the legislature is incendiary and provocative, and it comes flush in the middle of an ongoing 17-month standoff between two countries that share a 3488-kilometre border. It is likely that the law will have a bearing on the current India-China border negotiations — an indication that didn’t escape New Delhi.

India responded by saying that it is “concerned” with the developments, and the statement made by MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, usually a reticent speaker very guarded with words, betrays both a sense of defiance and an apprehension that China is up to some new mischief.

India said it expects that “China will avoid undertaking action under the pretext of this law which could unilaterally alter the situation in the India-China border areas” and clarified that “such unilateral move will have no bearing on the arrangements that both sides have already reached earlier, whether it is on the Boundary Question or for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC in India-China Border areas.”

India also made it clear “that the passage of this new law does not in our view confer any legitimacy to the so-called China Pakistan ‘Boundary Agreement’ of 1963 which Government of India has consistently maintained is an illegal and invalid agreement” and noted that the law “has provisions to carry out reorganisation of districts in the border areas.”

The first thing to note about India’s response is the tough language that indicates questions about China’s intent — a result of the complete breakdown of trust and communication mechanism between both sides. Second, India is apprehensive that China may use provisions of the law to legalise its illegal land-grab along the LAC and present India with a set of new bottom lines during negotiations.

Third, in India’s mention of ‘reorganisation of border districts’ as provisions of the law lies the anxiety that China may pursue its age-old tactic of using civilian settlers along the border to reinforce boundary claims with even greater vigour and legislative sanction. Fourth, the reference to 1963 Pakistan-China boundary agreement indicates India contests the “finality” of Chinese claim on any part of Kashmir that remains under Chinese control even if Beijing tries to formalise such a claim through legislative fiat. Finally, a sense of foreboding permeates India’s statement — a pointer perhaps to the trajectory of bilateral ties and steady ratcheting up of tension by China through unilateral actions.

India’s worries are not misplaced. Article 22 of China’s border law states that PLA “shall carry out border duties” including “organising drills” and “resolutely prevent, stop and combat invasion, encroachment, provocation and other acts”. Taken along with the declaration that China’s territory and sovereignty are “inviolable”, it suggests while China’s territories are inviolable, China is free to violate the territories of other States and any pushback will be deemed as “provocation”, that should be “resolutely prevented”, if needed through “combat.” China is simply saying that “my territory is mine, but yours is a matter of negotiation”.

Alongside, the law also states that the state shall “take measures to strengthen border defence, support economic and social development as well as opening-up in border areas, improve public services and infrastructure in such areas, encourage and support people’s life and work there…”

Analysts point out that with China, ‘de jure’ always follows ‘de facto’, so the definitive push for civilian settlement and administrative measures to improve their livelihood — what the law calls for — is aimed at creating ‘facts on the ground’ that will make it even harder for India to achieve its objective of pre-April 2020 status quo. We already know through Lt Gen Manoj Pande, Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command that takes care of the borders from Sikkim to Arunachal Pradesh, that China is constructing ‘dual use’ villages along the border.

There is more. A report in Nikkei Asia points out that under the law — passed by China’s top legislative body and scheduled to be operative from 1 January, 2022 — “the People’s Armed Police Force and the Public Security Bureau, which are in charge of maintaining public order in China, can be mobilised to guard borders in addition to the People’s Liberation Army” implying greater streamlining of response in case of a border conflict.

In addition, the report says “a provision on the protection of water resources is believed to have been made with India in mind” in terms of controlling transboundary rivers and lakes, and the report adds that China is ”flirting with the possibility of limiting the volume of the water of river Brahmaputra during conflicts, citing ‘protection and reasonable use’ as stipulated in the law.”

Experts question the veracity of claim since over 70 percent of the river’s catchment area falls in India, still it is hard to escape the indication that China is spoiling for a fight.

We should also see the promulgation of this new law by China in the backdrop of recent developments. China seems to be taking a series of operational and tactical measures to strengthen its revanchist claims along the land border with India.

For instance, China is ramping up the scale, duration, intensity and frequency of its military drills. A series of Indian media reports point to an intensification of tension along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh. Quoting Lt Gen Pande, the chief of Army’s Eastern Command, The Times of India reports that many PLA “reserve formations” continue to remain deployed in ‘depth areas’ across the 1,346-kilometre eastern sector and “there has also been an increase in the scale and duration of PLA exercises, with a focus on integrated joint operations, this year.

But these exercises are taking place in their traditional training areas in the depth.” The report also points to increasing troop presence and infrastructure activity in areas such as Asapila in Arunachal Pradesh.

Hindustan Times quotes from an “activity matrix” prepared by the Indian Army to report PLA’s increased activities in sectors such as Lungro La, Zimithang and Bum La in Arunachal Pradesh. According to the report, the PLA carried out 90 patrols in the Lungro La area from January 2020 to October 2021 compared to about 40 between January 2018 and December 2019.

There has been a corresponding rise in PLA’s area domination patrols and a sharp jump in visits by senior PLA officers, mainly to the Lungro La area north of Tawang — “up from 10 visits in the two years before the Ladakh border row erupted to 40 in 2020-21 (till September).”

Similar increase in activities has also been noted by the Indian Army in Zimithang and Bum La sectors where Indian surveillance has “picked up increased vehicular movement due to infrastructure development activities and a large number of excavators and bulldozers to keep road axes open.”

Indian Express reports that in Zimithang sector, the area domination patrols (ADPs) have gone up from “12 in 2018 to 16 in 2019, 22 in 2020 and 24 till September this year. In Lungro La, this jump has been the most marked. Till September, the PLA has held 25 ADPs in the area, going up from 10 last year, compared to four and six in 2019 and 2018, respectively.”

This is a clear indication that China is hardening its force posture and taking incremental coercive steps to intimidate India. In a past couple of months, there have been several reports of China stepping up night drills and deploying more new-generation equipment close to Indian border.

China’s Xinjiang Military Division has been rotating its large field formations deployed along the LAC in Ladakh since earlier this year, indicating that the “Chinese have no intention as yet of de-inducting.”

More recently, China has released videos of PLA conducting high-altitude drills in Tibet that involves fighter jets dropping sorties, troops bringing down drones and ground force howitzers making precision strikes, which, according to Chinese media, are aimed as a “warning to India.”

China is also deploying more than 100 long-range rocket launchers along the border to counter India’s deployment of M777 ultra-light howitzers and running tank drills. China relies on psychological warfare to subdue its adversary to ‘win without fighting’ but the resultant intensification of tension results in a dangerous security spiral.

Alongside, there is an increase in pinprick incursions by the PLA combined with upping of rhetoric. For instance, China called vice president Venkaiah Naidu’s recent Arunachal Pradesh visit “provocative”, triggering an acerbic response from India.

We must also note tactical developments that include Chinese claims of striking an MoU with Bhutan on boundary talks to “break deadlock caused by India”. This is aimed at unsettling India and bringing New Delhi under more pressure because China’s border negotiations with Bhutan are central to India’s national security, specifically because it brings India’s vulnerability over the Siliguri Corridor into play.

It is also worth noting, as Tibetologist and China expert Claude Arpi pointed out in his column for News18, that China is planning to “extend the Aksai Chin road to the north of Arunachal Pradesh bringing far greater mobility for the troops, while linking the Ladakh and the Sikkim/Arunachal front.”

Arpi adds that “by reaching north of the McMahon Line, the new G219 extension will completely change the strategic stakes in the region. India has no choice but to take measures to develop this remote area…”

All hands point towards an increasing possibility of a conflict that may involve kinetic action below the nuclear threshold. Apart from the fact that India must be ready for such an eventuality — and all indications are that India is alert to the danger — the question is why is China hardening its coercive posture vis-à-vis India?

According to Gautam Bambawale, former Indian ambassador to China, in Economic Times, “One of the necessary conditions for China to have undertaken her military aggression in eastern Ladakh was an asymmetry of power between the two nations. China’s economy is now five times that of India’s and her military and technological power is also more than ours. This made Beijing confident she could attempt military coercion on our borders.”

As the more powerful actor in Asia and aspiring global hegemon, China is using all tools in its box to keep India unsettled and slow its rise. As analyst Yun Sun of Stimson Center had written in War on the Rocks, “Recognising India’s historical influence in South Asia, its capability as a regional power, and its global potential, China’s policy toward India has largely followed a pattern of balancing India in South Asia…”

Given India’s population size, willingness to carry out tough reforms and the upward curve of its economic growth — at some point of time in the future India will garner enough financial strength to convert its economic prowess into greater military muscle. Once that happens, India’s ability to push back against Chinese coercion and even engage in a security competition with Beijing will become greater.

In line with realist logic and China’s hierarchical view of Asia, as the superior military and economic power China is keen to trap the asymmetry between the two sides, even if it comes at the cost of disruption in bilateral ties.

In his essay in Foreign Affairs on US-China great-power rivalry, political scientist John J Mearsheimer writes, “Convincing adversaries that they cannot achieve quick and decisive wins deters wars.”

This holds useful lesson for India in the context of the boundary standoff. If India is able to convince China that a “short, sharp war” will likely be a misadventure instead of helping China achieve its objective, the current spiral in ties may be arrested.

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