India–China border tensions and nuclear posturing

Author: Sandy Gordon, ANU

The standoff between China and India in Ladakh has been resolved, at least for now.

In this Sunday, 5 May 2013 photo, Chinese troops hold a banner which reads: ‘You have crossed the border, please go back,’ in Ladakh, India. While the recent troop standoff in a remote Himalayan desert spotlights a long-running border dispute between China and India, the two emerging giants are engaged in a rivalry for global influence that spreads much farther afield. (Photo: AAP)

After China set up five tents for 40 personnel 19 kilometres inside what India regards as the line of control, India set up similar tents facing them. Both lots of tents are now to be removed, but it is still unclear whether India is to remove any of the structures at Fukche and Chumar, as demanded by the Chinese.

The Chinese withdrawal only occurred after India hardened its position on the impending visit of Indian foreign Minister Salman Kurshid to Beijing on 9 May and the reciprocal visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi on 20 May. The Indian government was forced to harden its position by the strong public reaction to what was perceived to be its weak-kneed response to the Chinese ‘incursions’.

A disturbing feature of the incident was the way it was politicised on both sides, thus risking the protagonists being ‘locked in’ to their respective positions.

Analysts in New Delhi have argued for some time that China has adopted a tactic of creeping encroachment, taking a bit of territory here, a bit there, and turning these incremental gains into reality on the ground. But even so, the Indians are surprised by the strength of the Chinese action and its occurrence on the eve of the two scheduled visits.

Two leading experts, Ashley Tellis and Li Mingjiang, believe that the incursions reflect a new assertiveness under President Xi, which was reflected by the military action. Others, however, feel that the incident reflects genuine concern on China’s part about India developing infrastructure in border areas that Beijing regards as disputed. India counters this perception with the argument that China has itself massively reinforced its border with major airfields, roads and even a railway line.

Another possibility is that China simply miscalculated. Its intention may have been to unsettle India on the eve of the visits — tactic it adopted on the eve of then President Hu’s visit to New Delhi in 2006 when the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi renewed China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, a claim India at the time believed to be dormant. The Hu visit went ahead regardless. On this occasion India’s tougher position may have caught the Chinese by surprise.

An interesting, and possibly connected, side development was that two weeks after the Chinese set up their tents, The Times of India reported a very strong statement by the convenor of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, directed at Pakistan’s nuclear policies. Saran reportedly said that India would respond massively to any nuclear strike, and that ‘the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective’.

The statement refers to Pakistan’s reported development of tactical nuclear weapons. According to Pakistan’s own statements, its supposed tactical nuclear weapons are designed to deter or interdict an Indian conventional strike. Unlike India, Pakistan does not have a ‘no-first use’ doctrine. The nuclear threshold in South Asia is thus significantly lowered by the presence of tactical weapons and Pakistan’s stated doctrine for their use.

As pointed out by veteran commentator Manoj Joshi in the 2 June 2011 issue of India Today, such tactical weapons would be operationalised at army corps level and would consequently be far more decentralised than strategic weapons. The danger that they may fall into the wrong hands, including terrorist hands, is thus greatly increased.

But Pakistan has claimed to have such weapons since 2011, so why has the Indian warning come now, and why so strident?

The plutonium enabling Pakistan to miniaturise nuclear weapons is derived from the unsafeguarded nuclear reactors built by China and now operational at Khusab. The launchers and missile technology are also likely developed from Chinese originals. It is noteworthy that Saran said in his 30 April statement, ‘Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic [nuclear] program continues apace.’

From Beijing’s perspective, the settlement on the India–China border may help propagate a more reasonable image towards China in relation to Beijing’s other disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the East and South China Seas.

Sandy Gordon is a Visiting Fellow at RegNet, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.