Author: Srini Sitaraman, Clark University
Beijing’s latest border incursion into eastern Ladakh in India is intended to remind New Delhi that it is able, and perhaps willing, to use military force to reshape the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating the two states.
On the morning of 22 April 2013, Indian news networks buzzed with the news that People’s Liberation Army troops (PLA) had crossed the LAC into eastern Ladakh, and were holding a red banner that read, ‘You’ve crossed the border, please go back’. News subsequently broke that on 17 June Chinese troops had transgressed the LAC in other areas of eastern Ladakh and smashed up Indian observational bunkers and surveillance equipment. It was also later discovered that Chinese helicopters had breached Indian airspace and that 50 or more PLA troops on horseback had intruded across the LAC. According to the Union Ministry of India, there have been well over 600 incidents of border transgressions in the last three years, during which time New Delhi has downplayed or even suppressed information from reaching the Indian media to avoid escalation.
These revelations have revived the vast mistrust that typically characterises Sino–Indian relations. Earlier this year, there were promising signs of a thaw in relations. In March at the BRICS Summit in Durban, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a cordial meeting in which they agreed to visit each other and move quickly towards a peaceful resolution of the border dispute. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India was also officially announced on almost the same day that the Indian Defence Ministry discovered that the Chinese troops had encroached across the LAC.
So what purpose do these incursions serve at a time when Sino–Indian relations are supposedly improving? The first possibility is that this was the result of a genuine miscommunication between the Foreign Ministry and the PLA border command.
The second possibility is that these border incursions form part of a game of one-upmanship by the PLA in its internal struggle with other institutions within the Chinese state. This line of thought suggests that the PLA wanted to demonstrate that it calls the shots on critical foreign policy matters such as border issues with its southern neighbour.
The third, equally credible, possibility is that Beijing deliberately intended to use this incident to send a clear signal that its conception of the border diverges from that of India. China’s incursions have demonstrated that New Delhi is confronting some hard realities. Besides establishing that China has the ability to make incursions across the LAC undetected and at will, they also show that Beijing is not going to allow India to dictate the shape of the border by building permanent or semi-permanent structures. Tensions have flared in the past over India’s attempts to erect an observational post close to the Aksai Chin highway, a core strategic asset to China given the volatile situation in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Beijing has also used its border incursions to indubitably establish that it is the superior power, capable of forcing high-ranking Indian officials to scurry to Beijing to soothe things over. In July this year, Major General Luo Yuan, the Deputy-Director General of the World Military Research Department of the PLA Academy, warned India against ‘increas[ing] military deployment[s] at the border areas and stir[ring] up new trouble,’ just as the Indian Defence Minister met his counterparts in Beijing. The Defence Minister’s visit overlapped with that of newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and New Delhi was left wondering if this was a mere coincidence or another subtle diplomatic manoeuvre by Beijing.
What does all this mean for the future of Sino–Indian relations? The prospect of Beijing launching a large-scale military assault to alter the shape of the border is dismissed by the Indian Prime Minister. But Beijing does want to retain a military option and to make India believe that such an option is readily available. According to Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, status quo powers are extremely rare because the incentives for states to resort to offensive measures far outweigh any of the costs that might ensue in an anarchic international system. This is particularly the case when rival states are neighbours with a common, yet disputed, border. It would be foolish to assume that India and China are likely to suddenly drop their conflicting, expansive, and long-standing border claims, which would make them look weaker both internally and externally. A step towards a peaceful settlement can only begin with an acknowledgement that there are genuine differences on interpretations of the border. It is not yet clear that Sino–Indian border talks have matured to that extent.
Srini Sitaraman is Associate Professor at Clark University, Worcester.