Recent Chinese intrusions into Indian territory are a reminder that the border issue between the two countries is far from settled. Those calling for peace at the cost of India’s legitimate interests in the region would do well to remember the 1962 debacle.
The Indian and Chinese armies face each other in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation yet again. Despite the recent thaw in relations after Xi Jingping’s Mamallapuram visit, the Dragon is now marking territory in the lofty heights of the Himalayas. That the PLA Army barged into Indian territory while the Chinese premier’s visit was still in progress shows it wasn’t mere coincidence. Rather, it was an attempt to get India to bend backward on issues ranging from Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the lopsided trade gap between the two countries that heavily favors China.
The infamous salami-slicing strategy (a euphemism for gradual land grabbing) employed by the Chinese has been a cause for major stand-offs in the past, most recently in Doklam where Indian forces intervened to stop the Chinese from building a road through Bhutanese territory. Thankfully, diplomacy won the day and the rest, as they say, is history. Unlike the border with Pakistan, however, the Indo-China border has never seen a shot fired during such altercations. The latest skirmish involved sticks, stones, and the good old fist, with an Indian Lieutenant giving a PLA major a bloody nose.
The subtle political signaling from Beijing is unmistakable though. The Dragon is reminding India that kowtowing to the US will have consequences. Even as the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that the situation along the border was ‘overall stable’, the nationalist media saw it as anything but. Chinese tabloid, the Global Times, went ballistic over the episode, reminding India that its GDP was a mere 1/5TH the size of China’s and that the PLA had invested heavily in high-altitude weaponry since Doklam to blunt the tactical superiority enjoyed by the Indian Army. Though Indian analysts say that China would not risk a full-blown conflict at a time when it is mired in domestic and international problems, the memories of the drubbing Indian forces received at the hands of the Chinese in 1962 are still fresh in their minds.
Watch: Could China-India border dispute trigger a military conflict?
Two front challenge
Since the guns fell silent on the Line of Actual Control – the de-facto border between the two countries 58 years ago – India has always been wary of a rapid Chinese attack across the Himalayan mountain passes. It has steadily invested in shoring up its defenses in the region and is the process of raising a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) meant specifically for high altitude offensive operations. However, it is nowhere close to matching the sprawling infrastructure on the Chinese side.
The nightmare scenario for India: a co-ordinated attack by both Pakistan and China. Successive military chiefs have gone on record to say that India did not have the capability to stop a collusive threat on its western and eastern flanks. Some have called for India to end the dispute, bury the hatchet and make peace with China even as Indian defense spending is likely to be heavily constrained in the post-COVID world. Is there any merit to this argument? Not if we have learned our lessons from the past.
Perhaps no other politician in Indian history has had the gumption to describe the Indo-China dynamic so matter-of-factly. Former Defence Minister and Janata Dal stalwart, George Fernandes sparked a furore when he declared China ‘Public Enemy No.1’ in 1998, the year India went nuclear. That he sheepishly visited China just years later was attributed to persuasion from then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was keen to mend faces with Beijing. Fernandes continued to advocate a firm approach in dealing with China, calling it out for anti-India activities ranging from clandestinely arming Pakistan and fuelling unrest in India’s North East. Delusions about China’s ‘peaceful rise to power’ could cost us dear as the country makes rapid inroads into what has traditionally been India’s backyard.
From Sri Lanka to Nepal, India is fast losing its friends to Chinese influence and money at a rapid clip.
Having failed at persuading India to join the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs through Pakistani-held territory claimed by India, Xi Jinping now wants to pressurize India into toeing its line on the ‘One China’ principle. China’s expectation that India quietly yields to its shenanigans on Taiwan while it continues to bat for its ally Pakistan at the UN – blocking the designation of Hafiz Saeed as an international terrorist and blocking India’s entry into the NSG – is a non-starter. All the while, China continues to make noises about Arunachal Pradesh being its territory. Nehru was naïve enough to believe Chinese assurances in the 1960s, trusting them again would be a catastrophic strategic blunder for India.
Pakistan: A Chinese pawn
Without Chinese money, Pakistan’s floundering economy would have no hope for survival, the generous aid from the IMF notwithstanding. The ‘taller than mountains’ friendship between the two is founded on cold logic: Converging economic interests and a common enemy, India. According to SIPRI, China accounts for more than … of Pakistan’s military purchases, including top-of-the-line UAVs, warships, and submarines. A joint attack could help Pakistan whittle down India’s conventional military superiority and improve China’s odds of penetrating India’s North East. Serving and former officers say that a dissuasive posture against China is the only way to temper its ambitions to wrest control of large swathes of Indian territory abutting Tibet.
While diplomatic engagement with China must continue to find a peaceful resolution to the territorial claims of both nations, India must continue to develop a robust military presence in the Eastern sector.
In the words of former President A.P.J Abdul Kalam, “Only strength respects strength”. With the dispute likely to intensify with China, India will need a double measure of strength, what with their ability to orchestrate events in places ranging from Jammu and Kashmir to Islamabad.