Mind Wars: China Punches Above its Weight

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By insisting on an unconditional Indian withdrawal from Doklam plateau

SHAUN REIN, MANAGING director of the Shanghai-based think-tank, China Market Research Group, puts it pithily: Beijing’s ongoing border standoff with Delhi is all about China trying to exert power in the region around it, be it on land or in the South China Sea. For someone familiar with the Chinese way of thinking, he should know. Rein has also delved deep into Chinese history for his forthcoming book, The War for China’s Wallet, an experience that has left him with a clearer understanding of the country’s current policies and objectives. Several other foreign policy experts concur that such brinkmanship by Beijing is less of a force of habit and more of a well-thought-out plan. After all, President Xi Jinping is driven by the ambition to have his country replace the United States as the world’s foremost economic and military power by 2049, a century after Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China through a communist revolution.

The facts of the latest border incident are simple enough, even if the motivation and design behind it go to the heart of China’s strategy to nibble away at the territory of its neighbours, and, when possible, gobble up an entire oceanic stretch—in this case, the South China Sea.

On June 16th, a unit of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) involved in road-building encountered a Bhutanese army patrol. The Chinese had already constructed a ‘road’ up to a point on their side of the border and were trying to stretch it into Bhutanese territory in a region known as Doklam. This is a plateau located in the western part of Bhutan that is close to the Himalayan tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. China has for long coveted this land and more.

Beijing has claimed a sliver of Bhutan’s territory running north to south in an area that is vital not only for Bhutan but India as well. China has a knife-shaped wedge of territory that is a part of Tibet and abuts India, close to a stretch known as the ‘chicken’s neck’—a narrow sliver of land that links West Bengal with India’s Northeast. This tract, wedged between China to its north and Bangladesh to its South, is only 30 km wide. China’s attempt to close in, by encroaching Bhutanese territory, has set off the alarm bells in India.

India, which has troops at Doka La, urged the Chinese troops not to carry on with their construction and thus try altering the ‘facts on ground’, a tactic favoured by China for long. In the 1950s, China built a road in the Aksai Chin region in northeast J&K and presented it as a fait accompli to Delhi. That dispute led to war and has bedevilled relations between India and China since.

Notes Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in America: “I think there’s something to be said about the timing. China’s move comes with India-China relations in a particularly tense spot. Given the unhappiness in bilateral relations at the moment, China likely wanted to send a message that it’s in no mood for conciliation.” Ben Cavender, associate principal at China Market Research, agrees. For him, this is a case of the world’s most populous country trying to push its well-known security objectives forward and see how far it can go without adverse consequences. After all, he declares, this strategy has worked for China in the South China Sea and so it may believe that doing something similar in and around Bhutan would also be possible. Kugelman, meanwhile, also feels that there is something to be said about the strategic stakes involved here. “This is not just a random plateau; it’s a plateau that ultimately leads to key real estate linking India’s northeastern reaches to other parts of the country. By staking its claim to such a key plateau, China will make India feel strategically vulnerable.”

That India and China should be eyeball-to-eyeball over a third country’s territory is perhaps as messy a situation as any international dispute can get. China, which is 250 times the size of Bhutan, has laid claim to a significant chunk of the landlocked country, including Doklam, a 250 sq km piece of land. In over two dozen meetings between Bhutan and China on border negotiations, Beijing has displayed extreme pettiness in demanding patches of territory that have little economic value. In making its claim, China cites the 1890 Convention between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet. That document, meant to define the border between Sikkim and Tibet, refers to Bhutan only incidentally. Its text states: ‘The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its effluents from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other Rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory.’

China has always sought to strengthen buffer zones along its perimeter. By now, one can be sure that all South Asian countries are watching what is happening in Doklam closely

As far as interpretation of the Convention is concerned, China has a claim to territory that goes all the way down to the aforementioned tri-junction. That, however, is not the issue. China’s discovery of the 1890 Convention is a late development, almost an afterthought, in its attempt to take over land that began to fit into its strategic calculus only after 1984.

Seen in isolation, it would seem like an idiosyncratic incursion on China’s part, meant just to needle a small neighbour into ceding territory. Kugelman, for one, foresees no major escalation, much less a war. “Neither side has an interest in a conflict and neither side can afford a war. Both countries are already dealing with other major security headaches, like North Korea in Beijing’s case and Pakistan in New Delhi’s. There’s also a significant economic partnership at stake if conflict were to break out. All this said, given the current tensions, neither side has an incentive to back down anytime soon. So I doubt we’ll see a resolution tomorrow. But I do think that each side will ultimately muster enough goodwill to step back from the brink, even if it takes a few weeks.”

Yet, when viewed through the historical lens of China’s border disputes since the formation of the People’s Republic, a different story emerges: Beijing never acts, let alone militarily, without purpose. To make sense of the current dispute, it must be seen in the broader context of all its moves along the border. It is misleading to focus only on Doklam.

In past cases of border trouble between the two countries, India has often been portrayed as an obdurate partner that refuses to negotiate with China and ‘unilaterally’ sketches out maps showing boundaries that never existed. This is the view taken by the doyen of this interpretation, Neville Maxwell, and his Indian followers. The claim being that India did not have title and never possessed far-flung territories such as Aksai Chin. According to this argument, India simply drew a line covering Aksai Chin based on 19th century British efforts to mark out a ‘scientific’ boundary with China; there was never a demarcation in reality, and when the British left India in 1947, the last maps issued by the Surveyor General of India had a straight line in eastern J&K that left out Aksai Chin entirely.

It is a convincing story, but for one detail: if India had ‘no claim’ to this land, neither did China. The farthest extent of Chinese territory at the end of the Qing Empire, when China became a republic in 1911 and later when it turned into a communist state, did not include Aksai Chin. Unless, of course, one considers variants of Chinese documents making such claims; but these were never accepted by the global powers then, including the British Empire in India. Such controversies of historical fineprint shed little light on what’s going on, even if they feed the polemics on either side.

A better way, pioneered by the American scholar Michael Taylor Fravel, is to correlate China’s internal troubles with its handling of border disputes. Of the 23 territorial disputes—from North Korea all the way to the McMahon Line with Myanmar—China has made compromises in 17. Virtually all these have come at a time when Beijing was facing domestic troubles. There’s a pattern to be observed here. The country’s internal problems, from the 1950s’ rebellion in Tibet to the Tiananmen Square uprising, have gone alongside its external concessions. Three points are especially worth noting. One, South Asia is the site of some of China’s oldest disputes—the first one being with Myanmar in 1956—and the most difficult ones to resolve: India’s border being a big case in point. Two, most of what China has yielded involved only modest extents of territory. Its dispute with India is over a large expanse, its largest of all. Three, unlike other disputes, in South Asia it has changed its tactics from cooperation to delaying a settlement. Right now, Beijing perhaps believes it can afford to: when it is free of internal worries, it turns obdurate on border issues. What is being seen now, from Doklam to the South China Sea, is part of that behavioural mode.

Delhi’s best option, given China's revisionist goals, is to engage in constructive diplomacy. India has always preferred this approach and this time is no different

Kugelman points out that in this particular case, the reason the stakes are so high for India is that its relationship with another small South Asian state is at peril. He says, “New Delhi has already had a diplomatic crisis with Nepal, and you can be sure that it doesn’t want to have problems with Bhutan.” His logic is clear: China, of course, understands this calculus well and is likely trying to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan by pressuring India to back down. He adds, “So absolutely, there is a credibility issue in place for India, a country with rising power aspirations that is keen to have generally cordial relations with its South Asian neighbours—the complicated issue of Pakistan aside.” In its original proposal, made in the 1950s, China wanted a swap whereby it would keep Aksai Chin (which it had already occupied militarily) and let India keep the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA)—as Arunachal Pradesh was known then. In 1979, it abandoned this position. It now claims both Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin.

While China’s dispute with Bhutan is a separate issue—and the two countries have held at least 16 rounds of border negotiations— the disputed area lies in the general region that China calls ‘South Tibet’. Unlike the past, when it has tended to agree on relatively much larger parcels of land, China is unwilling to give up even 250 sq km of land in Bhutan. While Bhutanese leaders are careful in what they say, there is resentment that China has refused to concede what is a minor patch of territory.

THIS SHOULD SURPRISE no one. There is another factor at work that could explain why 21st century China’s record in settling disputes differs from what it did in the 20th. Now the world’s second biggest economy with complete political consolidation domestically, it sees no reason to part with what it considers its legitimate territory. In 2009, China did something that no country has done in the past: in a document issued to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, it claimed the entire South China Sea as its own. This infamous map with a line marking the Sea as Chinese territory has led to global tensions and seen other countries express grave concern over freedom of navigation in the high seas in case nation-states begin to mark oceanic swathes as their own. Far from being the responsible rising power that it claims to be, China is fuelling anarchy in the global system.

What chance does tiny Bhutan have in dealing with China? India’s choices in the matter are limited. Extreme ‘solutions’—either doing nothing or going to war—are what they are, extreme. The ground situation is that a confrontation has taken place, and the nature of the relationship between India and Bhutan plus the history of Chinese attempts to solve border disputes (or take control of territory) complicate all efforts for a resolution.

For starters, India cannot leave Bhutan to defend itself against China in case such incursions happen again. There is no way to predict or rule out future intrusions. Bhutan has very few resources that it can devote to shoring up its armed defences against China. This is not a moral issue, but a matter of bilateral relations with Bhutan. India has a treaty of friendship with this country that dates back to 2007. Under its terms, the two countries ‘shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests’. India helping Bhutan protect its territory from a PLA intrusion is an example of doing just that.

There is another reason for India to aid its neighbour. As Cavender says, China has always sought to strengthen its buffer zones along its perimeter, and may think—for political or economic reasons—that this is a good time to push ahead on that front. By now, one can be sure that all South Asian countries are watching what is happening in Doklam closely. If India were to ‘abandon’ Bhutan, it would have a cascading effect. One, it will embolden China to create trouble elsewhere along its long border with India. That could happen in the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh, an area that China has desired for a long time. Or it could occur in the Depsang area at the northern edge of the disputed border of Aksai Chin in J&K. Or some Chinese misadventure could take place in the Chumar area on the southeastern edge of Aksai Chin. These are just two examples where incursions have happened earlier. There are other places that can be imagined as the sites of future confrontations. Two, this won’t be just about China in case India backs off. India’s other neighbours, some of which have their own axes to grind, too, could be encouraged to take on Indian forces. This possibility should not be taken lightly.

Delhi’s option, given China’s revisionist goals, is to engage in constructive diplomacy. India has always preferred this approach, and this time is no different. In a speech in Singapore on July 11th, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar stated that relations with China are important and their depth ensures that differences do not transform into disputes. “Differences on issues like terrorism, nuclear energy access and connectivity initiatives have also acquired some prominence…” he said. “Last month, when the leaders of the two countries met at Astana, they reached a consensus on two key points: (a) that at a time of global uncertainty, India-China relations are a factor of stability, and (b) in their relationship, India and China must not allow differences to become disputes. This consensus underlines the strategic maturity with which the two countries must continue to approach each other.”

American pundits observe that Washington has remained neutral on the issue so far. The US, says Kugelman, has wisely had no public reaction to the dispute. “My own view is that with so much else going on in the world, the White House likely doesn’t have the bandwidth to pay much attention to the standoff— though it should, given who the standoff involves. I do think that this administration is serious about making US-India relations take off in a big way, and in that regard I imagine it’s hoping that however the dispute is resolved, it will shake out in a way that is not detrimental to India or its security interests.”

Even more notable is the restraint exercised by the leaders of India and Bhutan. Unlike the past, when inflammatory comments would be issued in Delhi, the roles have reversed. Reckless commentary is now a Chinese thing, both officially and unofficially. Kugelman says, “China is an assertive and provocative rising power, and it doesn’t hesitate to lay claim to what it regards as its territory, whether at land or at sea. I do think that its claims in the South China Sea are potentially more destabilising than those on land simply because so many other countries are embroiled in the sea-based claims. With Doklam, you’re looking at China, India and Bhutan, and broadly speaking, with Chinese land claims, you’re looking at situations that involve China, India and sometimes Pakistan. With the South China Sea, you’re looking at large numbers of Asian countries all embroiled in an increasingly tense territorial dispute.”

On the ground, matters have changed. There has been no repeat of crossing the Namka Chu without adequate thought or preparation: there is, rather, a quiet resolve to deal with the Chinese if and when matters escalate. It seems India is learning from China— which, for all of Xi’s vaulting ambitions, is as prone to faulty calculations as any other country.