Need to harden China policy

It is possible the Chinese may have bitten off more than they can chew. Beijing has rubbed three main countries of the Indo-Pacific region — Japan, the United States and India — the wrong way. This new triple entente constitutes a formidable coalition in the Indo-Pacific region to keep Chinese aggressiveness in check and will be difficult for Beijing to fend off.

China’s historic bogeyman, Japan, has sent Beijing a clear signal. The Japanese people have just given, perhaps, their most nationalistic post-War prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a majority in the upper house to go with the two-thirds majority his Liberal Democratic Party enjoys in the lower house, mainly because of his strong stance against a bullying China. To add to recent provocations in the Senkaku Islands area, Beijing ordered most of its flotilla, which had taken part in a massive joint exercise (“Joint Sea 2013”) with the Russian Pacific Fleet involving 19 warships, to return from the north by deliberately cutting west through the Soya Strait separating the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Russian Sakhalin Peninsula, steaming round the Japanese archipelago and crossing the Tsushima Strait between the southern Kyushu Island and the Korean peninsula.

China exploited Japan’s limiting its sea territory (from the 12km) in the Soya narrows to 5.6km to facilitate the passage of nuclear-armed ships of the Yokosuka-based US Seventh Fleet. In the context of growing tensions, Tokyo’s Defence White Paper pointed to China’s attempts to “change the status quo by force based on its own assertion [of territorial claims]” — don’t we know it! It was followed up with Japan “nationalising” some 400 small, outlying islands and rock outcroppings that almost doubled its sea territory to 4.47 million sqkm and hinted at a deliberately proactive defence policy.

In the process of decamping from Afghanistan, the United States is seeking to implement its “rebalance” strategy involving a military build-up in the Far East. Indeed, with the extant Chinese maritime disputes with Japan and the countries of the Southeast Asian littoral, especially the Philippines in mind, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, vice admiral Scott Swift, recently warned China against succumbing to “the temptation to use coercion or force in an attempt to resolve differences between nations”.

Two of the three pillars of the Indo-Pacific security architecture that can stabilise the evolving “correlation of forces” are solid. The third is India — the confused laggard in all matters remotely strategic. As usual, New Delhi is thrashing around clueless, despite being repeatedly smacked around by China. The incident in April this year in Ladakh’s Depsang Valley was not a one-off thing. Mid-June the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units again crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), ransacked the Chumar observation post the Chinese at the time of the earlier event had wanted dismantled. Except, this facility is actually a strategically-located post at a height affording a panoramic view of the PLA disposition in the valley below, and which the Indian Army had rigged up for remote 24/7 photo-imagery. The PLA intruders destroyed this surveillance system. As if to prove that such armed intrusions are going to be a monthly occurrence, on July 15-17 and again last week, and then on July 21, PLA troops violated the LAC.

What was most worrisome about these developments were the Indian Army’s initial reactions. It supported the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA) contention of the Chumar post as a “tin shed”, dismissed the June incident as “minor”, and passed off the first July PLA intrusion as “banner drills” — an innocuous unfurling of banners. It is as if the Army Headquarters (AHQ) was trying hard to avoid a rumble with the PLA in the face of the Chinese military’s determined bids to rub India’s nose in the dirt. Elsewhere, at the same time, Beijing was detected funnelling fake Indian currency through the Pakistan ISI gateway to destabilise the Indian economy. And still the Indian government believes China plays by Queensberry Rules.

AHQ’s “shrinking lilly” stance may have been due to the MEA’s insistence that Chinese feathers were best left unruffled with the talks on July 23-24 to negotiate a “border defence co-operation agreement” (BDCA) on the anvil. However, responding with alacrity and in kind to aggressive Chinese patrolling of LAC would have signalled a more forceful Indian posture and provided Indian negotiators leverage more than MEA’s girly policy of complaining, and sobbing in our sleeves. New Delhi may not have agreed to China’s condition that as part of the deal for peace and tranquillity Tibetans trying to escape their PLA-occupied homeland and into India be rounded up and handed back to Chinese authorities — the sort of understanding Beijing extracted out of the Nepalese government. But where else has the MEA stood its ground? Adding more sites for “border personnel meetings” and “hot lines” between AHQ and PLA command, or between the theatre commanders, etc. will not stop the Chinese troops violating the LAC at will. The only counter to PLA incursions is aggressive and like provocative actions by Indian units up to the Indian claim line but with adequate force-surge capacity, which Army needs to build-up, pronto.

Such an approach, however, goes against the callow policy of the Manmohan Singh regime. While the MEA minister Salman Khurshid in the run-up to the BDCA talks stated that the government was working “for peace as much as for tough times”, in practice it seems inclined to achieving peace the easy way — by appeasement. Instead of instituting them against China, tough, punitive, measures are used to cow down small states. With Khurshid expressly helming the effort reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s economic blockade of Nepal in the late 1980s, Bhutan was brought to heel by threats of ending a gas subsidy. Rajiv succeeded in alienating Nepal then, Khurshid has upset Thimpu now. It is certain Bhutan too will nurse a grudge, which Beijing will exploit. Acting cowardly where China is concerned and as a bully with our other neighbours has resulted in geostrategic opportunities the Chinese quickly capitalised on to shrink India’s regional profile, relevance and standing.

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’ July 26, 2013 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Central Asia, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian Ocean, Japan, Northeast Asia, Russia, russian military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Need to harden China policy

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Well, we come back to the same old tale again! Tell me, I am certain that you are familiar with the infrastructure development efforts of the past decade which cater to the force surge efforts that you aver to; the force enhancements of the last few years and the most recent sanction to raise a mountain strike corps; the OVL efforts in the South China Sea and the related unambiguous pronouncements of the Naval Chief in late ’12; the recent strategic dialogue of the PM with Japan; Indian enhanced engagement with Vietnam in the recent past; does none of this figure in your calculation of a forceful Indian posture!!

    Are you even vaguely familiar with the Indian Army’s patrolling activities on the LAC, which you tend to dismiss as a line that a bangle clad IA leaves unguarded for the Chinese to violate at will…..something that Xinhua will let you know better? I have begun to wonder, are you really, even vaguely… considering your arm chair status…. familiar with the phrase ‘perception of the LAC’, which is an essential ingredient of the border dispute? Do you know a fig about the effect of a six footer Sikh soldier staring down a hapless five foot nothing Chinese peasant forcibly enrolled as a BD guard……unless you equate every Chinese with that abominable dragon that has taken the fancy of a romanticism- starved media?

    Oh come on dear Sir, you have now begun to flirt with the ridiculous in your singular pursuit of an evident political agenda in the garb of strategic wisdom….or wistfulness is it?

    Do you wish the Indian Army’s formal proclamations to be any different from the official establishment line, much like the Paki Army, which is The Establishment, or the Egyptian Army which overthrows the establishment in a wink, or the North Korean Army which is the establishment and country rolled into one? You incessantly harp about an aggressive posture, but can you qualify what it entails, short of the nonsensical idea of nuclear missile proliferation in South East Asia? What do you specifically mean by an aggressive response on the LAC?

    Please come up with something more than emotionally charged jingoism in a surcharged atmosphere of an election year to redeem the image of a strategic blog!!!

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