Several conclusions can be drawn from the India-China stand-off in Ladakh. One, China can create an incident on the unsettled border at a time and place of its choosing, irrespective of positive developments in other aspects of the bilateral relationship. We should not believe that expanded political and trade ties will dissuade China from asserting its unreasonable territorial claims. It treats territorial issues as a core interest, separating them from even massive advantages it can obtain from a bilateral relationship, as in the case of China-Japan ties.
Two, we have no effective political answer to such provocations. In what can be termed as political whimpering, we downplayed the Chinese action, characterising it as acne on an otherwise beautiful face, advising against losing sleep over it, calling it localised and even an occurrence in no man’s land.
We seemed reluctant to point a political finger at the Chinese leadership for the provocation. Our extraordinarily restrained reaction showed greater concern than that of China itself about not disturbing the dynamic of our improving relationship. Risk-averse and believing that we lacked good options, we calculated that a conciliatory posture and stress on dialogue offered the least damaging way out of the crisis.
We wanted the forthcoming visits of Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid to China and that of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India to proceed as planned, as if we had more stakes than China had in their success. Such high-level visits are intended to bolster ties, not to paper over militarily provocative acts to the advantage of the stronger country. By treating the Chinese incursion as incidental, with little political import, capable of being resolved at the local level and preferring, meanwhile, business as usual to continue with China, we gave the latter considerable room to defuse the issue as opportune.
Three, we lack confidence in a military option. Our armed forces believe that they could have forced the Chinese intruders to withdraw without a fight, but our political leadership is excessively cautious. Apparently, it took the Cabinet Committee on Security 17 days to seek a briefing directly from our army chief, indicating that we preferred dealing with the PLA intrusion as a diplomatic issue, not a military one.
It can be safely assumed that the Chinese, adamant about not withdrawing despite several flag meetings and diplomatic demarches, would not have agreed to restore the status quo ante without some Indian concession. To force India to cease its defensive activity in other parts of Ladakh, China ignored the existing border mechanisms to resolve differences and relied on an act of force in the Depsang Valley. We have been cautioned about what to expect if we persist in objectionable activities in areas where actual control is disputed in their reckoning. Our failure to respond militarily will cost us in the future. It would be naive to believe that Khurshid’s toughened tone in describing the Chinese response to our demarches as “unsatisfactory” and PM Manmohan Singh’s decision to extend his stay in Japan by a day persuaded the Chinese to end the stand-off. They might have decided that their limited objective had been served.
Four, the incursion clearly caught us unawares as we had begun to believe that China, pre-occupied with tensions with its eastern neighbours, was genuinely reaching out to us, and that by imaginatively using this opportunity we could lay the foundation of a new bilateral relationship. While it is true that a stable relationship with China serves our foreign policy interests well, it cannot be a one-sided affair. Underneath the rhetoric of wanting improved ties with India, China is steadily undermining our interests in our neighbourhood by wanting equal treatment with India in Nepal, courting the Sri Lankan government with economic and military aid, wooing the Maldives government, strengthening ties with Bangladesh and continuing to strategically instrumentalise Pakistan with nuclear cooperation and the takeover of Gwadar port.
Our unduly positive projections at the official level of our developing ties with China are in conflict with reality. When cracks are papered over, they reappear — that is the lesson to be drawn from the recent drama in Ladakh.