The most charitable thing that can be said about the UPA government’s incoherent response to the Chinese incursion into Ladakh’s Debsang Valley is this: maybe, the government has a brilliant plan that we as yet don’t know anything about.
On past performance, I wouldn’t bet on this. And surely, the statements of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid don’t inspire confidence. He chose to characterise this blatant Chinese bid to extend its claims in Ladakh as mere “acne” on the face of a beautiful relationship that can be removed with some ointment.
In the face of Chinese aggression, we needed to send them a message beyond pimples and ointment even without descending into an unwinnable war (see the options listed below). But Khurshid merely compounded the confusion when he said: "Doomsday predictions are absolutely absurd. It's absurd not so much for China as it's absurd for us. We shouldn't destroy years of investment, years of contribution that we have made to this relationship because somewhere some little thing goes wrong. One little spot is acne, which cannot force you to say that this is not a beautiful face... that acne can be addressed by simply applying an ointment.”
This drove security analyst Brahma Chellaney to write in Mint newspaper with disgust: “Few should be surprised by India’s timorous response to the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army’s) occupation of a border site near the strategic Karakoram Pass linking China to Pakistan. But even by its own standards of appeasement, India has outdone itself with its grovelling reaction to the deepest Chinese incursion in more than a quarter-century.”
Given this level of naivete (or is it stupidity?) in foreign policy, one can only pray the Chinese will make their own share of diplomatic mistakes to save us the trouble of dealing with their naked aggression. Not only is Khurshid not planning to cancel his planned trip to Beijing on 9 May, the subsequent visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later this month also does not appear to be in any jeopardy. We have even scheduled some joint military exercises with the Chinese in October. Did we really have to demean ourselves this way - to pretend everything is hunky-dory?
The problem is compounded by the fact that Indian expert opinion has fallen into two broad categories – one demanding a belligerent response based on muscular opposition to the Chinese occupation, and another urging caution, and even demanding that we should be making extra efforts to “understand” the Chinese.
Srinath Raghavan, one of the doves writing on relations with China, advises in an article in BusinessLine that we “shouldn’t get China wrong.”
This is crap. While there is no gainsaying the fact that we need to study China’s motivations carefully before reacting, in strategic affairs it does not matter one bit why the Chinese are making deliberate efforts to extend their claims and controls in India-claimed territory. It is what they do that matters, not what is driving them to do it.
It is no part of India’s duty to understand China’s internal compulsions or global insecurities any more than it is China’s duty to understand us. What matters is how you act – and that needs a well-considered response.
The argument that Srinath proffers is a beguiling one for foolish peaceniks: since the line of actual control (LAC) in Debsang Valley is not clear, both sides can claim ownership. He writes: “Start with the issue of Chinese 'incursions'. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the two sides have different notions of where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies. The LAC is supposed to divide the areas that are under Indian and Chinese control since the end of the 1962 war. The line, however, was not mutually agreed upon by the two sides.”
This again makes no sense. If the LAC is just a matter of opinion, China has no right to pitch its tents where it pleases and make what it claims de facto its own in reality. This is provocation.
Second, and this is the more important point, Srinath forgets to mention that it is China that has not given us a clear map on what it claims as its territory. If we have a map and they theirs, we can sit and work a compromise. But this is what China has deliberately avoided doing – so that it can keep changing the goalposts and keep demanding more till its gets almost everything it wants.
There is no reason to grant China the benefit of doubt or even good intentions.
That said, India cannot take a purely militaristic stand on the Chinese tent-offensive at Daulat Beg Oldi in Debsang Valley, because we are simply not prepared. Getting into a premature confrontation is folly.
On the other hand, to take things lying down is also not on. What India needs to do is to ratchet up the counter-pressure on China till it blinks without inviting war or military retaliation. Here are some ideas that could be considered by our policy-makers.
First, build the border infrastructure and offensive capability. And start the work now. Visibly. It is obvious that China’s incursion is intended to slow down or reverse India’s efforts to build up its defence capabilities along the Ladakh and Arunachal borders. India must not only make it clear that it will continue the build-up, but will also expedite it. Announcements should be made immediately to raise an additional mountain corps and for building more roads and airbases in forward areas. Indian leaders must be regularly seen in these areas to emphasise political commitment. Opposition leaders should be a part of this exercise. Consider the impact of a Narendra Modi exhorting military investment in Arunachal Pradesh along with Manmohan Singh. China is not going to like it – but the message that it cannot cow us down must be given clearly and strongly.
Second, India’s response needs to go beyond military preparedness. The main problem in defending places like Arunachal Pradesh is that they are grossly underpopulated. We now have to abandon our policy of benign neglect of this border state and not only develop it faster, but also make serious efforts to settle ex-servicemen and other paramilitary people closer to the border. This will ensure that we have the right human infrastructure to respond to China in case of an incursion of military conflict. This is what China is doing is Tibet, and it is time we bit the bullet on this.
Third, we have to raise the profile of our policies towards China’s dreaded T-words – Tibet and Taiwan. While India’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet cannot be revoked – that would be needless provocation – there is no reason why we can’t raise the profile of the Tibetans now in India, including well-publicised meetings with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. There is no reason why India should not raise human rights concerns in Tibet in private conversation with the Chinese. We also need to boost our trade and political ties with Taiwan, China’s renegade and independent province. We have to send the Chinese a well-calibrated message without making them panic.
Fourth, we have to bring trade into discussion and diplomacy. India is in the fortunate position of having an extremely adverse trade balance with China. In 2012-13, our exports, according to Assocham, were in the region of $14 billion, while our imports were $57 billion. That’s a huge $43 billion gift of dollars to the Chinese. A reduction in trade will impact China more than us. We have to use economic diplomacy and non-tariff barriers to force that country to either correct the imbalance or import more from us. Either way, we benefit. And if imports from China come down, our current account deficit (CAD) will come down dramatically. Of course, our consumers – now hooked on cheap Chinese products – will be affected, but the vacuum will not be difficult to fill, especially in a world where there is excess capacity. The real payoffs will be in terms of improved national security.
Fifth, we can offer both carrot and stick to Chinese business, while simultaneously reducing our strategic vulnerability on trade. We should open up the infrastructure sector to Chinese investment – they have the expertise and the money to help us develop. But we should also take a tougher line in areas like telecom, where they have a near monopoly in the supply of basic telecom gear and consumer gadgets, and where they have the ability to inflict maximum damage. Consider this serious vulnerability of ours: every 2G/3g dongle we use comes from China, and so do many laptops and electronic gadgets. The insertion of some form of malware in these hardware can make India as a whole vulnerable to Chinese hacking and information theft. There is no reason to believe the Chinese aren’t doing this already, and we need to place non-tariff barriers to Chinese telecom imports using security as the issue.
Sixth, India should launch a highly visible diplomatic offensive with the PM, the Defence Minister and the External Affairs Minister visiting the US, Japan, Vietnam and Asean countries that also see China as a threat. This campaign not only needs to be highly visible, so that the Chinese get the message, but also substantive, with trade and defence agreements getting pride of place. India should go out of its way to give beneficial deals to the Japanese and improve strategic cooperation. A similar diplomatic effort needs to be made with India’s immediate neighbours, whom China is wooing relentlessly.
Seventh, we have to embarrass the Chinese where it matters to drive the point home. In future, we should refuse to host Chinese leaders’ visits if we get clubbed with Pakistan. Let them visit Pakistan on separate occasions. We should refuse to be lumped with that state sponsor of terror.
More specifically, we should reserve the right to cancel the planned visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the third week of May.
If the Debsang Valley issue is not sorted out by then, we should not only cancel the visit, but do it at the last hour so that the Chinese know it matters how they behave. It should be a clear snub.