India's dilemma in Ladakh: How do you deal with China?

For much of the two decades since the 1990s, when China moved into a high orbit of economic growth, it propounded the theory that its "rise" would be "peaceful" in nature. It was perhaps intended to reassure a wary world, which was watching a notionally Communist country of a billion-plus people move at top speed, that China would not disturb the global order overmuch even if it became the world's largest economy (which it is on course to be, perhaps as early as the end of this decade).

That reassurance was critical to China's securing access to international capital,  becoming a magnet for Big Business, and more generally ensuring a benign geopolitical and regional climate  in the early stages of its development. And particularly after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student protests of June 1989 rattled global faith in China's motives, "peaceful rise" became something of a mantra.

The architect of China's economic rise, Deng Xiaoping, even laid out a four-character guideline for China's foreign policy during that period. That guideline - tao guang yang hui - which suggested that China should keep a low profile (by "concealing its brightness, and making a virtue of obscurity") - was faithfully implemented by at least two generations of leaders since then.

China's provocation in Ladakh presents India with its severest diplomatic test in years. Reuters

China's provocation in Ladakh presents India with its severest diplomatic test in years. Reuters

But in recent years, it appears that Chinese leaders feel sufficiently emboldened by their country's ascent on the world stage to begin to elevate their profile even at the risk of reducing their "peaceful rise" mantra to a meaningless incantation. The perception among analysts that China's rise may not exactly be peaceful is gaining much traction. All across China's maritime borders with its neighbours, China's "hard power" is undercutting the residual "soft power" influence it traditionally wielded, as this writer observes.

As India grapples with its own border dispute with China, which has resurfaced in reports of Chinese incursions in the Ladakh region, it's worth bearing in mind that this is not an isolated incident, but a strand in a larger Sino-political trend. Rightly or wrongly, China wishes to signal to the world that its time has come, and as Marxist journalist Martin Jacques observed in his book When China Rules the World, it looks to its neighbours to conduct themselves like vassal states and kowtow whenever the Chinese overlord's name is invoked.

It is of course true that the border between India and  China in that area isn't demarcated well enough. To that extent, China's denials that its troops had made incursions into Indian territory only complement the he-said-she-said blame game. And yet, it is just as true that the latest incursion - arguably the most egregious since the 1986 incursion in Arunachal Pradesh - effectively violates the de facto arrangement that the countries had abided by in order to maintain peace and tranquillity on the borders under an agreed mechanism.

It is increasingly becoming clear that the Chinese incursion, which comes barely two months ahead of newly installed Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India, poses one of the severest diplomatic tests for India in dealing with China. As Firstpost had observed earlier, there is a discernible pattern in the way some dispute flares up between the two countries in the run-up to a Chinese leader's visit to India.

And far from looking to cool things down, Chinese troops have been edging closer to the brink: reports from Wednesday suggest that Chinese military helicopters encroached into Indian airspace last week and dropped food, cigarette packs and hand-written notes. If these reports are validated, this  amounts to adding insult to injury, and heightens the brazenness with which China is dismissing India's concerns in the matter.

The question, then, is how should India deal with this latest provocation by China? Obviously, the tension ought to be dissipated, and a conflict averted. But wholesale capitulation, which would be one of achieving those objectives, isn't the answer.

On the other hand, India can look to its own recent record of diplomatic gains vis-a-vis China to articulate a calibrated position that mixes firmness without stoking the fire even further. For instance, ahead of former Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to India in 2010, when China insisted on issuing a stapled visa to  Northern Area Commander Lt Gen BS Jaswal, who oversees operations in Kashmir, India took the firm tack that it would suspend all military-level exchanges with China until the matter was sorted out to India's satisfaction.

That firm approach did work to India's favour, and Beijing realised it had overplayed its hand on that occasion. On the other hand, capitulation, which has been India's preferred strategy on most occasions, only invites further provocations. There's a lesson that India can learn from that.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid will evidently be travelling to Beijing ahead of Li Keqiang's visit, presumably to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's for the Premier's coming. Rather than proceeding with the Premier's visit as if the Ladakh incursion isn't a grave matter, India should make the Ladakh matter front and centre and pointedly convey the message that so long as such provocations continue, it sees little merit in discussing trade relations or whatever else Beijing wants to discuss.

A section of analysts in India are already setting the stage for dismissing the Ladakh incursion as the outcome of a leadership struggle within China, with the People's Liberation Army asserting itself in the conduct of foreign policy to signal to the new civilian leadership that it should not take a soft line on India on the border issue. That may well be, but why should India bear the cross if Chinese leaders and the army are jockeying for position?

To suggest, as some analysts have done, that conveying firmness of resolve with China amounts to militarist adventurism only establishes a false dichotomy in the discourse. There are a whole range of graded options for India to signal its mind without resorting to belligerence. There is no time like the present to exercise them.

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