Magoo on "India’s Place in China’s Geostrategic Calculus"
In mid-April, when the winter snows melt sufficiently to permit troops, tasked to secure the Line of Actual Control (LAC), start reoccupying their warm season deployments. It’s quite akin to hunting hounds released from the kennels scurrying to mark their territory and sniff out any unwanted intrusions during their confinement. Unexpected incursions are met with loud barks and ominous snarling till they retire to their accepted territories or, on rare occasions, after intervention by their handlers. Such was the nature of the incident on May 9 this year in the Depsang valley in Eastern Ladakh. Troops of both the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army advanced forward only to report that each was in violation of their country’s perception of the LAC resulting in a lot of snarling and teeth gnashing. Management of borders between troops to avoid unnecessary conflagrations is a complex and intricate function and is conducted in keeping with the larger national security matrix.
Over the years both militaries have developed a sociological structure that resolves the problems of frontline troops amicably. Their eyeball to eyeball deployment notwithstanding, for 45 years after the Nathu La incident in 1967 both armies have avoided resorting to gunfire to settle hundreds of perceived or deliberate violations of the LAC. As Mohan Guruswamy so aptly puts it “local commanders have evolved a pattern of ritualistic behaviour and local bonhomie that is very different from the rigid formalities of international politics. Both sides have invested enough to have a vested interest in keeping the peace and tranquillity of the frontier.”
Unfortunately this incident was pounced upon by a largely ignorant electronic media that in India is more wont to try to make news rather than report it. The echoes of the 1962 Sino-India war were rekindled at Daulat Baig Oldi (DBO) and the media cacophony obfuscating the national strategic imperatives blew the episode out of all proportions. They screamed for blood where none was due. To give substance to their reporting they co-opted equally ignorant politicians that in the run up to the coming elections turned a hitherto insignificant exchange between the troops in remote Ladakh into a tool to belabour a besieged Government. Party sensitivities and interest overtook national interests and imperatives.
In this media blitz the Government was forced into being seen to be to be combative thus jeopardising years of careful efforts to resolve the territorial dispute between the two countries and generate a benign if not friendly relationship that would ensure a stable and secure environment on the Asian continent. News reports preferred not to link this seasonal happening to the matrix of in which the Sino-Indian relationship is developing.
The significance of New Delhi having been selected as the first foreign port of call, after installation of the new Government in Beijing, for Premier Li Keqiang, even though protocol indicated that it was the turn of the Indian Premier to visit Beijing in reciprocation to Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2011 tour, was lost in the din and dust raised by the media.
This was further reinforced by an observation by Lei Guang, director of the 21st Century China Programme at the University of California “China at this moment does not have anything to gain from asserting itself against India. If anything, as former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh puts it, China seems to pivot to Russia and India, even while it seems to adopt a more assertive attitude towards Japan and Southeast Asia."
Therefore, the April-May standoff at DBO came as a surprise to many China watchers and international experts leading them to believe that “India is stoking the stand-off with China, with the media highlighting the issue and continuous remarks by government and opposition leaders. While China has tried to play down the dispute, the Chinese media are increasingly discussing the possibility of confrontation with India.”
I fear we were "missing the woods for the trees". It’s a sad day when political sensitivities of a political party overtake the larger national interest at the instigation of the media screaming for blood and gore.
At times the Indian strategic community tends to dissociate the Sino-Indian equation from Beijing’s view of the global strategic environment and the primacy of its focus on the United States and the Asia Pacific region. While Beijing is concerned about its territorial integrity that draws considerable attention to its South-western border with India, the primary threat it perceives is from the US, one that is heightened by the ‘pivot to Asia Pacific’, NATO’s recent strategic alliance with Japan and, the extended strategy in the form of the ‘US Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean pivot. These strategies are indicative of an attempt to contain China a la the Cold war vis-a-vis the then Soviet Union. At the operational level Beijing is focused on developing and fielding competent military means to offset the ‘air-sea battle’ concept being put into place by the US Pacific Command.
The fixation of the United States to get India on board a strategic alliance, without which the stratagem to contain China would be a non-starter, is of greater concern to China than the localised territorial problems it has in the Himalayas. If Xi Jinping were to pressure New Delhi by offensive actions on the Sino-Indian borders it would push India into Washington’s strategic embrace. Weighing one against the other it’s obvious that China now has a strategic imperative to woo New Delhi.
Outwardly the Sino-Indian equation is seen to have frozen in the polemics of the 1962 security environment as the recent standoff between the two suggests. But that is not entirely correct. The phenomenon of globalisation that did not factor in relations between countries in the mid-20th century has driven the evolution of the global strategic environment has not left relationship between these two Asian powers unaffected. The perceptions of their domestic and external environment has created a new set of values and national interests which have driven the equation inexorably with effect on their behaviour pattern towards each other, whether it’s publicly visible or not. As Mohan Guruswamy puts it, “The new global arrangements have nevertheless worked well for all of us and the global economy has been expanding at a never before seen pace. This is now a world system without major friendships or enmities, except for the usual local ones such as India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the Arab world.”
National Economic growth is dependent on a secure and stable atmosphere. Stability is achieved through ensuring a benign environment by developing and maintaining friendly relationships with other countries and by creating an appropriate security apparatus capable of securing national interests beyond national shores in areas susceptible to exploitation by a hostile power.
China is dependent of sea lanes of communications (SLOC) through the India Ocean, which is dominated by the Indian sub-continent. In April China imported 23.08 million metric tons of crude oil and 41% of China's exports pass through the Indian Ocean. A conflict with India would endanger this critical commercial activity by hostile actions by the Indian Navy.
Bilateral trade is yet another fast growing factor that influence behavioural patterns between the two. According to Zhang Lizhong, Chinese consul general in Kolkata, "Our target for bilateral trade between India and China is $100 billion by 2015 compared to $66.4 billion in 2012. Trade volume between the two countries had declined to $66.4 billion from $73.9 billion in 2011.” China benefits by the huge trade surplus it enjoys with India. Lizhong went on to report that, “In 2006, India and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperation in agriculture and allied sectors. Odisha is also keen to collaborate with us for hybrid rice technology.”
Yet another issue Beijing factor that affects their relationship with New Delhi is Tibet. An area where New Delhi can constructively help or effectively undermine the sitsution through means and influences that Beijing is well aware of.
Surprisingly, during the month long stand-off on the LAC, one did not come across any analysis of what the short or mid-term costs of a limited or full-fledged conflict would be on a beleaguered national economy at this point of time. Instead the Fourth Estate concentrated on capitalising on sensationalism to swell their budgets.
A minor fracas on the border was willy-nilly attributed to Beijing. The emphasis was on vilifying the Dragon without a thought to Beijing’s priorities vis-à-vis its strategic imperatives. This was a marked difference to media and political reaction to the incidents on the Line of control (LoC) in J&K.
The fact is that in today’s global and regional environment both Asian powers have got to a point where their future growth and well-being are increasingly linked. They have points of friction and convergence that increases their levels of interdependencies for their individual national good. Both have good cause to work in consonance instead of creating mountains out of a mole hills. The point to note is that at this point of time India’s place in China’s geostrategic calculus is more important than is generally acknowledged. It needs India more than India needs it.
It was gratifying to see New Delhi hold its nerve and manoeuvre through this unseemly media blitz and political opportunism - a minefield that roused public opinion.
“A deadlock in icy desert wastelands appears to make little sense as two Asian giants increasingly work together to boost trade and bilateral ties” --- Debasish Roy Chowdhury.
A regular column from “Magoo” Nair (Brigadier [Rtd] Vijai K Nair to the uninitiated), one time Cavalry Officer turned nuclear and strategic analyst. With combat service in three wars and numerous “skirmishes” both external and internal.
He turns his discerning eye, stolid humour, cut to the bone “no nonsense analysis” and scathing wit in his personal column.
Commenting on just about anything, ongoing wars and the way they're fought, on nuclear politics and other associated geopolitical affairs that sometimes provoke his otherwise dormant nature.