Dragon in Ladakh: Deciphering Chinese long term interests

09 May, 2013    ·   3921

D. Suba Chandran decodes the recent standoff in terms of the implications on larger India-China relations

Fortunately, the standoff in Ladakh over the Chinese intrusion in the DBO sector ended without any military show down between the two countries. But is this the end of story? Does this mean, there such instances will not be repeated in the future, and India and China will live happily hereafter in the Ladakh sector without questioning the sanctity of the Line of Actual Control?

An answer to the above question rests on another important question: whether the intrusion in the DBO sector related to the Chinese plans in the region, or an expression of larger India-China relations?

Though there have been minor disturbances between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh sector, by and large, the Line between the two countries as it is existing today remained intact. Undoubtedly, there had been minor raids and incursions, but followed by an understanding and a local bonhomie immediately at the ground level. However, there was an important development within the Line of Actual Control, especially on the Chinese side.

China invested substantially in building the infrastructure of the territory it possesses inside the LAC; the roads in particular were well built close to the LAC. In fact, China even build its National Highway linking Lhasa in Tibet with Kashgar in Xinjiang province cuts through the Aksai Chin, a section which is disputed between the two countries and which is shown even today as a part of Indian territory in the maps published here.

China not only invested in infrastructure in terms of roads, but also built small townships with all necessary needs including electricity and water. There are reports, though are to be confirmed, commenting that China even settled mainland Hans in these border regions. Thus, unlike India, China developed its border region, close to the LAC and was fully controlling the same.

But, what is important from the perspective of this commentary is the larger Chinese interests vis-a-vis India, which seem to be getting played in Ladakh. And this development, is in fact, contrary to China’s strategy towards this region, especially J&K in the recent years. During the last decade, China’s economic and trade relations with India improved tremendously. The bilateral trade between the two countries in 2012 was more than 66 billion USD and it was expected to touch 100 billion USD by 2015.

As a corollary of this development during the last decade, there was a deliberate go slow approach by Beijing on J&K in the Indo-Pak conflict and engagement. China kept itself away from commenting on the political question of J&K favouring Pakistan. In fact, Islamabad was extremely upset with this issue on China.

Outside trade and J&K, there was a rapprochement between the two countries at a larger strategic level. There have been multiple visits at the highest level between the two countries; what then happened in the last two years that the situation has come to that level? What happened in Ladakh cannot be a localised affair, led by the Chinese Army at the lower levels in the region, without sanction from the political and military leadership.

Two developments in particular need to be analysed, and their likely fallouts. First is the Indo-US nuclear deal, signed during the later part of the last quarter. New Delhi, especially the Congress government and Manmohan Singh in particular saw such a nuclear deal with the US in a strategic perspective, in terms of catapulting India into a global power with a strong partnership with Washington. Unfortunately, New Delhi did not think through the implications of such a deal, in making huge adjustments to accommodate what is required under the deal. New Delhi certainly did not contemplate the larger reasons behind the American interests; instead, it concluded narrowly that the US has realised the growing potential of India and its economic might, hence the White House wants to deal with India.

Many Chinese commentators and analysts do not view the Indo-US nuclear deal, in terms of how New Delhi perceived it. Rather, there is a perception that this deal was essentially a strategy to contain China and that the US is trying to prop up India. This logic, if extended, also meant for the Chinese that the Indians are willing to become a proxy for the US in Asia.

The second development, which is more recent, is – the pronouncement of a new strategy by the US for Asia. Attractively coined as the American “Pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, and later as American “Rebalancing”, the new strategy envisages an American re-entry into South, Southeast and East Asia. Hillary Clinton went a step beyond and suggested that the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean should be seen as an integrated region in terms of the “Indo-Pacific”.

While India welcomed cautiously these new strategies, China is extremely apprehensive. Beijing strongly feels there is a larger American effort to build an Asian coalition with an objective to keep China tied down in Asia. China also views Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and India as potential partners in this network.

If one has to interpret what is happening in East China Sea, South China Sea, Myanmar and now in Ladakh – one could see a pattern. Suddenly, once could see an increased assertion from countries like Japan, Philippines and Vietnam against China, as could be observed in the two maritime conflicts in East China Sea (vis-a-vis Japan) and South China Sea (vis-a-vis the Philippines).

China has been attempting during the recent months to re-engage in Myanmar, especially in the Kachin conflict. There have been reports suggesting that for the first time perhaps, Beijing is attempting to interfere in an internal conflict by siding against the Establishment. Obviously, Beijing is sending a warning note to Myanmar; despite the relationship between the military and Beijing, the last few months Myanmar is opening up at a massive rate to the international community. The growing international interests and investments in Myanmar is certainly undermining Chinese influence in Myanmar.

Perhaps, what has happened in Ladakh should be seen in this perspective. This could be a warning shot telling India that it has to be careful in choosing its friends and sides in an evolving Asian security architecture. And if this is true, it will in fact galvanise into a larger problem. India is unlikely to give up its larger interests and cut off its relationship with the US, or insulate itself from the American pivot.

Unless New Delhi is able to convince Beijing that the India-China relationship and the Indo-US partnership are two parallel processes, one is likely to expect an assertive China pursing a military strategy along the LAC. What India should prepare is for a larger political response with adequate military inputs, but certainly not through a jingoistic media. Certainly, the PMO and the South Block should lead India’s Foreign policy and not allow the TV anchors to dictate online whether New Delhi should go to War or not.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir