The Ladakh Stand-off: What it Says (or Doesn’t) about China’s India Policy and India’s China Policy

Originally published as part of a debate at, ‘The China-India Border Issue in 2013: Point and Counter-Point’, Associate Paper, Future Directions International, 28 May 2013.

If there is just one lesson to be drawn from the recent stand-off between China and India, it is that the two sides have a long way to go to in establishing mutual trust. While the Ladakh incident was eventually resolved by a combination of military-to-military meetings and diplomatic interactions, three aspects stand out.

One, the Chinese incursion was of a qualitatively different nature from previous such incidents. Hitherto, such ‘incursions’ meant soldiers marking their presence in their claim areas by frequent patrols, painting on rocks, littering and so on. The recent escalation and the intruders’ willingness to stay put for a considerable length of time, despite the difficulties of terrain and logistics, very likely marks the beginning of a new trend along the LAC. It also puts pressure on existing bilateral mechanisms of diplomatic and military contact and procedure. There are several formal mechanisms for inter-military and inter-government interactions, including clear stipulations laid out by treaty, about the nature of military presence in the border areas and the kind of responses that the two sides are to employ if they run into each other in disputed territory. This time, however, there was clearly a degree of unwillingness to compromise or to follow those formal mechanisms and obligations. Indeed, it is possible that this has been the case for some time now.

It is in this context that reports of a Chinese desire for a new border agreement – involving freezing of current troop levels and exchange of advance information of each other’s patrols, infrastructure development and related activities along the LAC – assume significance. Reports indicate that New Delhi baulked at this proposal and understandably so. Given superior Chinese infrastructure development and the advantage of terrain on their side of the LAC, such an agreement would have meant that a similar infrastructure build-up by India would constantly have to be reported to the Chinese, and therefore, possibly stymied or objected to by them. With the rapid infrastructure build-up of recent years in India’s border areas, Indian troops have only now begun accessing many remote areas regularly and are therefore, possibly, becoming more aware of Chinese locations, positional advantages and ‘incursions’.

During the stand-off, therefore, the Chinese would have been hoping that India would blink first and come to the table on the new agreement. Chinese calculations may possibly have involved a general impression that the Indian government was easily put under pressure by aggressive media reporting and opposition attacks, and would seek to resolve the matter as soon as possible, before public attention built up. Thus, even as the Chinese government and its media have frequently criticised the Indian media for its tendency to blow things out of proportion, it could well be that Beijing was relying on that propensity to pressure Indian authorities into making quick concessions in the latest incident. In the event, the Indian military and the government did not blink; they decided to ride out the pressure of public opinion at home, as well as that of the Chinese along the LAC. That said, both sides might need to gear up for such incidents becoming the new norm along their disputed boundary.

As a result, with the first foreign visit by their Premier Li Keqiang facing derailment – or at the very least confronting bad atmospherics in India – the Chinese probably decided that it was time to back down and break camp. Reports indicate that despite concerns within the Chinese bureaucracy about the timing of the visit – summer in India, a government in its final year in office, and the fact that it was the Indian Prime Minister’s turn to visit – Li, for a variety of reasons, made it clear that he wanted to undertake his first overseas visit as Premier to India. Therefore, a resolution of the standoff was always on the cards; the only real challenge was to keep the two sides talking, instead of increasing their military deployments.

The question then is why did the Chinese initiate such a major and new type of ‘incursion’ in the first place? This is the second aspect of the incident that needs examination. What exactly is the nature of China’s India policy and what does it say about China’s foreign and security policy-making in general? How does picking a quarrel with India make diplomatic and security sense when China has on-going tensions with Japan and a number of Southeast Asian nations? Even, if Beijing calculated that there was no danger of an actual conflict on multiple fronts at the same time, surely it must now realise that it has incurred huge costs in goodwill and diplomatic manoeuvrability? Or does China simply see itself as capable of bearing the costs? As the engine of Asia’s growth, it perhaps knows that the neighbours it is quarrelling with at the moment are not in a position to drastically alter the pattern of their economic ties with China. Further, if Chinese leaders have decided that increasing domestic consumption is the current top priority then, perhaps, they see the costs of such external bellicosity as falling in relative terms.

China’s actions therefore, leave a puzzle for its neighbours, analysts, military planners, and also for its detractors and well-wishers. Why does an increasingly politically- and militarily-powerful China, well-entrenched in the global economy expect absolute adherence to or respect for its ‘core interests’, if it cannot simultaneously acknowledge that its neighbours might also have similar core interests? While the situation might not be as black-and-white as posed by the question – China’s historical claims may be accurate, for example, or  it might only be responding to a military or foreign policy provocation – but to have such serious problems with so many of its neighbours large and small, all at the same time? One part of the answer is of course, that given China’s size and geographic and historical centrality in Asia, this is inevitable. But China needs the region as much as the region needs China and the fact that things have gotten to this stage of widespread suspicion of China suggests that Beijing is either unable to fathom the long-term import of its actions – that as the larger power it will always be blamed – or is willing to live with the consequences – in which case, its neighbours will certainly look more actively to countervail China’s influence and power.

road through Staksha village, Nubra valley
road through Staksha village, Nubra valley

The third aspect that requires attention is the nature of India’s China policy. If one were to go by the reams of analyses produced by India’s strategic community, it would seem that this policy has always been a reactive, pusillanimous one. On the surface, the China policy appears to operate in the same opaque manner it always has; run by a small, select group of government leaders, bureaucrats and military officials. Nevertheless, some of the fundamentals of this policy have seen substantial change.

While mistrust of China is largely the case at the popular level, within the government the situation seems to have evolved into a more nuanced and sophisticated view, which suggests that the two countries can both cooperate and compete at the same time. In other words, India can, and should, be confident enough to engage with China on multiple levels. This level of confidence is the result of India’s own rapid economic growth and consequent international political importance. It is also a result of the US and other powers courting India as a viable, if not yet, effective, counter to China. At the same time, there is greater knowledge of and exposure to China, at least among the bureaucratic, military, political and intellectual elite in India. This has resulted in an increasing awareness of the flipside of China’s rapid economic growth; notably its huge domestic problems, including the instability and dissatisfaction in minority-dominated areas. It has also revealed the many fissures within the Chinese governing system, in marked contrast to the hitherto widely circulated refrain of a united, unitary and powerful China.

While this increase in confidence and greater awareness of China has still to percolate to large sections of the government, the media and the general public in India, the circles that drive the China policy in India are clearly well-informed. They do not operate any longer under the shadow of the defeat of 1962, nor are they overly concerned with the lead that China has over India in a variety of economic indicators. India’s unique political system and historical circumstances have given its governing class much greater experience in discussing and dealing with a developing country’s many and complicated problems than the Chinese have. More importantly, it is able to do so in a fairly open and transparent manner, both supported and constrained by electoral democracy Consequently, the undue importance that the Chinese authorities and media give to Indian media reports, which are often inflammatory and misinformed, ends up presenting a false or skewed picture of what the Indian Government is really thinking or doing.

Specifically, the Parliamentary resolution demanding the return of Chinese-occupied territory, or the non-release of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report that apparently castigates the Nehru government for the failure of 1962, are not necessarily constraints on the government’s ability to negotiate a settlement; nor are they signs that India is not able to look ahead and deal with current military reality and challenges.

Similarly, India’s Look East Policy (LEP) might have a strong China angle to it, but it is just as importantly and genuinely a tool of outreach to the rest of East Asia along economic and cultural axes. To view, as many Chinese scholars do, that the LEP and India’s burgeoning ties with the US are aimed at China, is to miss seeing the woods for the trees. But on one point, at least, a section of Chinese analysts are absolutely right – India pursues an independent foreign policy. The Indo-US partnership is not a sign that New Delhi is in an undeclared alliance relationship with Washington, or that it is seeking to contain China. But it is natural that China’s inability to communicate reassurance to its neighbours will create its own dynamic. All international relations are about socialisation; therefore, India’s interactions with East Asia is about pushing the socialisation of China towards accepting international rules and norms and, equally, about itself being socialised to the realities and dynamics of East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

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