Even after Chinese troops pitched tents near (or beyond?) the Indian LAC, no one is sure what the reason is behind the tensions between the two countries. Is it just Xi Jinping's rite of passage or do we have to harken back to Sun Tzu?

For more than two weeks now, Indian and Chinese soldiers have been involved in a tense stand-off in eastern Ladakh. On April 15, People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) troops set up four tents in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector, viewed by India as Indian territory.

China, however, has continued to maintain that its troops have not crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Three flag meetings held over the past week and a half have appeared to have failed to defuse the stand-off.

Indian officials have acknowledged that perceptions of the LAC do indeed differ in this particular region. Yet this escalation in tensions was seen as unprecedented. While both sides have routinely carried out patrols up to where they define their claim-lines, neither had taken the provocative step of putting up tents in disputed territory.

Two weeks on, there are more questions than answers about what triggered the row. In India, much ink has been spilled on op-ed pages, and hands wrung on evening television talk-shows, about what might have led to the Chinese move. There have been four broad arguments speculating on what might have prompted the Chinese action.

The Four Horsemen of Doubt

The first locates the tensions as part of a trend of increased Chinese assertiveness on display in other disputes, such as with Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands and with a number of countries over the South China Sea. A second reading attributes the tensions to the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping, which took over in March. New Chinese leaders have in the past, the argument suggests, begun their terms with a focus on consolidating their support with the influential military (China's war with Vietnam in 1979, for instance, was widely seen as boosting the standing of the then newly-ascended leader Deng Xiaoping).

A third explanation has suggested the situation in Ladakh was triggered by Chinese anxieties over India’s recent (and long overdue) moves to beef up border infrastructure and Chinese cognisance of the strategic importance of the area in question.

The Indian government described the problem as a “localised” one, saying the situation had not adversely impacted larger ties. Officials have pointed to the fact that defence engagement has continued unaffected – a delegation even travelled to China last week to firm up defence exercises amid the stand-off – and key diplomatic engagements, including the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi on May 20, are going ahead, to make their case.

A fourth explanation – somewhat related to the third – has suggested that the Chinese army was behind the tensions, triggered by a local commander or a section in the PLA leadership that was opposed to taking forward ties with India at a time when the new leadership appeared to be making overtures (Li's visit will be his first overseas as Premier).

A tendency to overestimate?

The four speculative theories are, however, just that - theories. The murkiness that surrounds Chinese decision-making makes it impossible to determine exactly what Chinese motivations may be. It took China’s Foreign Ministry a week just to even acknowledge there was “an incident” along the LAC. The Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry have said little more than stress that their troops had carried out “normal patrols” on the “Chinese side of the LAC”.

This murkiness has led some analysts to even turn to the famed Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu to try and make sense of the tensions. That we have to rely on a philosopher who lived some 2,500 years ago to explain today’s events is as good an indicator as any of how little specific information we actually have.

Others have cautioned against the widespread tendency to overestimate or read too much into Chinese moves and believe that “Beijing has worked out its strategy for the next thirty years while New Delhi can barely think thirty days ahead”.

While it may be difficult – or even impossible – to pinpoint Chinese intentions, a perhaps more feasible endeavour is to look at China’s recent history of military conflict to see if there are any patterns that might explain or predict China’s military behaviour. A new paper authored by Paul Godwin, earlier a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., and Alice Miller, a respected China scholar at the Hoover Institution who earlier worked at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a senior China analyst, published last month has attempted to do precisely that.

The paper argues that Beijing has, since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, employed a specific “calculus of threat and retaliation signals” in earlier conflicts, from Korea in 1950 and the war with India in 1962, to China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979. This calculus, the paper explains, is marked by “a carefully calibrated hierarchy of official protests, authoritative press comment, and leadership statements”.

“If the crisis persists and Beijing perceives its interests are not satisfactorily taken into account, its statements escalate in level and may include at first implicit and thereafter increasingly explicit warnings that it may use military force to achieve its goals,” the authors note.

“This approach," they say, "has been employed consistently despite the sweeping changes in the PRC’s place in the international order, the proliferation of foreign policy instruments at its disposal, the more complex crisis decision-making process and domestic political environment, and the dramatic evolution in the Chinese media over the decades”.

Integration of political and diplomatic action

Specifically on the war with India in 1962, the authors note correctly that China’s motivation was not territory but anxieties over the preservation of Tibet in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s exile to India in 1959. A useful and detailed appendix chronicles the various statements and warnings in the weeks and months leading up to the Chinese attack on October 20, 1962 (which, nevertheless, continues to be remembered in the popular imagination in India as a “surprise” attack). The pattern of warnings was remarkably similar to those issued with regard to Vietnam and Taiwan.

The authors suggest that a “deterrence calculus” in a future crisis would include “systematic integration of political and diplomatic action with military preparations as the signaling escalates through higher levels of authority”. “Such preparations are often, if not always, overt and integrated into the political and diplomatic messages designed to deter the adversary from the course of action Beijing finds threatening,” the authors note.

Other signals include “stating why China is justified in using military force should this prove necessary” and “emphasising that China’s forbearance and restraint should not be viewed as weakness and that China is prepared to employ military force should that be necessary.” (Interestingly, while China has not deployed any of these warnings amid the stand-off in Ladakh, which the government has sought to play down, similar language has been used to voice anger at Japan and the Philippines following recent tensions in the East and South China Seas.)

Regardless of what Chinese motivations may be, the paper suggests Chinese actions are actually not as unpredictable as we might usually like to imagine. However, it could well be argued that it is the lack of transparency about China’s intentions that is itself the biggest driver of many of the tensions between China and its neighbours. Opacity breeds mistrust. On this, at least, there can be no argument.