India’s response to China’s incursion in Ladakh must be based on well-developed, counter-coercive tactics

It is now some time since the Chinese “incursion” into Indian territory first took place, and there has been no mitigating gesture from China as yet. After the failure of the third flag meeting, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Thursday said the issue is capable of being resolved “quickly” through the consultation mechanism on border affairs. We are now in a classic situation of coercive diplomacy by the Chinese. The Chinese, who have not rescinded from their original position either on the ground or by their words, have given their minimum essential demands to meet their goals, and by asking “for patience” only imposed a mild degree of urgency on the outcome. Given the Indian predilection to postpone hard decisions, the outcome of this tussle will depend entirely on our will and ability to engage them in “counter-coercive” tactics of which we have seen no evidence so far.

China’s position has to be understood for what it is: if we succumb to their demand to demolish the structures at Daulat Beg Oldi, we will have accepted the principle of coercive diplomacy in future dealings on the border issue with China, put paid to our plans to shore up and upgrade defences on our side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and reduced India’s salience in the western sector; if we don’t succumb and they continue in their present positions, we will have ourselves negated such sanctity of the LAC as we believe. In so doing, we would also call into question the 1993 Agreement on Tranquillity and our own policy.

Global standing

Much has been written about the slide in our holdings on the LAC during the last 25 years to show that the present situation is the outcome of successive governments and Army chiefs choosing to turn a blind eye at the People’s Liberation Army encroachments into what we regard as our side. It looks like Kargil all over again. Our present policy of viewing this “incursion” as something to be defused locally and not affecting “the larger picture” of bilateral relations gives a free pass to our Army and shifts the onus from a collegiate response by Defence, Home and External Affairs only to the last. Like Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, the Chinese have concluded that the Indian government is one that can be pushed around. Against this backdrop and with elections ahead, our Foreign Minister’s forthcoming visit to Beijing can only be seen as courageous, if not foolhardy. It also calls into question the harping on the importance of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India later this month. For whom is the visit important and what would be lost if it is put off until this fracas is addressed?

The seriousness of the situation has to be seen in the context of India’s global standing and in South Asia. With the disastrous denouement to the Sarabjit affair, and our unsatisfactory performance in Maldives and Sri Lanka, India’s pre-eminence in the region seems increasingly rhetorical; so also the oft-repeated view of India’s pretensions in the Indo-Pacific in the context of the United States “pivot” to Asia. How we act now will also impact the views of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan when we seek to protect our interests, and retain political and economic space after the U.S. drawdown in 2014. Similarly, we need to recognise that we are conjoined with Japan and Korea in being subjected to China’s aggressive stance. What we do now will have a significant impact on those stand-offs as well.

The levers

The silver lining is that coercive diplomacy rarely succeeds, presenting as it does, a stark choice between overt submission or great loss of face, and two can play this game. We saw our version of it vis-à-vis Pakistan after the terrorist attack on Parliament. We need to put in place “counter-coercive” tactics that will be credible and proportionate. It is imperative to create an asymmetry of motivation that will be tilted towards us. It will require us to calibrate a policy that would back our diplomatic moves, with a will to support it with firm action if warranted, to assert that our vital interests are genuinely at stake. This policy should factor in the economic areas of our bilateral exchanges where China is vulnerable so they become levers in this strategy.

It has to work on an ascending scale involving diplomatic and economic rupture without provoking actual conflict. The goal of this policy will be to hurt not destroy, what the Chinese are attempting to do unilaterally. It will also need the government to demonstrate strong, domestic and national support from all sectors of the country for such a policy. There is also a need to bring international pressure in our favour. We need to show both the ability and the resolution to inflict unacceptable damage on what the opponent considers valuable — its growing effort to project itself as a power capable of becoming a “manager” of the international system. The message we need to deliver is that this stand-off is not in the interest of China or India.

That neither China nor India would appear to believe that this tussle will lead to war gives grounds for hope that an equitable resolution may be possible. If a decision to finally conclude the long-winded border talks is its outcome, so much the better.

(Rajendra Abhyankar, a former diplomat, is chairman, Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research, Pune. He also teaches at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington.)

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