With at least twenty Indian soldiers killed along LAC, a fear psychosis has gripped the entire subcontinent. This is undoubtedly a crossroads moment for India's foreign policy towards China. Defence Minister in his tweet on 17th June 2020, while extending his condolences to the families of martyrs, veered clear from mentioning "China" or "LAC" in his tweet. Furthermore the Prime Minister also, in his address to the nation, took recourse to "humane realism" in his choice of words. New Delhi seems to have understood that it has more to lose than to gain by increasing tensions. Be that as it may, the situation is not something that has popped out suddenly. It is a long time coming–with a historical context and a futuristic design. How so?
Pakistan may be the biggest challenge for India's foreign policy establishment today, but China renders itself as the most vexed one. Right from the times of Nehru, Beijing, in Shyam Saran's words, remains poorly understood by New Delhi. For who can forget the (illustrious) Krishna Menon saga! Critics even regard Nehru's hallowed Panchsheel as "a shoddy attempt to hide India's inability to oppose China's expansionist tendencies". It is natural then that sinophiles and sinophobes in India, since 1947, have had inconclusive debates over the appropriate China policy. Interestingly, China continues to intrigue everyone. The current Chinese sabre-rattling in Ladakh is a part of this continuum.
Different theories have been thrashed out to explain Chinese activities in Ladakh. Three deserve a mention. First, India's developing proximity towards United States, with all its manifestations in Indo-Pacific–The QUAD and "The Rebalancing", The Malabar Naval Exercises, The "Indian Pearls" etc. China sees all these as obstructions in its rise. Second, the supposed deviatory tactic, especially in the wake of COVID fallout. By ratcheting up hypernationalist emotions, Beijing is playing to its domestic gallery, trying to shift focus away from its failure in containing COVID-19. And third, the hard-nosed, "big power" impulse. This is what C. Raja Mohan deliberated upon in his recent column in The Indian Express.
According to C. Raja Mohan, Ladakh is not to be seen separately from a wider Chinese design. Leaving aside issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Yellow Sea, go to South East Asia towards Malaysia and Sumatra. Despite no sour historical baggage with Jakarta, Beijing is currently prowling around the Natuna Islands, some 1500 odd kilometres offshore the mainland China. Noticeably, these Islands fall outside the nine-dash line, and China, while being aware of Indonesia's sovereign control, is claiming historical rights over them. Moreover, China has also rebuffed Philippines attempts to cozy up to it with a mistaken belief in being able to resolve an age old boundary issue. What all this signifies is that China isn't in hurry to resolve border issues till it gains a distinctive advantage. Meanwhile all its neighbours would have to continue grappling with its "psychological warfare" in the form of incursions.
In one of her recent interviews, the former Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, mentioned that she has always seen just "stratagems" but no strategy on part of China. This may be true, but in the past tense. As far as the present is concerned, the strategy of China is comprehensible. Ajai Shukla, a Delhi based defence expert, opines that the strategy of China is "no diplomacy". China believes that diplomacy is an instrument of weak. The fact that China regards itself as a preponderant power, it thinks unilateral and coercive means behove such a power. This is the classical "megalomania" that comes with the great power status: riding roughshod over conventions and rules.
Given the 2017 Doklam crisis experience–which ended up with New Delhi striking a sort of Faustian bargain–Beijing can now precisely feel the Indian pulse. Shiv Shankar Menon, the former NSA, argues that China lets the other party to have the propaganda victory–if any–but ensures a substantial victory for itself. It is a two steps forward and one step backward strategy. We are apparently heading towards the same reality in Ladakh as well–for whatever the New Delhi says, it is true that not everyone shares the optimism flowing down the Raisina Hills. It should be noted here that Kathmandu–which has now made Mandarin compulsory in schools–has thrown yet another hissy fit in the form of a Constitutional Amendment (changing its map), much to the chagrin of New Delhi. All this couldn't have come at a more calculated time.
Unlike other thousands of casual incursions happening per year along the Line of Actual Control (Line of Different Perceptions, as many would put it), the Ladakh incident is conspicuously different in magnitude and planning. Some argue that the strings this time are being pulled directly from Beijing, with its chosen time and place. Whatever the case, it seems that the "Wuhan Spirit" and the "Mamallapuram camaraderie" have been put in a cold storage by China. Though it may be difficult to hit the bull's eye in diagnosis, the mixed signalling from Chinese side can't be ruled out. Apart from the aforementioned strategic reasons, many other developments can at least provide a backdrop to the Chinese manoeuvring. The new FDI rules spelt out by the Government of India recently, second thoughts about allowing Chinese companies to conduct 5G trials in India, New Delhi pulling out of RCEP negotiations, sending its representative to Taiwan for attending the swearing in ceremony, construction of Daulat Beg Oldi Road etc. can't be gainsaid in this regard.
What now? After the 1962 setback, the US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, in Ambassador's Journal, described India's helplessness in resisting Chinese aggressions–primarily due to geographical considerations. Today many layers have developed over that, most importantly, the economic interdependence and the power asymmetry. In his book, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, Shyam Saran advocates that India's China strategy would have to adjust to the growing power asymmetry between the two countries. Also, it needs to be understood that America's dependence on China (as well as Pakistan) is unlikely to change in the coming times. Thus, playing America card against China would not be possible as of now. Trump's offer for mediation proves it (rather than explicitly siding with India, as India would have desired). It is for these reasons that #BoycottChina calls and the rhetorics which often come with respect to LOC cannot cut any ice here. The Parliamentary Committee on Defence in 1995 rightly observed that despite warming relations with China, China was likely to remain the primary security challenge for India in the medium and long term–a situation evident of complex interdependency. It is a matter of fact that, currently, there isn't any shotgun remedy for India's China-quandary. Therefore India may have to shun expediency and ad hocism in its policy towards China and cultivate a farsighted strategic thinking to that effect. For now, India should act wise, not escalate tensions and demonstrate strategic restrain. On one hand, ambiguity should be reciprocated with ambiguity, while on the other, established mechanisms like the Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity on Border (1993) and the Border Defence and Cooperation Mechanism (2013) need to be upkept. This is in fact the right way of doing diplomacy, keeping in view the changing strategic calculus and the assumed making of "Beijing's unipolar moment".
And finally, whether the armies are in for a long haul in Ladakh or not, only time will tell.