Swedish strategic expert on Asia Bertil Lintner believes that China has long stoked and sustained border land disputes as a tactic to win concessions on wider issues with its neighbours.
While recalling the 1962 India-China war and recent cash in Ladakh region, Lintner, in an opinion piece for Asia Times, questions “whether China is really looking for a solution to that long-standing and often bitter border dispute, or if maintaining fuzzy borders is a deliberate tool in Beijing’s foreign policy to negotiate better terms on trade, security and other issues with its neighbours.”
While the ongoing standoff in Ladakh is ample proof of China’s bad neighbourly conduct, it isn’t the first time it has done this to India. Nor does it look like it will be the last — China has put its relationships with India to test even under other leaders, on several other past occasions.
And it is not just India, the country China considers the one rival it must keep in check in Asia. Historically, China has not been a good neighbour to many. From being called an untrustworthy ally to an intruder, the country has often grabbed the spotlight in Asia for all the wrong reasons.
As China shares its border with 14 countries, it is not a surprise that it shares good relationships with very few of them. Although some of the past bitterness with several of its neighbours have been put to rest thanks to China’s money and investment machine, sporadic glitches keep emerging from time to time.
China’s recent swoop in Ladakh can’t be unrelated to its growing domestic uncertainties and on India’s front, about future plans in Xinjiang and Tibet that border Ladakh. Beijing doubts India would raise the Tibet issue. But, it does suspect the US-Japan-India coalescing to encircle China. Therefore, a stronger assertion may be a euphemism for deterring India plus others from harming China’s core interests. Of course, China retains the option to offset the three by fronting Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.
Through the Ladakh incursion, the Chinese are possibly trying to convey three essential points. One, settle the boundary dispute on its terms. Two, that it intends to solve the Tibet problem internally and does not want any Indian interference in the post-Dalai Lama developments. Three, it wants to point out that a US-led QUAD strategic forum should not be encouraged.
Experts have argued that China’s aggression in the Himalayas is an attempt to dissuade India from getting into an alliance with the United States. However, upon closer examination, the exact opposite is revealed. China’s attempt seems to be to drive New Delhi into Washington’s arms, use it as a precursor to consolidate a Sino-Russian alliance, and divide the world into two camps — a bipolar structure with the United States and China as the leaders competing for global hegemony. China’s strategy to strike a fatal blow to a multipolar world, is straight out of the playbook of the Seven Years War, between Britain and France.
Beijing is acutely aware that a war with China may well be the final nail in the coffin for India’s conception of strategic autonomy. Therefore, pushing India to the brink of war is a well-thought-out strategy by China. Irrespective of the outcome, a war in itself may drive India towards a military alliance with the United States, allowing China to turn Russia against India, effectively breaking the Indo-Russian strategic partnership.
Two rounds of diplomacy at very high levels, between the defence and foreign ministers of India and China, had limited success in reducing tensions, just as diplomatic efforts between Britain and France were not very successful. Although Beijing may have a stronger army than New Delhi, the Indian Navy has operational advantages, and a history of being a maritime power, unlike the Chinese navy.
China’s past border tactics should offer some examples, if not a complete cue to Chinese strategy. Ever since India and China agreed in 2005 on a new set of guiding principles to settle the vexed boundary dispute through the Special Representative (SR) level talks, China has been seeking a substantive adjustment concession, especially on Tawang. India probably prefers having a marginal modification in the current alignment of the boundary to settle the issue. For India, ceding Tawang confronts a political difficulty. This was reflected in the drafting of the guiding principles. But both countries hoped to clinch a solution through this mechanism.
China’s core interests have changed substantially since the 1950s, and its assertiveness and ambition have increased significantly — as have the resources at its disposal. From the mid-1980s onwards, China moved away from previous Maoist foreign policy and decided in the interests of getting on with its neighbours to resolve all of the disputed land-based borders, and did so with pretty much everyone except India.
Particularly since the 2000s, the maritime disputes have taken on a much higher strategic and symbolic importance and that are the reasons for conflict with Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea and then the South China Sea.
Taiwan was where the defeated Kuomintang nationalist government of the former Republic of China retreated after defeat by Communist Party forces in the Chinese Civil War, which followed the end of World War II. China maintains that Taiwan is a renegade province, and under its One China policy intends to bring back the islands to Beijing’s control.
Also of strategic and economic importance are the Senkaku Islands, situated just to the north-east of Taiwan in the East China Sea, which is claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. Of all the disputed areas claimed by China, none has been more high-profile in recent years or involved more players than the South China Sea. There are no less than six countries with competing claims, with many other countries weighing in due to the area’s strategic importance as one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
After Taiwan, India is perhaps the most volatile of China’s borders and one of its longest at 3,380 kilometers. China claims a number of areas along its border with India, including Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin. It also claims portions of land that Nepal and Bhutan say are, in fact, their territories. While China may have resolved its differences with other neighbours, the Indian border remains volatile.
If India falls for some kind of Chinese position over Aksai Chin, Beijing will then shift the focus to Arunachal to emphatically claim 90,000 sq km from India. Ceding Aksai Chin would fundamentally alter the status of J&K and Ladakh. By implication, India would have to forget about PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan as well. India should tread carefully unless both sides are willing to make a move for grand bargaining.
As Lintner says that “the Chinese may not be interested in escalating the situation, but nor are they clearly looking for a final and permanent solution to the dispute. In reality, border disputes are how China flexes its regional hegemony and wins diplomatic leverage in wider negotiations with its various neighbours. And while tensions may flare up from time to time, the disputes are seldom actually about territory but rather an expression of power in a worldview where China sees itself as the Middle Kingdom.”
Swakkhyar Deka is serving as a Liaison Officer in the Information & Public Relations Dept. Govt of Assam
The views expressed by the writer are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.