If New Delhi seems to be floundering without a clear policy, it is because it lacks a history of hard-nosed China policy formulation.
The debate around the incursions of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into vast tracts of eastern Ladakh has been, like much else in India today, a partisan and polarised discourse. In the three years after the May 2020 skirmishes on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), political parties and politicians from Leh to New Delhi have been preoccupied with the polemics, while the minuscule borderland nomadic and settled communities, who are the most distressed by the Chinese aggression, have been all but forgotten. As in most borderland matters, the larger nationalistic polemic is marked by dissonance and denial because of ignorance about the plight of civilians on this side of the LAC. State egos have greater salience and are simpler to advertise. The military confrontations, therefore, hog the limelight.
But if we were to dig a little, it becomes quickly apparent that there are at least three layers in the cacophonic patriotism about China’s incursions and their utility for political ends. Broadly speaking, civilian livelihoods at the boundary and interstate territorial interests form the first two layers. The third layer comprises the compulsions of domestic politics. To halt the PLA’s incursions into Indian territory, New Delhi must address all three layers. There is little evidence to show that it is doing so in Ladakh, let alone the tiny nomadic communities along the LAC or, at the other end of the spectrum, in New Delhi’s ongoing dialogues with Beijing.
Many analysts have noted and commented on the Chinese build-ups along the Himalayan range from Demchok to Arunachal Pradesh. But there has been no substantive debate about it in Parliament, which seems to operate in an atmosphere of “alternate reality”. Regardless, this much we know: that between 2010 and 2012 the PLA’s arrival at the boundary in Ladakh was well-planned, rapid and deep. Roads were constructed, several Chinese airports were built just across the border in Tibet’s Ngari-Khorsum, construction for residential quarters undertaken, and nomads on the Tibetan side of the LAC were encouraged to settle along the border.
To illustrate what that means: during a 2012 visit to Demchok it took me 20 minutes in a vehicle on our side of the LAC to reach the end of a ravine that ran for seven kilometres. In contrast, it took two PLA vehicles less than eight minutes to travel that same road and reach the same spot on the opposite side, having started after we were well past the halfway mark. India has since redoubled its efforts at road and infrastructure building, but it is still playing catch-up, and the efforts are almost exclusively defined by military parameters.
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A valid question about this asymmetrical military buildup is: why the lopsidedness? All too often India’s first Prime Minister is uncritically blamed for it. But that was six decades ago and an excuse belied by the stalemated boundary talks over several rounds between the PLA and the Indian Army. The last round being the nineteenth, held on August 13 and 14 and on August 18.
Buffer zones now negotiable territory?
The security studies analyst Pravin Sawhney has pointed out that India’s vulnerability is demonstrated by the way that the talks on the LAC have concluded in the last dozen years. They invariably end with two narratives – Indian and Chinese. Also, the PLA has consistently succeeded in pushing itself further into Indian territory in various ways, including by stipulating “buffer zones” which were previously on the Indian side of the LAC but have now become negotiable territory. Sawhney claims that India has lost 2,000 square kilometers or more of its territory to incursions by the PLA because New Delhi does not have the political will for a fight. More worryingly, he discerns a pattern: just as the Central government did not want a confrontation with China in 2018, in anticipation of the 2019 election, it wants to avoid a confrontation in 2023, and this time because of the 2024 election.
The claim by Sawhney regarding the depth and width of the incursions is corroborated by nomads and settled populations along the LAC. In a recent interview with this writer, Konchok Stanzin, the outspoken and articulate former Executive Councillor who still represents Chushul in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council of Leh, said that he had pleaded, without response from the powers that be, that among the problems of the civilians in the Changthang is an absence of transparency in fund allocation and disbursement for the nomadic and the settled communities of the Changthang. He said this was because military and civilian government authorities “do not consult and discuss such crucial issues as, among others, the loss of traditional grazing ground to the PLA and the lack of adequate communications infrastructure for civilians, who are the most impacted by the PLA’s hostility”. Stanzin also pointed out that funds demarcated under the Border Area Development Fund, a scheme that was begun in 2000, were received in Ladakh as late as 2014. These funds, he continued, often did not reach the boundary areas “for reasons that are difficult for me to understand”.
Sawhney’s argument that political expediency seems to have prevented New Delhi from giving the proverbial “fitting response” to PLA’s incursions—ironically the opposite of India’s response to its allegations against Pakistan in the case of Pulwama 2019—references the third layer of New Delhi’s inadequacy in engaging with Beijing in state-to-state political relations. An old explanation, proffered well into the beginning of this century but muted of late, is that India and China have had deep civilisational ties for more than two millennia (an allusion to the export of Buddhism to China through the Silk Road). In continuation of this line of reasoning it is argued that the two countries, despite some current wrinkles, are poised to power the much vaunted “Asian 21st century”, as if their modern rivalry will dissipate because of the winds of that meta-reality. But that theory can prove to be ephemeral if we consider the differing perspectives of New Delhi and Beijing about each other in history.
To consider what has resulted in the present-day asymmetry—political, economic and military—between India and China, security experts must ponder the unevenness in the light of the fact that the two states, arguably, are possessed of comparable intellectual, demographic, and resource capacities. Also, the perception on the street and among some experts is that India is a robust democracy and China an unapologetic dictatorship. Yet again, India is seen as ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse and China as crushingly homogeneous. But in today’s world, especially with the lines between democratic and authoritarian states rapidly blurring, ideological arguments that rationalise the gap between the two states are suspect.
The different policy approaches of India and China towards each other may be grounded in their historical perspectives towards each other. More than two decades ago, the late Tibetan historian Dawa Norbu mooted a possible reason for their differences. He posited that China’s perspective on India has always been strategic, with an eye towards the Himalayan States that border India. However Indian interest in China, Dawa suggested, has been more “ideological”, stemming from its view of the Himalayas as the sacred spiritual space of sages. In an extension of this perspective, I have argued that New Delhi’s perspective towards Tibet has also been ideological, one of nostalgic romanticism. In other words, it did not inherit colonial Britain’s patronising, hard-nosed policies towards Tibet.
- There are at least three layers in the cacophonic patriotism about China’s incursions and their utility for political ends: civilian livelihoods at the boundary and interstate territorial interests form the first two while the third comprises the compulsions of domestic politics.
- Many analysts have noted and commented on the Chinese build-ups along the Himalayan range from Demchok to Arunachal Pradesh, but there has been no substantive debate about it in Parliament, which seems to operate in an atmosphere of “alternate reality”.
- India has since redoubled its efforts at road and infrastructure building, but it is still playing catch-up, and the efforts are almost exclusively defined by military parameters.
Bereft of a China policy
Insofar as nostalgic romanticism does not constitute policy, India may be said to have been bereft of a China policy in the full sense of that word, in as early as 1949. This in turn was because it had no Tibet policy, and it had no Tibet policy because it lacked a comprehensive and debated Himalayan (read territorially contiguous neighborhood) policy. If New Delhi today seems to be floundering or without a defined and concrete China policy, it may be forgiven because it lacks an identifiable and concrete history of China policy formulation. That said, it is one thing for Brussels or Washington to have been surprised at the meteoric rise of China between 1991-92 and today, and quite another for India, with its two thousand kilometres plus boundary with China, to have been caught equally flat-footed by China’s rise.
On August 5, 2019, the Central government read down Jammu and Kashmir’s negotiated federal status with New Delhi and simultaneously disassembled the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State on this side of the Line of Control (LoC), hiving off Ladakh from Kashmir and Jammu, and reduced both into centrally administered Union Territories. In their effect, these actions caused the LAC to join, as it were, the LoC. The development was pithily summed up by the Chinese ambassador on August 6, 2019, with the declaration that China was now a party to J&K dispute, or words to that effect. A few years before that event, an Indian diplomat had publicly declared that New Delhi would not tolerate China’s interference in South Asia, which was India’s backyard. Beijing retorted that South Asia was China’s backyard as well.
In hindsight, these anecdotes foreshadow India’s insinuation on the world’s geopolitical map, albeit not for its economy, as was the case three decades ago, or as a regional power more than half a century ago when it defied the United States’ Seventh Fleet in 1971, but because of a democratically challenged domestic political act and a prematurely derisive comment aimed at a rising China in the new bipolar world that we appear to be settling into.
In this new equation, India considers itself on the side of liberal democracy given its Constitution, although a formerly liberal economist has already mooted the need for “we the people” to change the Constitution with an unapologetically strong rightward lean. The BJP government, for which he works, has distanced itself from his stance and Washington is content to believe it. However, there are contradictions to consider. One such contradiction is the exception New Delhi accords, ostensibly for its own economic health, for the purchase of Russian oil at reduced prices.
Ironically, this rationale is contradicted by Washington’s own definition of the red lines distinguishing its friends from its adversaries: America’s friends must not consort with authoritarian states. However, as indicated above, this dichotomy may not hold much water anymore. In this context, today’s global bipolarity may be divided not so much by “democratic” and “authoritarian” values, as Washington is wont to claim, as by “multicultural” and “civilisational” ones. In this frame of reference, India can be a member of the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping of states and still, without contradiction, be called democratic. It may also explain China’s continued wooing of India in forums such as the RIC and the SCO.
Beijing’s ‘big picture’
Beijing has suggested that New Delhi should settle the boundary dispute in the interest of the larger geopolitical picture. It is a good suggestion but one that depends, of course, on Beijing’s definition of the “big picture”. However, the suggestion can hardly be countenanced by India if it means accepting China’s regional hegemony, as seems to be the case.
At the same time, Ladakh’s total population of 3,00,000 in the two districts of Leh and Kargil is hardly a vote bank that politicians will take seriously. Nor can the importance of Ladakh’s strategic location be underestimated. It is the classic borderland conundrum, one that throws territoriality and people into the same mix, with equal saliency. To resolve this conundrum, a good way to begin might be for the military and New Delhi to deepen and widen the scope of consultations with Ladakhis, the borderland dwellers themselves, on how to act on all the three layers—namely local concerns, domestic politics, and interstate relations—of negotiations that are in play along India’s northwestern borderlands.
A historical observation by way of a tailpiece may be apt at this point.
When the erstwhile Dogra State of Jammu & Kashmir was formally created in 1846, the global geopolitical landscape was undergoing radical change with the onset of what has come to be known as the “Great Game” between the British Indian Empire, Tsarist Russia and, somewhat remotely, Qing China. It is not entirely happenstance that it has come into focus again, this time when the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, in its entirety, stands dismantled, and the unintended effects of this are at work on global geopolitics, with China as a salient player.
Put another way, by 1842 the Dogra regime had brought Ladakh and Baltistan into the ambit of the South Asian sphere of influence both territorially and politically. New Delhi’s task today, over a century and a half later, is no less than to animate this trans-Himalayan territory within that ambit so that India’s, and South Asia’s, connect to Central Asia is unfiltered and direct.
Siddiq Wahid, from Ladakh, is Distinguished Professor at the School of Hu-manities & Social Sciences at Shiv Nadar University (Institute of Excellence), where he teaches Central Eurasian history in the Department of International and Governance Studies. He is Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.