For decades, Asia’s two giants have fought a bulletless war for territory along their high-altitude border.
But China has become more assertive, so India needs a new containment strategy.
China launches one stealth incursion into India every 24 hours. Kiren Rijiju, India’s minister of state for home affairs, says the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is intruding into vacant border space to occupy it.
A former top official with India’s intelligence bureau says India has lost 2,000 sq km to PLA encroachments over the last decade.
China’s strategy is more remarkable than its scope. On land, like at sea, China uses civilian resources — herders, farmers, and grazers — as the tip of the spear.
Once civilians settle on contested land, army troops gain control of the disputed area, paving the way for more permanent encampments or observation posts. Similarly, in the South China Sea, China’s naval forces follow fishermen to carve out space for the reclamation of rocks or reefs. In both theatres, China has deployed no missiles, drones, or bullets.
China’s non-violent terrestrial aggression has garnered less opposition than its blue-water ambition, which has been challenged by the US and under international law (albeit with little effect).
Indian leaders have even downplayed China’s actions. During a recent panel discussion in Russia, for example, Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, said that although China and India are at odds over borders, it was remarkable that, “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].”
The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Mr Modi’s “positive remarks.”
Moreover, Mr Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China annexed the buffer, Tibet, in 1951.
Given India’s accommodating rhetoric, it is easy to view the country as a paper tiger. While Mr Modi has used the phrase “inch toward miles” as the motto of India-China co-operation, the PLA has continued its cynical territorial aggrandisement, by translating that slogan into incremental advance. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must retake the narrative.
The first order of business is to abandon the platitudes. Mr Modi’s calls for border peace and tranquillity might be sincere, but his tone has made India look like a meek enabler.
China’s fast-growing trade surplus with India, which has doubled to $60bn on Mr Modi’s watch, has increased Chinese president Xi Jinping’s territorial assertiveness.
The absence of clarity about the frontier — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — serves as cover for the PLA’s aggression, with China denying all incursions and claiming that its troops are operating on “Chinese land”.
But, by acquiescing on bilateral trade — the dumping of Chinese-made steel on the Indian market is just one of many examples — India has inadvertently footed the bill for the PLA’s encirclement strategy.
China’s financial regional leverage has grown dramatically in the past decade, as it has become almost all Asian economies’ largest trade and investment partner. In turn, many of the region’s developing countries have moved toward China on matters of regional security and transport connectivity.
But, as Mr Modi himself has said, there remains plenty of room for India to engage in Asia’s economic development. A more regionally integrated Indian economy would, by default, serve as a counterweight to China’s territorial expansion.
India should also beef up its border security forces to become a more formidable barrier to the PLA. India’s under-resourced Indo-Tibetan Border Police, under the command of the home ministry, is little more than a doorman. Training and equipping these units properly, and placing them under the command of the army, would signal to China that the days of an open door are over.
If the tables were turned, and Indian forces were attempting to chip away at Chinese territory, the PLA would surely respond with more than words. But Indian border police don’t even carry weapons.
With such a docile response, China has been able to do as it pleases along India’s northern frontier. China’s support of the Pakistani military, whose forces often fire at Indian troops along the disputed Kashmir frontier, should be viewed in this light.
The PLA began honing its ‘salami tactics’ in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau. Later, China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 border war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple civilian and security layers.
Against this backdrop, the true sign of Himalayan peace will not be the holstering of guns but, rather, the end of border incursions.
India’s accommodating approach has failed to deter China. To halt further encroachments, India will need to bare its own teeth.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.