Every move by China is seen as a larger plan to box India into a corner.

The Chinese are at it again. Or so we are told by the Indian media, which have worked themselves into a lather over the recent Chinese “incursion” in Ladakh. The latest move is held up as yet another example of China’s longstanding strategy to keep India off-balance. Faced with such a strategy, India apparently has no credible response and is desperately floundering. These arguments are not new. In fact, they have become something of a catechism which is uttered every time reports of Chinese “incursions” hit the headlines. They are wrong all the same.

WHERE’S THE LAC?

Start with the issue of Chinese “incursions”. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the two sides have different notions of where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies.

The LAC is supposed to divide the areas that are under Indian and Chinese control since the end of the 1962 war. The line, however, was not mutually agreed upon by the two sides.

This is in contrast to similar lines with Pakistan in Kashmir. Both the Cease Fire Line of 1949 and the Line of Control of 1972 were drawn up by formal agreements between the two countries. There was no such agreement on the LAC both because the war ended with a unilateral ceasefire by China and because subsequent efforts by third parties to mediate ended in failure.

In the Ladakh sector, these differences in perception are compounded due to another reason. During the war of 1962, China occupied territory beyond the line that it had been claiming in previous negotiations over the boundary. The issue of where exactly Chinese forces stood after the war remains contested.

The areas where Chinese intrusions occur are claimed by both sides as lying on their side of the LAC. The Chinese are perfectly sincere when they claim that their forces are operating on their side of the LAC — just as the Indians are when they claim that the Chinese have intruded into the their side of the Line.

This simple fact seems to elude most of our commentators in the media. This is all the more surprising because this problem has been around for over fifty years now. Daulat Beg Oldi, the focal point of the current hubbub, was an area of contention even before the 1962 war. Such places are likely to remain contentious until there is a boundary agreement between India and China. Till such an agreement is reached, both countries will continue to send troops into disputed areas, if only to keep their formal territorial claims alive. An Indian army chief is on the record stating that “the Chinese have a different perception of the Line of Actual Control, as do we. When they come up to their perception, we call it incursion and likewise they do.”

Recognising this reality, the two countries have concluded agreements on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border. The agreement concluded in 1996 admits that both sides have differing perceptions of the LAC. To deal with such incursions, these agreements allow the two sides to seek clarifications through diplomatic channels, including direct communication between their foreign offices. Besides, there are periodic “flag meetings” between military commanders to sort out local differences. These arrangements have worked well in the past. There is no reason why they shouldn’t now.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Equally mistaken is the notion that every move by China is part of some larger plan to box India into a corner. If our experts are to be believed, Beijing has worked out its strategy for the next thirty years while New Delhi can barely think thirty days ahead.

The idea that great powers work to some predetermined grand strategy flies in the face of all international history. It is certainly not true of China, which has more than its share of extraordinary blunders.

Think of the Great Leap Forward and the break with their most important ally, the Soviet Union. Consider the more recent example of China’s position in East Asia. Until a few years ago, the smaller East Asian countries were tireless in their praise for China’s “peaceful rise”.

But Beijing’s swagger and assertiveness over the last couple of years has not only driven these countries into the arms of the United States but also resulted in the announcement of an American “pivot” to Asia. The Middle Kingdom can also be the Muddle Kingdom. Too much long-term strategy should not be read into every Chinese move. Not least because it fuels the perception that China and India are locked in rivalry and are bound to conflict. The two countries are, of course, strategic competitors in certain domains. But in other key areas their interests do overlap.

COMMON INTERESTS

Take the recent bilateral discussions on Afghanistan. Given China’s “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan, it may seem that China would have little interest in talking to India about Afghanistan. That is not the case, however. In fact, it was Beijing that expressed interest in starting a dialogue on Afghanistan.

China is concerned about the coming drawdown of US and other international forces from Afghanistan in 2014. For one thing, Beijing is worried that serious and prolonged instability in Afghanistan would endanger its economic and commercial interests in country. China has invested over $3 billion in the massive Mes Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan. It also hopes to draw Afghanistan into its extensive network of energy pipelines in Central Asia. For another, China is concerned about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorist outfits operating in Xinjiang.

The mere fact that China wants to consult countries like India shows that it has doubts about the ability of Pakistan to help secure its interests in Afghanistan.

India shares China’s concerns on both counts. New Delhi has been involved in trilateral discussions on Afghanistan with China and Russia. The recent bilateral meeting in Beijing could pave the way for a more sustained engagement in the crucial months ahead.

Never mind the latest frenzy over Chinese “incursions”. There is a lot more in play in India’s relationship with China.

(This article was published on April 24, 2013)
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