Tawang Clashes: A Wake Up Call

On 9 December, the Indian and Chinese troops clashed at Yangtse in Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh. The fight involved hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops, a few of them sustaining minor or major injuries. Tawang is quite a sensitive border area. It was in this sector that the 1962 India-China war had first begun. It was also the last spot where the ceasefire was brought about. The Chinese attempted unsuccessfully to change the status quo at Yangtse by perhaps wresting the area from India. The debate in India and speculations across the world has revived on whether India and China will go to war at some point.

Before engaging in the debate on probability of an India-China war, a quick dip into the causes of the latest physical conflict is in order. India and China share the longest border in the world which has been contested by both sides. There have been recurring conflicts on the border since 1962. The bones of contention are Aksai Chin a region north of Nepal which is controlled by China and claimed by India. Likewise, Arunachal Pradesh on the east of Bhutan, is controlled by India while claimed by China. Such claims and counter-claims have created 13 hotspots.

At any rate, the Chinese incursions into India are not random or one-off. They are consistent and coordinated. Some Dutch academics have studied this process deeply in a commendable work called, “Rising tensions in the Himalayas: A geo-spatial analyses of Chinese incursions into India”. By studying several incursions from 2006 to 2020, they have established the pattern of incursions as a part of expansionist strategy adopted by China. Elaborating on Chinese military tactics, they infer that China will bite a bit of territory, than a bit more, forcing India to accept it as part of Chinese occupation. Some people call it the ‘salami slicing’ tactics.

Another metaphor for Chinese strategy of nibbling away our territory is to ‘keep the pot boiling, but do not let it boil over’. China will like to tear into other countries’ territory. It will take a small piece of land; keep it under the threshold from where the target country, in this case India, could counter-attack. But over time, it becomes a bigger piece of land as part of Chinese territory. Yet another Chinese tactic of grabbing land is to enter into another country’s territory and when confronted militarily or diplomatically back-off half way and declare that they had done it inadvertently as the lines of demarcation were not clear and have then withdrawn.

Such strategies for acquiring territory are well-known. The Dutch study has also found out that Beijing goes for territorial aggression on certain periods of its domestic politics and economy. The study said, “We found an uptick in incursions when China is experiencing economic stress such as low consumer confidence and in Indian case, when New Delhi gets closer to the Washington”. If overseas observers and researchers are aware of Chinese ‘deception diplomacy’ and territorial expansionism, it will be hard to believe that Indian foreign policy officials and strategists are oblivious to Chinese games at the borders!

Since the Galwan military confrontation in June 2020 that killed Indian and Chinese troops, 9thDecember clash with sticks and clubs even without gunfire is aserious development which should be regarded as a wake-up call vis-à-vis China by Government of India. The current debate post-9 December is whether China will launch a full-scale war on India. Some observers contend that the war is not a question of whether but when. Some of us, myself in this column, have repeatedly alerted the government about the sinister designs of China on India: trying to encircle India by poaching on her neighbours, stunting India’s economic growth, making illegitimate claims on Indian territory and sporadic incursions into Indian land.

So, whether India and China will go to war at some point in future is not the question. The real position should be that we are at war with China. Such a position will correctly define or redefine our strategy towards China. One can credit Narendra Modi regime for breaking some new grounds on India’s foreign policy. But on China, I have consistently maintained that New Delhi has fumbled. It does not have a long-term, viable and workable policy towards China. It is at best reacting to each crisis that emerges, whereas it should have a comprehensive, wellthought-out strategy.

Admittedly, there is a clear economic asymmetry between New Delhi and Beijing. This need not translate into military power disparity. If Ukraine can engage the mighty Russia, Indian army can certainly stand up to China. At any rate, if a military conflict breaks out, the world powers get involved directly or indirectly in order to maintain the balance of power and in some cases,related superiority. So, obviously the dynamics of power configuration will be dramatically different from what they are now if a full-blown military confrontation.

The current Indian strategy appears to consist of the following steps – build border infrastructure, use military power as India did in Galwan and Tawang in order to rebuff Chinese intrusion, seek military advantage strategically or even fortuitously. Furthermore, diplomatically deepen partnership with the democratic world by projecting China as a systemic threat; participate in countervailing coalitions. Moreover, over a period of time when Indian economy catches up with that of China, New Delhi could take on China in any which way Beijing approaches.

Even the Dutch scholars are suggesting that confrontation or military retaliation is not the way to resolve the border disputes. Early warning systems have to be used to ward-off incursions and negotiations for settling disputes. New Delhi needs to build-up its economy to match the might of Chinese robust economy. The strategy may be appropriate for the time-being. But nothing stops India from being diplomatically pro-active in countering China.

Why is India in SCO and BRICS when Beijing is moving its military into Indian territory? New Delhi has taken a position against Islamabad that it will not hold talks until the latter stops sponsoring terrorism in Indian territory. Why cannot New Delhi have a similar approach to China however big it may be? That India will not associate with China in any forum until it withdraws from Indian territory or ceases to make false claims.

To reiterate, we have been arguing that India’s foreign policy should revolve around our China policy not Pakistan although the latter is a vote-catcher. This shift away from Islamabad to Beijing has not happened yet. The present government seems to be uncertain about this necessary and unavoidable shift. Galwan and Tawang are the litmus tests on Chinese intention and attitude towards India. Will the government take this on board and make this urgent shift forthwith. —INFA


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