As the border tension between India and China mount, Economic Times (New Delhi) published an essay I wrote on the issue. I argued that India should focus on longer term issues about balancing China rather than get distracted by the border pinpricks. The essay in full:
India should build up capabilities on border with China, exert its influence in the region
Reports of Chinese military intrusion into the Ladakh region once again highlight India's troubled relations with Beijing. While border incursions are no doubt serious, they should not be allowed to mask the real problems that India faces with China, which have more to do with China's growing power and what this means for India's foreign policy.
There are two likely reasons for the border incursion. One is that the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which passes for the border, is unclear, as India's foreign minister has said. The second is that Chinese incursions are designed as bargaining chips. China has apparently objected to some fortifications that India has put up, and the incursions might be a response.
Despite these incursions, the danger of military escalation is quite low, for two reasons. First, China's
strategic culture emphasises careful planning and deliberate action. It is unlikely that Beijing will get involved in an escalation with unpredictable consequences. Second, Indian strategic policy is extremely risk-averse. The Indian foreign office has tended to down play these intrusions as a local problem, the possible consequence of disagreements about the alignment of the LAC rather than something that is part of a larger Chinese scheme.
Don't Be Spooked
The real danger of escalation from the Indian side is the possibility that Indian decisionmakers will be spooked into imprudent responses such as Jawaharlal Nehru's "forward policy". The probability of such a deliberate and full-fledged Chinese military attack is low but it is a more likely scenario than an unplanned, unwanted escalation.
India's planning should focus on the former. New Delhi should not allow itself to be pressured by the talkingheads on the evening news into illadvised and precipitate actions. India is building up its military infrastructure in border areas but this does not appear to be progressing well.
New Delhi needs to resolve the bureaucratic problem that is delaying its border infrastructure plans. China is also reported to have objected to India's infrastructure development in the border areas. India should not allow its modernisation programme to become a negotiating chip and it should strongly resist any Chinese attempts to make it one. China has significantly enhanced its infrastructure both in the border and in Tibet, making the military balance on the border even more lopsidedin its favour. It is imperative that India build up its capabilities too.
Play the Power Game
India needs to be more willing to play the larger balance of power game in the regionand beyond. China does not share India's reluctance in this regard. Its relationship with Pakistan has little basis other than the objective of balancing India. Over the last decade, China has undermined India's claims to the UN Security Council, objected to the US-India nuclear deal and resisted India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In the meantime, India has done little but protest. China has also become much more aggressive towards its other neighbours.
For several decades, China adopted a pragmatic and low-key foreign policy which seems now to have been abandoned. Its greater confidence in its own power and heightened nationalism is leading China to assert itself in its neighbourhood.
As a consequence, its relations with Japan, Vietnam and others are under strain. This opens an opportunity because many of these Asian powers are looking to India to play a larger role in balancing China. But India's emphasis on strategic autonomy and non-alignment has meant that its response has been timid and uncertain in the face of opportunities. India needs to stand firm on the border but it also needs to be more open to cooperating with others.