Sino-India Border Dispute: India Should Err On Side Of Caution – Analysis

India will need to be cautious and shed any complacency about Chinese motives evident in recent statements by senior Chinese officials that the Line of Actual (LaC) is stable. Chinese previous envoy Sun Weidong declared in August 2022 that the LaC was stable, which was completely belied by the Peoples Liberation Army’ (PLA) 9 December attempt to seize a key height at the Yangste along the eastern frontier of the LaC, which was resolutely repulsed the Indian Army (IA).

Following the clash, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin again reiterated that the situation on the Sino-Indian boundary is “generally stable” even as Beijing persists with salami-slicing, producing the obverse of stability. Equally, but if not more dangerous are Indian analyses and assessments about internal Chinese commentary and assessments observing since the LaC finds no mention presently in the Chinese public discourse and that the “real” conflict between Beijing and New Delhi is over “development competition”, and not the LaC, India take the former at least implicitly at face value and not the latter.

The Modi government and the Indian strategic establishment writ large must be careful, and remain wary about this commentary, for the simple reason, as Shiv Shankar Menon, a one-time Indian envoy to China and a former National Security Advisor under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it: “For instance, the Indian government’s decisions changing administrative arrangements in J&K in August 2019 are often mentioned as a trigger for Chinese actions.

And yet, President Xi Jinping visited Mammalapuram in India after those changes for another informal summit with Prime Minister Modi. No public Chinese commentary even hinted that the subject had come up. But now that the relationship is in trouble, the changes in J&K are offered by both Indian and Chinese commentators as an explanation. The negative consequences of the shift must have been apparent and must have been outweighed by other considerations in the mind of the Chinese leadership who had to have approved the PLA’s actions.”

Evident from Menon’s assessment is Chinese deception. Absence of commentary within China on the revocation of Article 370 by the Indian government in August 2019 is necessary, but not sufficient to explain the intrusion and occupation of Indian-claimed territory by the PLA in April-May, 2020. Likewise, Indian analysts based on their reading of current and latest Chinese commentary claiming that “development competition” between India and China is the foremost issue weighing on the minds of the Chinese establishment and public, should count their inference and observations as deliberately naïve and glib analysis. Lest the Indian experts on China forget, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is a totalitarian dictatorship under a single party, which can suppress the dissemination of discussions on the Sino-Indian boundary or the LaC within Chinese academia, Chinese media, and social media platforms.

It is from these avenues and the Chinese state controlled internet that India experts on China get their information about Chinese motives and foreign policy conduct. This point is aptly pregnant, if not explicitly, in Shivshankar Menon’s evaluation of Chinese conduct. The Chinese government under the Communist Party of China (CPC) can determine what topics and issues must be treated as newsworthy such as “development competition”.

The latter issue has evidently become the foremost issue requiring attention and thus highlighted by the Chinese state media and information apparatus or organs, leaving Mandarin language experts in New Delhi to treat and infer “development competition” as the foremost issue dividing Beijing and New Delhi, simply because that is what is publicly available or visible in China and not discussions on the LaC. However, couple this with complete insulation of the Chinese public to news and information whether from India or beyond about the PRC’s conduct on the LaC, except when it is advantageous to the Chinese government domestically and externally, we can see why there is very little, if any, current discussion originating from China about the stand-off in the LaC.

It should have become unambiguously clear that the Chinese would like Indians to believe “development competition” and Chinese apprehensions of India displacing the PRC as the “world’s factory” to be the most consequential issue between China and India, lulling the Indian government into relaxing its investments to beef up its logistical capacities, defensive and offensive military capabilities along the disputed land frontier with the PRC.

The Chinese state would like to induce India’s attention away from the LaC by deliberately suppressing it as a topic of discussion within China, but the Indian public writ large needs to understand, notwithstanding Indian ambitions and tepid Chinese economic growth, that in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), China is five times bigger than India and it will take the latter, optimistically, at least two decades to match China’s current GDP at 17 trillion dollars.

As Shivshankar Menon stated: “…the balance between India and China has shifted in China’s favour”, which explains significantly if not comprehensively, China’s military conduct on the LaC. Further, Indian complacency and distractions generated by the outbreak of COVID-19 allowed and created an opportunity for China to make easy territorial gains without any resistance in Eastern Ladakh in 2020. This does not mean India surrender its territorial equities. If anything, the implication is the reverse, New Delhi should redouble its effort, as it is doing currently, to protect its land frontier sedulously and with purpose.

Finally, while “development competition” may be important in Sino-Indian relations, more rigour needs to be imparted to strategic and military analysis on China’s conduct and strategic behaviour vis-à-vis India, otherwise New Delhi will fall victim to Chinese deception and very consequentially, succumb to the PRC’s aggression.