Ingress into Ladakh Let Us Debate China Policy

Dr. sreeram chaulia

WHILE there is no dispute about the systematic problem of periodic Chinese border incursions into Indian territory, these troubling episodes reveal fissures within India over its foreign policy tactics and strategy. The latest discovery of Chinese military presence 19 kilometres inside the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh (a high altitude mountainous part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir) has rekindled Indian public disagreement on the nature of the Chinese threat and how it must be tackled.

Whenever the Indian news media alleges LAC violations by China, the sources come from India’s own military, intelligence or civilian governmental ranks. No Indian news organisation has reporters in desolate Himalayan heights to monitor and observe the military movements of the Chinese. Indian newspapers and television channels, which frequently flag transgressions by China across the undemarcated LAC (New Delhi and Beijing lack consensus even on its exact length and sectoral dimensions), are relaying a ‘leak’ or a controlled release of information from sections of the Indian government who want the issue to be highlighted. 

Until this point, there is unanimity in the discourse. But all hell breaks loose on the issue of what India must do in response to these seeming violations of its sovereignty.

The government puts on a sober, diplomatic stance that downplays fears of India being weak, irresolute or caught unawares by wily Chinese infiltrators. The private press goes for the jugular in pillorying the Indian state for incompetence, hiding the truth from the people, intelligence failure, kowtowing to the dragon, spinelessness etc. 

Given India’s raucous democracy, more combatants then jump into the argumentative fray. Opposition political parties and strategic policy analysts sense an opportunity to shake up India’s security establishment for sleeping at the wheel, while China is stealthily gobbling Indian territory and adding insult to past injuries. These cries are echoed by the mass of nationalistic Indian citizens who do not trust the Indian state ~ which has a poor track record in domestic governance ~ to do the right and courageous thing against what is popularly perceived as an untrustworthy and bullying China.

Historical memories of China back-stabbing India in the 1962 armed conflict and an ingrained sense of competition with China for global leadership in the ‘Asian century’ add fuel to fire and incense Indian public opinion, which then gets reflected and magnified by the media. Meanwhile, the Indian government cautions that the nation must adopt a calm attitude instead of falling prey to emotions and passions. India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, reminded those itching for India to take a tougher and more aggressive stand to drive out Chinese occupiers from Ladakh that “there are incidents about which China feels the same way.”

In other words, because the LAC is not clearly delineated and there are opposing interpretations by China and India of how exactly it undulates in the high Himalayas, the Indian army also often crosses over into what the Chinese consider to be their turf. But because China has an authoritarian system, there is no brouhaha about such occurrences there. China’s state-monopolised media outlets are purposefully ordered by their government to whip up poisonous nationalism against Japan over territorial spats, but they are not known to carry tirades against India over the LAC.

Albeit the Chinese state does not embark on propaganda drives to condemn India for LAC violations, such acts do occur and knowledgeable observers within India admit it. The permeable nature of the LAC implies that our military has flexibility to do a tit-for-tat on Chinese-claimed terrain and send a firm message across the border. So, is the Indian government always right in being unfazed and composed over China’s shenanigans, and are India’s media hawks and politicos always exaggerating and sensationalising border disagreements for their own ulterior motives?

The truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme viewpoints. From the 1962 war with China to the Kargil war of 1998 with Pakistan, and through an endless series of failures to prevent terrorist attacks on innocent civilians, the Indian state has often failed high expectations of its people to be their vigilant protector. A Chinese army unit well inside Indian territory is sufficiently scary to raise hackles among Indian citizens and media watchdogs.

But Indians must also think deeply before reflexively wagging their tongues and venting spleen. Where there is reasonable suspicion of the state failing to inspire confidence in or share the truth with the Indian people, it deserves critiquing. However, panic-mongering tirades about India meekly allowing China to call all the shots or dictate terms in the bilateral relationship do our national morale no good.

The gulf between the official narrative on China peddled by the Indian government on the one hand, and the popular narrative which India’s feisty private news outlets and average citizens hold on the other, is vast. It will have to be bridged by means of greater transparency on the part of the Indian state’s foreign policy bureaucracy, and an ethic of responsibility in India’s English, Hindi and regional language print and audio-visual media. 
As India’s power expands in the international arena and rubs against claims of other major players, greater public attention and divisions will emerge on foreign policy. India’s vibrant media and opinion generating hubs must conduct these debates better and hold their government accountable for its international record ~ not only on China but also, say, on Maldives, Sri Lanka, Syria, Iran or Africa ~ much more often and in a studied manner.

Cut out of traditional cloth, India’s career diplomats shy away from entering into publicised debates with independent experts or being challenged regarding errors of omission or commission in their policy frameworks. They will need to step down from the ‘we know it all’ condescension, which alienates thinking Indians outside government and feeds into the irrational exuberance against archetypal foreign enemy symbols like Pakistan and China.

The latest Chinese inroad into India’s side of the LAC is believed to be a pre-emptive show of force by Beijing against Indian plans to beef up infrastructure and roads near the international border. It is a severe test of India’s national will, as China has shown no eagerness to withdraw from the freshly occupied ground in Ladakh despite Indian demands to do so.

Analysts are wondering whether China will repeat the 1986 experience of its army rolling into the Sumdorong Chu valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which was only vacated nine years later.

The present fracas over the Chinese military ingress into Ladakh is a moment of reckoning that must trigger a broader debate in public about the full range of options and long-term plans to secure India’s regional and global interests. A mature and inclusive foreign policy discussion space will be essential to beef up our posture and defences as we confront an opaque China brimming with self-confidence derived from its relative economic, infrastructural and military superiority.
The writer is Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs