President Xi Jinping’s visit has ended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy honeymoon. The Chinese incursion in Chumar, in the Ladakh region, is serious. It has not ended and may not be ending in a hurry. It is qualitatively very different from the Chinese Army incursion in the Depsang area, also in Ladakh, in May 2013, just before Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit.
In the Depsang episode, 40 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army set up camp in an area that was part of Chinese claimed territory but far ahead of the normal peacetime position of Chinese forces. This time, the Chinese have sent 1,500 troops. In Depsang, the soldiers were logistically ill-served and ran out of food in a few days. This time the Chinese soldiers are being supported by helicopters dropping down food and supplies. They may be planning a long stay in the area.
In May 2013, the new Chinese leadership had just taken over. President Xi and Premier Li were relatively inexperienced and just settling in. There was a perception that the incursions in Ladakh, on the eve of Premier Li’s first foreign visit, were an attempt by generals in the PLA to put the new leadership in its place and wrest autonomy. This time no such excuse can be offered. President Xi has established himself as the most powerful new leader in China since the modernisation programme began in 1978. He heads the military commissions of both, the Communist Party of China and of the Chinese government. As such, he is in complete control.
His line, allegedly offered even in meetings with the Indian Prime Minister, that he didn’t know the details of what was going on in Chumar and who had authorised it are difficult to buy as China is a rigidly controlled totalitarian state. In the case of Depsang, Chinese incursions took place just before the premier’s visit. After initial hesitation by the then foreign minister and influential sections then serving in the Prime Minister’s Office, New Delhi played hardball. A tough message was sent and the threat of cancelling Premier Li’s visit held out. The Chinese back-tracked.
This time, the incursions did not precede the Chinese President’s visit but coincided with it. To send an equally strong message, India would have had to ask the Chinese President to go home, which was obviously out of question. Prime Minister Modi had to make do with repeatedly raising the border issue. The visit was hijacked by Chumar.
This is not the way the Indian Prime Minister would have wanted it. In his planning for the Chinese President’s trip, Mr Modi had been innovative in moving the first half of the programme out of the national capital. Rather than Lutyens’ New Delhi — a grand setting no doubt, but not repre-sentative of contem-porary India — he had taken his guest to the spanking new riverfront in Ahmedabad. He offered market access and investment opportunities in an Indian economy Chinese infra-structure companies and manufacturers are ambitious about.
Perhaps Mr Modi and his team felt they had the space and time for a deliberately ambiguous relationship with the Chinese, while building ties with Japan and the United States and, more important, repairing the domestic economy. That flexibility was probably projected to last a few months or even a year. Chumar has brought forward the deadline rudely and sharply.
The Chinese have sent a few messages with Chumar and the visit. They have attempted to bully the new Indian Prime Minister and warned him not to overreach himself. In proposing India join the Maritime Silk Route initiative — a Beijing brainchild that rests on Chinese infrastructure and trade and power-projection capacities — China is also indicating, as it has earlier, that India has no option but to accept Chinese leadership. The enthusiasm with which the Maritime Silk Route idea was received in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which President Xi visited before landing in Gujarat, suggested an attempt to isolate India in its Indian Ocean near-neighbourhood.
India and China share a contested border, with differing territorial claims. India and China also share a contested Line of Actual Control, with both countries offering different markers. Mr Modi has urged a clarification of the LAC. One fails to see why the Chinese would be in a hurry. The confusion suits them. Indian patrolling capacities, border infrastructure and strategic dithering have meant the Indian LAC has moved from the Indian claim line, closer and closer to what is undisputed Indian territory. As such, with every incursion, the Chinese push the LAC closer in the direction of India and gain more territory. The un-demarcated LAC suits them.
This is the legacy that troubles Mr Modi. To be fair, it is not a legacy limited to the previous 10 years and the United Progressive Alliance government. It goes back much earlier. The upshot is the Chinese will keep chipping away — leaving the LAC undefined — for a final bargain with an India in a position of weakness. Symbolically, India made one point this time. It allowed controlled Tibetan protests, virtually up to the gates of Hyderabad House, where Mr Xi and Mr Modi were meeting. In recent years — whether during Mr Li’s visit in 2013, the Brics summit in 2012 or the Olympic torch relay in 2008 — the UPA government had used extraordinarily harsh measures and imposed a virtual curfew in central Delhi to keep Tibetans out of sight. This time the Modi government sent a political signal by allowing a degree of protest.
However, two caveats need to be entered here. First, while the sight of Tibetan banners and activists irritates the Chinese, it does not compare with the serious Army incur-sions in Ladakh. Second, the Tibetan community in India itself is divided with segments of its senior leadership keen to come to a settlement with the Chinese. Talk of the Dalai Lama going back to Chinese-governed Lhasa is part of that environment. Should the Dalai Lama actually return to Tibet, it will deprive India of a crucial lever and make Beijing that much more confident in dealing with New Delhi.
It was this backdrop that persuaded Mr Xi he had the measure of Mr Modi. Now it is for the Indian leader to prove him wrong.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org