The Handling of Brinkmanship in China-India Military Relations

Photo source: Asia Times

Citation: Hak Yin Li, “The handling of brinkmanship in China-India military relations”, China-India Brief, #110, Singapore: Centre on Asia and Globalization, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Feb 27, 2018.

The Indian government recently released a report stating that Chinese transgressions in Indian territory increased from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017. The Indian Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre said the increasing number is probably caused by the different understanding between the two countries over the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Indian report is a reminder, if a reminder was needed, that the China-India border dispute remains one of the fundamental problems in developing stable China-India relations in the long run.

Indeed, the territorial conflicts between China and India are not new, and they have not been resolved for decades in both Arunachal Pradesh (eastern front) and Aksai Chin (western front). The Tibetan “Prime Minister-in-exile”, Lobsang Sangay, believes that China is now getting more “belligerent” with an “expansionist mindset”, and he warns India to stay alert.

Beijing-New Delhi relations look rather fragile, and there are plenty of incentives for conflict escalation, which may make China-India military relations worse in the future. Apart from potential border clashes and the Tibet issue, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has raised Indian concerns. With the BRI, Beijing has intruded into India’s traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean through various infrastructure projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Besides, the Maldives and Nepal have inclined to China’s side in recent years. The Maldives is regarded as “another front for the Chinese” after the pro-Indian government was ousted in 2012. The opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed is requesting international intervention in the current constitutional crisis, and some wonder if India will help solve the dispute. Though the Chinese government declined to respond to the issue, the rare appearance of Chinese warships in the Eastern Indian Ocean near the Maldives can hardly be regarded as a coincidence. In the case of Nepal, it seems that Kathmandu is moving closer to Beijing after the communist party came to power in last year’s general elections.

Testing the Water?

In retrospect, a turning point in China-India military relations was probably caused by the BRI and China’s increasing military presence in the region. In June last year, China dispatched a destroyer, a frigate, and a replenishment ship on a “goodwill tour” to more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. When Indian permission for the proposed port visit to Kochi by a Chinese vessel was delayed, the Chinese naval fleet sailed to its next destination. An Indian newspaper related the incident to New Delhi’s boycott of the BRI meeting in Beijing in May 2017, noting that the previous Chinese warships’ visit to Kochi had not encountered any problems.

The China-India military confrontation in Doklam in 2017 was another turning point. It escalated quickly with both sides deploying more forces to the disputed border in late June. However, the two countries kept communications open and clarified their intentions as clearly as possible. On 27 July, the Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval visited Beijing in preparation for the annual BRICS summit in September. During his visit, he met Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi as well as the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not just on for BRICS issues, but also on the China-India military confrontation.

On 2 August, China published an official paper, “The Facts and China’s Position Concerning Indian Border Troops Crossing of the China-India Boundary in the Sikkim Sector”, which defines the Indian military presence in Bhutan in the Doklam area as an illegal intrusion into Chinese territory. Such a Chinese official paper is not common. Beijing also sent out repeated but consistent signals through various official and diplomatic channels by warning India not to underestimate Chinese determination in maintaining its territorial integrity.

Adequate communications and accurate understandings are important even after the China-India standoff because the cost of a military clash between the two powers would be too high. The Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh requested Indian border police to learn Mandarin. He explained that “considering the frequent face-offs and skirmishes with Chinese soldiers…I ask all of you to learn Mandarin to…avoid misunderstandings leading to flashpoints”.

Nevertheless, the border disputes between China and India are not yet solved. The negotiations are proving very tough as both countries carry emerging great power status on their shoulders, which makes compromise difficult. Both countries have already deployed more sophisticated military facilities and weapons near Doklam after the confrontation. Beijing has strengthened the Shigatse Peace Airport and Lhasa Gonggar Airport, while New Delhi has done the same thing in Siliguri Bagdogra Airport and Hasimara Air Force Station. Chinese forces are now equipped with more helicopters, KJ-500 airborne early warning and command aircraft as well as HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems. Similarly, the Indian MiG-27MLs have been replaced by the Su-30MKI with BrahMos cruise missiles.

Traditional Strategy with Interlocking Relations

With more advanced weapons and further military deployments, it would be a disaster if China and India cannot manage conflict escalation. However, a coin has two faces. The consequence of Doklam as well as the current military build-up by both countries could be to strengthen deterrence. This coupled with the presence of nuclear weapons could help maintain the status quo.

There are two more reasons that China and India can “manage” their military relations. First, both of them are part of BRICS and therefore share an interest in facilitating South-South cooperation. This may explain why China and India finally cooled their confrontation prior to the annual BRICS summit in September last year. Second, India has received support from the United States, Japan, and Australia in checking Chinese influence in the region. The American free and open Indo-Pacific order is indeed almost the same as the Japanese arc of freedom and prosperity. Both are music to India’s ears. In addition, India is partners in the Malabar naval exercises with the United States and Japan, which helps balance the increasing Chinese military presence in the region.