The 10-kilometer-deep Chinese military intrusion into a highly strategic area in Ladakh shows India’s political and army leadership in poor light. The episode brings out how China is exploiting the leadership deficit and political disarray in India to alter the realities on the ground.   

An increasingly assertive China is subverting the status quo not just on its border with India, but also in the South and East China Seas, where it has stepped up its territorial and maritime feuds with other countries. China adheres to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s counsel: “subdue the enemy without any battle” by exploiting its weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defense. “All warfare,” Sun as famously said, “is based on deception.”
In this light, China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims. Given that the countries share the world’s longest disputed land border in the world, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Japan is lucky to be separated from China by a sea. But China is able to use its vantage location on the upper heights of the Tibetan plateau to constantly needle India through aggressive patrolling of the line of control. In recent years, China has repeatedly attempted to breach the Himalayan frontier through stealthy military incursions, taking advantage of the fact that the frontier is vast, inhospitable, and difficult to patrol by Indian forces, who are located in most sections on the lower heights compared to the Chinese.

Even through cross-border military forays by the Chinese are common, a deep, land-grabbing raid of the kind that occurred quietly on the night of April 15 in Ladakh’s Daulat Beg Oldi sector is uncommon. The question the Indian army leadership must answer is how it was caught napping in a militarily critical area where, in the recent past, China repeatedly had made attempts to encroach on Indian land.

Instead of the regular Indian army troops patrolling the line of control in this sector, the task had been assigned to border police. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, with their defensive training and mindset, are no match to the aggressive designs of the regular Chinese military platoons and thus continue to be outwitted by them.

India’s highly defensive mindset has been on full display in this episode. It took a whole week for anyone in the Indian government to say a word on record about the fact that the Chinese troops had camped 10 kilometers inside India. And the first word came only after the Chinese government issued a statement in response to the Indian media reports about the incursion. Since then, the refrain of Indian government officials has been that this matter will be sorted out by diplomacy.  

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, irresponsibly, has even gone to the extent of saying that saving the planned visit of the Chinese premier to New Delhi will take precedence over resolving the incursion matter. “The incident should not be allowed to turn into a dampener for the premier’s visit because the visit is very important for both sides,” he told a newspaper. The more Khurshid speaks on foreign policy in public, the more he comes across as being a misfit with his job.

As for the not-yet-scheduled visit of the Chinese premier, it should not be forgotten that each high-level Chinese visit since 2006 has been preceded by a new aggressive move against India. Just before President Hu Jintao visited India in 2006, China publicly raked up an issue that had remained dormant since the 1962 war — Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, the Chinese practice of describing the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet” started only in 2006. And just before the 2010 New Delhi visit of Premier Wen Jiabao, China began issuing stapled visas to residents of Jammu & Kashmir. In fact, despite the continuing border talks since 1981, Wen Jiabao bluntly stated in New Delhi that sorting out the Himalayan border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” If so, why carry on the border negotiations?

Even as China steps up its belligerence along the border, India remains focused on the process than on the substance of diplomacy. Process is important but only if it buys you time to build countervailing leverage. Unfortunately, given its leadership deficit and political disarray, India has made little effort to craft such leverage. Instead, New Delhi plays right into Chinese hands by merely flaunting the process of engagement and thereby aiding Beijing’s strategy to buy time to further change the status quo on the ground.  

India should be under no illusion that diplomacy alone will be able to persuade China to withdraw from the military camp it has set up 10 kilometers inside Indian territory. One way to force China’s hand would be for the Indian army to intrude and occupy a highly strategic area elsewhere across the line of control and use that gain as a tradeoff.

India can maintain border peace only by leaving China in no doubt that it has the capability and political will to defend peace. If the Chinese see opportunity for military gains on the ground, they will be seize it. It is for India to ensure that such opportunities do not arise. In other words, the Himalayan peace ball is very much in India’s court.

More fundamentally, India must devise and implement a counter-strategy to tame Chinese aggressiveness. To build countervailing leverage, India has little choice but to slowly reopen the core issue of India — an issue New Delhi fully surrendered at the altar of diplomacy during the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. Of course, the process of surrendering India’s Tibet card began under Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954, when India recognized the “Tibet region of China” without any quid pro quo — not even Beijing’s acceptance of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border.

If a country goes with an outstretched hand to an adversary that is still engaged in hostile actions, it will get the short end of the stick, as the latest episode illustrates.