A Chinese incursion into Indian territory high in the Himalayas could shake up the region’s security order, writes Ian Hall.
On 15 April, about 30 soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed the notional “Line of Actual Control” (LAC), trekking into neighbouring India.
Perched high in the Himalayas, the LAC separates Aksai Chin, administered by China, and Ladakh, part of Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir. Unusually, the soldiers chose not to return to the Chinese side of the LAC, but instead pitched tents some 19km into Ladakh. When the Indians (belatedly) realised what the Chinese troops had done, they protested. The PLA platoon responded with a sign that read: “You are in Chinese side” (sic).
This kind of incident is not unprecedented – Indian official figures suggest that PLA patrols crossed the LAC some 270 times in 2008. What is different is how long it lasted. The “Ladakh incursion”, as the Indian media came to call it, only ended on 5 May, when the Chinese troops agreed to withdraw and the opposing Indian soldiers were ordered to stand down.
The Indian government’s immediate reaction to the incursion was mild; foreign minister Salman Khurshid even suggested it was akin to a bout of “acne”, curable with the careful application of diplomatic “ointment”.
But the longer the PLA remained encamped, the greater Indian anger grew. Opposition politicians, strategists and journalists condemned the government’s initial response and called for a more robust stance. Some even called for the PLA platoon to be expelled by force, to deter China from further grabs at Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir or in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as “South Tibet”.
Although the incident now appears to be over, its principal consequence may well be a much stronger Indian stance towards China and its territorial claims. Loud calls have been made in New Delhi to invest more heavily and more quickly in military modernisation, and to strengthen India’s political and military ties with like-minded regional states. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent announcement that he will discuss closer naval ties with Japan in an upcoming visit is a sign of a change in attitude.
On the face of it then, the Ladakh incursion looks like another Chinese strategic error in a growing line of missteps. As clumsy as it was, what were the Chinese trying to achieve? Three theories have been put forward.
The first is that the incursion was intended to convey a message to New Delhi that the Chinese have grown tired of Indian attempts to upgrade military infrastructure along the LAC. China thus staged the incident to demonstrate its superior capacity to operate in an extremely difficult environment.
The second is that the incursion has less to do with the Chinese government sending a message to New Delhi and more to do with the PLA sending a message to Beijing. Tensions have recently been reported between the Chinese military and its civilian masters, whom elements in the PLA consider weak on foreign policy issues, especially China’s multiple territorial disputes. The Ladakh incursion, so this theory goes, is an example of the PLA testing Beijing’s will, and showing that the PLA wants a more forceful policy when it comes to the Diayou/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea.
The third theory also links the incursion to China’s other territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, but it suggests a more united strategy. According to this theory, China’s action is not so much a message to India, but rather to Japan and to Southeast Asian states also disputing territory with China. Like a billowing smoke signal from the top of the word, the message loudly proclaims that China’s new leadership is ready and willing to take the initiative in territorial disputes and, if necessary, to use the PLA to defend its claims.
This last theory is the one that India’s government seems to have chosen to believe – hence its public advances to Japan. Time will tell if India really will commit to a more robust approach to China, which would require determined investment in its diplomatic and military capabilities. But the legacy of the Ladakh incursion will certainly be continued suspicion about China’s intentions not just on India’s borders, but throughout the region. By crossing the line, China has only furthered moves to deepen political and military ties between its neighbours.
Dr Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in International Relations in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His research focuses on the history of international thought and Indian foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter at @DrIanHall.