Making sense of China’s calculations

PAPER: II

MAINS: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.

Context:

  • Analysts should have considered the pandemic’s impact on its economy and India’s strategic alignment with the U.S.
  • What policy planners in Delhi, and possibly those in Beijing, have long feared, viz., a direct confrontation leading to fatal casualties, occurred in the Galwan heights in the late evening of June 15.
  • The number of casualties, 20 on the Indian side was the highest since 1967, and included that of a high-ranking Colonel of the Bihar Regiment.
  • The number of casualties on the Chinese side has not been formally indicated, though they have conceded that at least one Colonel was among those killed.

Key Details:

  • With this incident, it should have been obvious that the die was cast as regards the future of China-India relations.
  • Nevertheless, there was a flicker of hope when apparently the Corps Commanders of India and China on June 22-23 appeared to reach a “mutual consensus” to disengageand embark on lowering “tensions” through a “gradual and verifiable disengagement”.
  • This proved short-lived, with the Chinese post in the Galwan areanot only being restored, but also, from satellite images available, bigger in size than before.
  • Ambiguity has existed regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in this sector; the Chinese “claim line” is that of November 1959, while for India the LAC is that of September 1962.
  • In recent years, both sides had refrained from reopening the issue, but China has never given up its claims.
  • By its unilateral declaration now, China is seeking to settle the matter in its favor. India needs to measure up to this challenge.

Where is Galwan Valley?

  • The valley refers to the land that sits between steep mountains that buffet the Galwan River.
  • The river has its source in Aksai Chin, on China’s side of the LAC, and it flows from the east to Ladakh, where it meets the Shyok river on India’s side of the LAC.
  • The valley is strategically located between Ladakh in the west and Aksai Chin in the east, which is currently controlled by China as part of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
  • At its western end are the Shyok river and the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road. Its eastern mouth lies not far from China’s vital Xinjiang Tibet road, now called the G219 highway. 

Where does the Line of Actual Control lie?

  • The LAC lies east of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers in the valley, up to which both India and China have been patrolling in recent years.
  • After the June 15 clash, however, China has claimed the entire valley lies on its side of the LAC.
  • Since early May, China has been objecting to India’s road construction activities at the western end of the valley, in the area between the Galwan-Shyok confluence and the LAC.
  • Beijing is now saying the entire valley is on its side of the LAC, which pegs the line further west near the Shyok river. India has rejected the claim as “exaggerated and untenable”.

Are China’s claims new?

  • Most Chinese maps show most of Galwan river on China’s side of the line, but short of the confluence. This broadly corresponds with the LAC as India sees it – and in India’s view, as China saw it, until recently.
  • “The one discrepancy would be the western tip of the Galwan River as it meets the Shyok River. Here, the last few kilometres of the Galwan River are often depicted as lying beyond China’s border.”

What do maps tell us?

  • Maps paint a complicated picture.
  • As Manoj Joshi of the Observer Research Foundation notes, in 1959, then Premier Zhou Enlai said a 1956 map portrayed the correct alignment.
  • This showed the entire Galwan Valley as a part of India. However, in June 1960 China put out a map claiming sovereignty over the valley.
  • A Chinese map from November 1962 also claims the entire valley, but subsequent maps have not shown the western tip of the river as a part of China.

By citing its territorial claims, can China alter the Line of Actual Control?

  • The distinction between territorial claims and LAC claims is sometimes blurred.
  • The LAC refers to territory under the effective control of each side, not to their entire territorial claim. For instance, India’s territorial claims extend 38,000 sq km on the other side of the LAC across all of Aksai Chin, but the LAC India observes runs through the valley.
  • According to the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), India and China agreed to “strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides”. This referred to the LAC at the time, rendering irrelevant the line of actual control in 1959 or 1962.
  • It also says that “when necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment.”
  • Clarifying the LAC has also been explicitly codified in the 1996 agreement on confidence-building measuresand subsequent agreements. China, however, has refused to exchange maps in the western sector to take this process forward. The BPTA also said “the two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question.”

Importance of Aksai Chin

  • A charge that could be levelled against successive administrations in Delhi in recent years is that while China has consistently asserted its claims over the whole of Aksai Chin, India has chosen to overlook China’s more recent postures in this region.
  • The importance of Aksai Chin for China has greatly increased of late, as it provides direct connectivity between two of the most troubled regions of China, viz., Xinjiang and Tibet.
  • This does not seem to have been adequately factored in to our calculations.
  • While Indian policy makers saw the reclassification of Ladakh as purely an internal matter, they overlooked the fact that for China’s military planners, the carving out of Ladakh into a Union Territory posited a threat to China’s peace and tranquillity.

On intelligence assessment

  • It is in this context, that questions are now being raised about the failure of intelligence. It is axiomatic that leaders make better decisions when they have better information, and the enduring value of intelligence comes from this fundamental reality.
  • Admittedly, the timing and nature of China’s actions should have aroused keen interest in intelligence circles about China’s strategic calculations.
  • The Chinese build-up in the Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso and Hotsprings-Gogra did not require any great intelligence effort, since there was little attempt at concealment by the Chinese.
  • India also possesses high quality imagery intelligence (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities, distributed between the National Technical Research Organisation, the Directorate of Signals Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence and other agencies, which made it possible to track Chinese movement.
  • The failure to decipher China’s intentions in time is no doubt unfortunate, but it has to be understood that deciphering China’s intentions, understanding the Chinese mind (which tends to be contextual and relational), and trying to make sense of Chinese thinking, are an extremely difficult task at any time.
  • Even so, since last year when China’s economy began to show signs of a decline followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, China is known to have become extremely sensitive to what it perceived as efforts by others to exploit its weakness.
  • It has often felt compelled to demonstrate that no nation should attempt to exploit the situation to China’s disadvantage. India’s intelligence and policy analysts obviously failed to analyse this aspect adequately, while trying to make sense of China’s latest forward push.
  • Another of China’s current preoccupation, that India is feeling emboldened because of its growing strategic alignment with the United States, should also have been adequately considered by the analysts, in any assessment of putative Chinese responses.

Limitations of summit meets

  • We cannot also minimize the adverse impact of certain policy imperatives. For one, the preference given recently to Summit diplomacy over traditional foreign policy making structures proved to be a severe handicap.
  • Summit diplomacy cannot be a substitute for carefully structured foreign office policy making. Any number of instances of this nature are available.
  • Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain was one of the earliest victims of Summit diplomacy.
  • The disastrous meeting between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and U.S. President Richard Nixon had long-term adverse implications for India-U.S. relations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President George W. Bush did establish a rapport through frequent Summit meetings, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Conclusion:

The principal responsibility for intelligence assessment and analysis concerning China, rests with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), and to a lesser extent, the Defence Intelligence Agency.  It may not, perhaps, be wrong to surmise that the decision of the NSCS to dismantle the Joint Intelligence Committee has contributed to a weakening of the intelligence assessment system. In the case of the R&AW, lack of domain expertise, and an inadequacy of China specialists might also have been a contributory factor.