Is the growing militarisation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — the 3488-kilometre long de facto border between China and India — an invitation to open confrontation between the Asian giants?
Could the Sino–Indian border become like the Line of Control (LoC) — the unsettled, 776-kilometre de facto border with Pakistan — a flashpoint where daily jostling between bitter enemies carries the danger of armed clashes and even outright war?
The militarisation of the LAC is rapidly increasing. India is adding four new divisions, with some 80,000 soldiers, to reinforce the seven divisions that already defend the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Simultaneously, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has beefed up its Tezpur and Chabua air bases with Sukhoi-30MKI fighters. The IAF is upgrading five more air bases and a string of advanced landing grounds that will allow big helicopters, light fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles to operate along the border. Six squadrons of the indigenous Akash anti-aircraft missile system will soon guard India’s vulnerable air space along the Eastern Himalayas. Ground troops remain short of artillery fire support but batteries of the indigenous Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher have been sent to the northeast. And now comes the news that two armoured brigades, with more than 500 T-90 tanks and BMP-IIs (amphibious infantry fighting vehicles), will be deployed to the LAC for the first time.
Regardless of the force levels that India deploys, the LAC is unlikely to become an unstable border like the LoC. The reason is simple: China is very unlike Pakistan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for all its ideological rhetoric, has inherited and absorbed the millennia-old Beijing tradition of handling power and inter-state relations. In contrast, Islamabad is a self-perceived underdog, beset by a sense of siege.
It is notable that the LAC has not seen a single casualty due to enemy action since China and India stabilised their borders with two ground-breaking treaties in 1993 and 1996. Chinese and Indian patrols routinely travel to their respective claim lines, log pro forma complaints accusing each other of border violations, and life goes on quite peacefully. This is not to suggest there is complacence on the LAC. Besides regular patrolling, both sides dutifully monitor each other’s force levels, capabilities, exercises, training and morale. But that is very different from the Indo–Pakistani LoC where, despite a cease-fire agreement in 2003, soldiers continue to die in cross-border firing and militants continue to infiltrate into Jammu and Kashmir, supported by the Pakistan Army. In 1972, senior Indian and Pakistani commanders exchanged maps jointly marked with the exact alignment of the LoC. But the Pakistan Army thought nothing of violating the LoC with the Kargil intrusions of 1999. China is a study in contrast: while resolutely stonewalling the exchange of signed maps (and, therefore, leaving the door open to expanding its holdings) the People’s Liberation Army has never militarily violated the LAC status quo.
This is not to suggest that the CCP is an honourable organisation, or that China’s leaders are men of their word. But the Party and its leaders have always demonstrated an exceptional understanding of the dynamics of power. They calculate coldly and reach rational decisions that minimise risk, unlike the bluster of Pakistan’s generals and leaders.
Because of these differences, Beijing is unlikely to over-react to India’s enhanced force levels near the LAC. Given China’s massive military deployments in Tibet and Xinjiang, and its expanding road and rail infrastructure that already allows it to concentrate seven to nine divisions within a fortnight for an offensive against a chosen point in India’s defences, the Indian army’s four divisions and two armoured brigades are mere pinpricks to the balance of power. What will certainly change is the impression of Indian military weakness. And, given that weakness breeds instability by inviting strikes from militarily superior enemies, India’s build may even go a long way toward stabilising the LAC’s eastern sector. Were India not so poorly prepared in 1962, China might not have waged war so confidently.
Finally, unlike with Pakistan, there are engagement mechanisms between India and China that stabilise the relationship. The two navies cooperate daily in anti-piracy patrolling off the Gulf of Aden. There is a military-to-military dialogue that, notwithstanding recent hiccups, organises joint training, exchanges and visits. New Delhi and Beijing increasingly collaborate in international negotiations, most recently taking closely aligned positions in the climate change negotiations. Trade relations are growing exponentially. And most importantly, India and China simply do not share the same level of animosity as India and Pakistan.
Ajai Shukla writes on strategic affairs for Business Standard and blogs at Broadsword.
A version of this article first appeared here on the author’s Broadsword blog.