Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why the Dragon Baits the Tiger

China's neighbours are bearing the brunt of its worsening internal challenges, but there is a solution.

This latest incursion at Daulat Beg Oldi is not unique. There have been at least 600 such incidents since 2010. Every previous incursion was resolved by talking ourselves down from a stand off or with PLA troops simply leaving the area. There's no reason to assume this incident will end any differently.

But why do Chinese troops keep crossing the LAC? It boils down to one word: legitimacy. The Chinese government - actually, the Communist Party (they are technically different entities) - has expertly positioned itself as the only guarantor of its citizens' well-being. To maintain legitimacy and avoid its own demise, it needs to continue being seen as just such a guarantor. To be fair, the Party has delivered extraordinary economic growth, reducing China's poverty rate from 85% in 1981 to 15% in 2005.

This unfettered growth has brought its own challenges. Among them, a huge gap between rich and poor, debilitating pollution that is now the leading cause of social unrest, and clashes with between the State and ethnic minorities. Official figures for "mass incidents" or unrest grew from 8,709 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005. These are official figures, so the actual number is likely higher. Then came the very public embarrassment from the Bo Xilai scandal, which severely damaged the Party's already worn reputation. In short, the Party has lost 'face'. It now greatly fears a threat to its legitimacy. 

As a sort of insurance policy for its own survival, the Party has spent more on internal security than military expenditure for three years running. For added insurance, it is simultaneously distracting its citizens from the many problems within the country, by making outsiders take some of the flak

The South China Sea dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam is back on the front pages. Japanese and South Korean businesses have faced increased hostility from Chinese consumers. Taiwan remains a sore point. And there's India - the only land-based border dispute that Beijing has not yet settled. Most of these neighbours have seen an increase in aggression that has coincided with growing China's internal unrest. The U.S's very loud 'pivot to Asia', which was partially a response to growing Chinese aggression, has only added to this sense of encirclement.

This raises an interesting question: how do you deal with someone who wants to demonise you, just so they can distract from their own problems?

Let's start with the immediate problem - the incursions. The one thing India does not want to do is to play Beijing's game. Beijing wouldn't mind a fight right now. This would rally China's citizens behind the Party. The goal, remember, is not the fight itself, which the PLA will likely win thanks to superior logistics. It is for the Party to have the unquestioning support of its citizens. India, at any rate, cannot afford a conflict right now. The best solution is to talk and defuse such provocations. This has happened 600 times before and will continue to happen in the future. The media should avoid conflating such obvious distractions with the real problems identified above. 
 
That said, there is no harm in enhancing India's ability to respond to a potential conflict. The stationing of new military units along the LAC is a strong signal that New Delhi is prepared to defend its territory. This conventional deterrence bolstered by the existing nuclear deterrent, will ward off more serious land-grabbing attempts. 

Another strong signal would be the strengthening of ties with China's other neighbours such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. The message to China's strategic community from this is that continuing such tactics would only alienate Beijing further. In fact, such ties should not only include military exercises but also partnerships in the fields of science and technology, agriculture, trade and investment. The wider the basket of benefits for good behaviour, the greater will be Beijing's perceived alienation for its bad behaviour. MEA officials and observers in the strategic community indicate that the New Delhi is doing exactly this. Perhaps its public messaging could do with improvement.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Of course there are covert means to discourage China from a fight, but I would leave these to the imagination of conspiracy theorists and the capable hands of more competent individuals. Finally, for anyone looking for more perspective, do read Lt. General Panag's excellent primer on the standoff.

UPDATE: I'd like to add a link to another post by Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, distinguished fellow at SAISA (an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated he worked at CLAWS. He is no longer with the organization). He explains that another reason for the timing of these incursions is that China is in a position of relative strength. So, it is looking to gain as much ground before India can develop enough of a conventional deterrent to pre-empt future incursions.