The India–China Confrontation: A View from Seawards

Date01 April 2021
Published date01 April 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
03AIA992528_ncx.indd Research Article
The India–China
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Confrontation: A View
8(1) 62–76, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
from Seawards
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2347797021992528
Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash1
Most Indians assumed that India’s humiliating military defeat at China’s hands in
1962 had jolted its political leadership out of its complacency, engendered by
naïve beliefs in the commonality of China’s and India’s aims and aspirations. The
current tense confrontation between Indian and Chinese forces in the remote
Himalayan wastes of Ladakh, climaxing in the June 2020 sanguinary clash,
therefore, came as a rude re-awakening for the Indian public. It is now obvious
that over the past three decades, India’s politico-diplomatic establishment has
been lulled into the false belief that parleys and summit meetings could ensure
peace and tranquillity across the undefined ‘line of actual control’. They also
seem oblivious of the fact that growing naval pressure from the south, coupled
with existing military pressure in the north, could have ominous security
implications for India. Amidst the prevailing perplexity, this essay is a modest
attempt to cast some light on the rationale and motivation behind China’s
actions and its long-term strategic objectives with a focus on its grandiose
maritime ambitions.
Aksai Chin, line of actual control, PLA Navy, tianxia, A2AD, Quad
Yet it must not be supposed from this that the Chinese are a weak and submissive
race. On the contrary, they can shew pluck enough when occasion requires
it, and they are an extremely proud—or, as some people call it, conceited—
nation, considering themselves as far superior to us as we think ourselves superior
to them.
—Lieutenant F. E. Younghusband1
1 Former Chief of Indian Navy.
Corresponding author:
Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash, Distinguished Chair, Indian Naval War College, Goa 403109, India.

Prakash 63
The night of 15 June 2020 saw unusual military activity on the Aksai Chin plateau
of India’s Ladakh region that abuts both Tibet and Xinjiang. Troops of the Indian
Army and China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) had been confronting each
other, for over a month, along a notional ‘line of actual control’ (LAC), supposed
to mark the farthest advance of the PLA during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The
prolonged face-off, eventually, led to an ugly brawl between troops, resulting in
20 Indian dead, including a Colonel, and an unknown number of Chinese
casualties. Although no firearms were used, this clash was the first instance, since
1975, of fatalities occurring on the Sino-Indian border. Both sides blamed the
other and tensions are likely to persist (Panda, 2020).
A reference to this incident is necessary, at the outset, because it is likely to
mark an inflexion point in India–China relations. It is now obvious that over the
past three decades, India’s politico-diplomatic establishment has been lulled into
the false belief that agreements, parleys and summit meetings could ensure peace
and tranquillity across the undefined LAC. India’s decision-makers are not fully
cognizant of the fact that the existing Chinese military pressure in the

north, coupled with a naval build-up in the Indian Ocean, could have ominous
security implications for India. While the existing Sino-Indian agreements seem
as good as dead, China’s forward creep along the LAC could be the precursor to
more substantive incursions and to the establishment of a ‘new normal’ in the
Amidst the prevailing situation of politico-military flux, this essay is a modest
attempt to cast some light on the rationale for China’s actions and its long-term
strategic objectives, with a focus on its maritime ambitions.
Crystal Gazing
One of the biggest challenges of statecraft is the accurate prediction of a nation’s
future intentions, and history is replete with instances where misperceptions of
statesmen have led their countries to grief. In September 1938, British Prime
Minister Neville Chamberlain loftily predicted on return from Munich after his
talks with Hitler: ‘I believe it is peace for our time’. Less than a year later, he was
proved not only to be a false prophet but utterly naïve because Hitler, sceptical
about the willingness of Britain and France to go to war, was to remark: ‘Our
enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich’ (The History Place, 2001).
Closer to home, it was the egregious misreading of China’s intent by India’s post-
independence political leadership which led to India’s humiliating military defeat in
the 1962 Sino-Indian War. India’s first Prime Minister was an idealist, whose pacifist
beliefs, perhaps, blinded him to the reality that nations conduct themselves in
keeping with tenets of political realism, which postulate that states are obsessed
with security, territorial expansion and acquisition of scarce resources. Realism also
places national interest and security above ideology and morality, opposing power
being the only restraining factor (Waltz, 2008, pp. 67–82).

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(1)
Opinion may be divided on the utility of history as an aid for future predic-
tions, but if we accept that historical trends are likely to persist it would be prudent
to take mental note of two theories about the conduct of nations. Political scientist
George Modelski had posited, in his long cycle theory, that the international
system seeks a hegemon, or a dominant single state, in order to maintain stability.
Quoting historical precedents, Modelski had said that global hegemonic domi-
nance is a cyclical phenomenon that lasts about a century, after which the title of
‘most powerful nation in the world’ changes hands. According to him, America’s
era of dominance is nearing its end (Modelski, 1995).
More recently, another political scientist, Graham Allison, having undertaken
16 historical case-studies spanning the past 500 years in which the world was
faced by a new rising power or hegemon, found that in 12 cases the situation
had led to war. Coining a new term, the ‘Thucydides trap’, Allison concluded
that a rising China, which feels that it was cheated out of its rightful place by
stronger nations, now seeks to change the status quo and war remains a possibility
(Allison, 2017).
On current trends, China’s rapidly growing economy promises to endow it
with all the attributes of a great power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the
founding of the People’s Republic. This is the date by which President Xi Jinping
has declared China’s intent to become a ‘fully developed nation’ and thus to attain
strategic equivalence with the US (Pillsbury, 2015). It is quite possible that in
Beijing’s calculus, the attainment of this state of eminence implies a need to
subjugate the neighbourhood and suppress peer competitors or rivals such
as India.
A Resume of Sino-Indian Relations
India’s Ambivalence
It seems that for Mao Ze Dong, the 1962 India-China War was a replay of the
American experience in Korea. In Henry Kissinger’s words, ‘…an underestimation
of China by an adversary, flawed intelligence estimates, and grave errors in
understanding how China reacts to perceived security threats’. Having assured
himself through diplomatic channels that the United States would not interfere
in his Himalayan venture, and that treaty partner USSR might even back him,
Mao assembled his Central Military Commission colleagues in early October
1962 and announced sarcastically: ‘Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on
fighting us, for us not to fight would not be friendly enough. Courtesy demands
reciprocity’ (Kissinger, 2012, pp. 184–188). The rest is history.
In India, on the other hand, debate has persisted whether it was China’s
National Highway 219, joining Xinjiang and Tibet while cutting across the Aksai
Chin, or Nehru’s misguided ‘forward policy’ which constituted the actual casus
belli for the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. After declaring a unilateral
ceasefire on 20 November 1962, troops of the PLA withdrew 20 kms behind the
LAC, which was described by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai as conforming to ‘the

Prakash 65
so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises
actual control in the west’ (Menon, 2016, p. 16). China’s adherence to its 1959
claim-line in Ladakh gave it physical control of 38,000 sq. km of the Aksai Chin
Six decades after the traumatic events of 1962, there continues to be a lack of
clarity in India’s political and diplomatic circles about framing of policies and
shaping of strategies vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Much of
this ambivalence is rooted in the paucity of Mandarin-speaking scholars in the
country, as well as the lack of dedicated research into China’s history, culture,
economy, industry and strategic thought. Given this sparse data bank, Indian
decision-makers have tended to grope in the dark about the nuances of Beijing’s
statements, actions and long-term intentions, and have often come to the wrong
Note must be taken here of the remarkable indifference, bordering on disregard,
shown by India’s post-independence politicians, of all hues, towards vital issues
of national security. No Indian...

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