India Speak: The CPR Podcast

Episode 16: Uncovering the Strategic Aspects of Sino-India Ties

Episode Summary

In the third episode of our series, hosted by Sushant Singh (Senior Fellow, CPR), featuring leading experts on the various facets of Sino-India relations, we are joined by Taylor Fravel (Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science & Director, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to discuss the strategic aspects of Sino-India relations. Singh and Fravel unpack the relevance of the Chinese strategic guidelines for India and the significance of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) ground forces in a challenge against India. They also discuss the concept of active defence and the current PLA deployment at the Indian border, what could prompt Chinese aggression and its definition of a red line. Fravel also sheds light on China's domestic affairs, the Galwan incident and increase of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sponsored nationalism. Finally, Singh and Fravel unpack the breakdown of the India-China SOPs that had been held for over three decades, the events in Doklam, China's intentions for the border crisis and what we can expect in the future.

Episode Notes


Sushant: Hello and welcome to India speak, a podcast by the center for policy research. I am Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for policy research in India. This podcast features leading global experts and academics on the many facets of Sino-India relations. Some of them like Dennis Blasko have looked at the military sides of things while others like Arnab Ghosh have focused on the historical facets. But, today we will be discussing the strategic aspects. Looking at China and its troubled relationship with India through a strategic lens, and to do that my guest today is a top scholar of international relations with the focus on International security China and East Asia. Professor Taylor Fravel is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Security Studies Program, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taylor has been a member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee on US-China relations and serves as the Principal Investigator for the Maritime Awareness Project. His books include Strong Borders Secure Nation, Corporation and Conflicts in China’s Territorial Disputes, and Active Defence China’s Military Strategies Since 1949, which came in 2019. Taylor, Welcome to India Speak.

Taylor: Thanks much for having me! It’s good to be here.

Sushant: Taylor, both your books, the first one about China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and the second one about China’s Military Strategy have huge relevance for India today. Starting with your latest book first, in what manner exactly does the military strategy, the 1993 strategic guideline, and the subsequent alterations of 2004, and 2014 winning informatize local wars, apply to India of today.

Taylor: Sure, thanks Sushant, that's a great question. So, I think one has to break down the components of the strategic guidelines in order to be able to provide an answer to this question but one of the most important component to focus on this idea of work of local wars in other words China’s current strategy is designed to prevail in limited conflicts on itsperiphery is contested, so of course, it includes the border of India, but it also includes Taiwan as well as the disputes in East China Seas and the South China Seas. This idea of inframactization or informatization also refers to how these wars will be fought, application of high technology, connecting sensors, sheeters, and commanders, focusing on a joint operation. Now, with all these strategies, China has focused on what is known as the strategic direction and Chinese strategic guidelines have sort of identified the primary or a main strategic direction and the secondary or the other strategic directions. And, the point here for India is, that India is not a primary strategic direction or in other words the main as far as the conflict scenario that China’s strategy has cleared to address, and that, of course, is a Taiwan and questions related to whether or not China might be forced to pursue unification, and given the nature of that relationship this come to also include whether or not China might have to fight the United States in the context of Taiwan. So, in this sense India is always a secondary strategic concern for China and its military strategy and not a primary concern, it's biggest and relevant in that way. Now, what is changing recently in the last five years or so is that China has shown a willingness, however, to sort of work with distinction with the primary and secondary instituted direction such that to tolerate friction from multiple directions at the same time. So we have today, with the increasing frequency of  Chinese air force strikes in Taiwan's air defense identification zones, you have an almost permanent presence of Chinese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku islands. Of course the massive build-up in the South China sea and finally, of course, the tensions insinuating along the border of India, you know a decade that came to ahead in 2020 and now in the conditions that we find ourselves in where there is significant forces, more or less deployed along the border, and so, Taiwan is still the primary contingency or the main strategic direction. Chinese leadership is willing to tolerate friction and to take war forward leading positions in the past in multiple strategic directions and that of course would include India.

Sushant: Taylor, does the fact that the ground forces really would not be involved when it comes to South China Sea, or Coco island or Taiwan, which is the primary challenge which you said, but ground forces would be at the forefront of the challenge against India. Does that matter?

Taylor: I think it matters. I think because when China does the PLA army. The PLA a clear mission which is the primary service, moreover although one invasion a sub-degree of ground and air operations in the Himalayas and the other mountainous regions so it's not going to be truly joined, involving the navy and in that sense, I think it does matter a lot want to go so far to say that tensions have increased primarily because the ground forces need something to deal. But training for this continues, certainly keeps them quite busy and focused. Moreover, another thing that I tell you is that I should have said earlier is the ground forces would be involved in sort of the most significant campaign against to get Taiwan or would be invading but short of that in other course of campaign, certainly the maritimein the East and south tennessee, the ground forces would be possible. Also as you know that China has a layered border, so depending on the entire stretch of the frontline is also an important mission for the ground forces even though they are the only area where it's heartily contested is probably India.

Sushant: Taylor, when you see the current PLA deployment on the India border, does it fit in with the concept of the active defense which you wrote about in your book. What would be the PLA’s likely design of the war as per your appreciation of the situation based on what you see on the borders?

Taylor: I think the concept of active defense has come around since the 1930's. It basically had different meanings at different points and times. That is why I note that for your listeners. In the 1930's it was literally an operational concept for how to sort of deal with stronger forces raid by the nationalists in the soviet base areas in jiangxi and fujian provinces and so forth and then after 1949 it actually became sort of vague military strategy in the sense, China postering its forces to counter attack after being invaded. Of course the definition of active defense going back to the 30’s is also the defense or being defensive at the strategic level or offensive about sort of campaign operational and tactical Now today as far as strategic principle that China will retaliate once its interests is violated, so it doesn't necessarily need to include being attacked or forceful with certainly being attacked in other way. So in that sense, it’s a war overtime so that is how it applies to the world today. I think it is less about Chinese forces being first being attacked by Indian forces but I think they have a strong incentive to do that but of course, that would be one application. Secondly, to be postured in a way to retaliate if China believed that India took political or diplomatic actions that harm its interest in the area of sovereignty is contested. What does this mean in terms of the deployment? Well it's hard to say as clearly China has moved from more recessed posture on the border or in the border areas actually its actually not they are not literally on the border, they are still set back to some degree but its moved from a much more recessed posture to a less recessed or forward posture. What this says to me is that China is making it much easier to retaliate the next time it believes that its interests have been violated or attacked or what China may read this as adventurism or opportunism by the Indian Armed forces.

Sushant: So, Taylor, just to reiterate what you said is that China could decide on its own that its interest has been violated and it decides to undertake counter-attacks so to speak. And its definition of counterattack is not actually a physical attack being retaliated. It's more, interest or sovereignty or whatever issues it decides that are being violated. Am I right?

Taylor: Yes, with the cap that is not any issue , it's one that they believe possesses direct harm to their core interest and that requires a military response to defend it. I don't think the PLA can see or Chinese leaders can see an act of defense necessarily as a blind check simply to do whatever it is that they want, always gonna justify their actions as defensive and that's the major act of defense that I should have mentioned earlier. Namely, seasonal high ground in any kind of conflict situation, and of course China is only acting in response to the offensive actions of another state whether those are military actions or other kinds of actions that are harming what China believes to be its core interest.

Sushant: Taylor, but the red lines in this case, and I am not using the red as a pun but the Chinese red lines in this case vis a vis India. What would those redlines be? Excluding the physical escalation from India or physical provocation which is highly unlikely from the Indian side. What could those red lines be?

Taylor: I think we may have seen some of these redlines earlier, going back to Article 370, initially we talked a lot about but in other words a perception on the part of Chinese leaders that India is adopting significantly new and from their point more hostile or regressive postures on the borders. I think the Chinese leaders like to avoid red lines so or at least making them clear but that kind of action or something like that in the future I think would be something in which there might be a military response, wanted you know of course active defense  need not be a kinetic response could be a threat of force or display of force as well as the negotiation of the combat or operations. I think it would be something along those lines, where China believed that India was terrifying them until the alerting its opposition, from China's standpoint, did not go unchecked which could have weakened China's position in the disputed long run and that the response it wanted to. But, I should also point out that China in the past has been quite able and willing to live with unresolved contested issues. To include the border with India, Taiwan, and others so this is not the case that or without the case that active defense would be triggered and a very low threshold actions take by the other side again from China’s standpoint but something that would be viewed as the significant and negative shift in China’s position in the dispute.

Sushant: Reeling back a bit Taylor, 21 months down the line, what is it about the current Sino-India border crises that has really taken you by surprise, and if I may ask why?

Taylor: I will still reserve the curious part to me is what happened I guess May-April through the end of May 2020. When there was a significant movement of forces in Moscow areas at the same time in particular areas wherethe line of actual control is itself is contested, with absolutely no public statements by  any PLA spokesperson or governments spokesperson. So you have this really significant shift on the border without any corresponding kind of political or diplomatic campaign. To include mobilizing the Chinese public against India in some way. So it, not the combination of the significant movement in multiple areas that was a precedent as well as the reticence at the sort of the public levels at least one does not know it was well I don't know what was being said between the governments but clearly China was not seeking to draw attention to this so that to me is still somewhat puzzling. And of course, that first set the stage for the clash of Taiwan leading upto to everything else Taiwan make the situation much more tense following India’s great Procol operation quite serious standoff right throughout the fall of 2020 to february of 2021 on the areas of the North and South of Pangong Lake.

Sushant: But you know these things have changed in the recent months. There has been a very high pitched domestic coverage in China of the so-called Galwan heroes, the PLA soldiers part of the clash on 15 June 2020 in Galwan which you just referred to. They raised the flag in Galwan valley on New year’s day this year. They broadcast the video and put it out on youtube. The so-called heroes are being taken to schools, special medals have been given to those PLA soldiers who died in Galwan. They have been put in the communist party, in documents they have been hailed as heroes, the torchbearer in winter Olympics was a so-called galwan hero. There is a new six-part documentary which CCTV has broadcast on China’s Western Theater Command, focused on what kind of deployment is going on in Ladakh and so on. The list goes on, what exactly is going on here domestically in China?

Taylor: Wooh! That’s a brilliant form of a question. The first thing I would say is it is important to know that China did not begin to draw attention to any of the heroes until after the February de-escalation which is actually the opposite of the Indian approach right? The Indian approach is to draw attention immediately to those who perished in the Gallon valley and rightly so I don't, that's not a criticism in any way but I think what more important is that China waited and waited quite a long time, and it appeared not to want to tie its hand in terms of bringing about at least a tactical de-escalation that meant to prevent at that kind of conflict that I think was certainly unintended by China and almost certainly by India as well. But at the same time like Xi Jinping has elevated the wall of nationalism in the defense of sovereignty as part of his Chinese dreams. Chinese soldiers did die in the clash after China's standpoint they died defending Chinese territory and because of the fact that China has not actually been engaged in many military conflicts over the last few decades. There are very few here that PLA has that can underscore the Chinese public that they all placed in, defending Chinese interest. So I think, all the attention are given afterwards is the part of the prerogative that the China dream of defensive sovereignty which one sees pretty frequently but now faces and names can be attached to some individuals who play a very direct role in doing so, and of course, China like many societies does seek to honor people if police, heroes who stood up to defend China’s interest or denied doing so. So, I think that’s one element that has the first two elements right? There is this very important pause which could have been driven in the end. I think you have great attention been drawn to these individuals, one serving as the torchbearers as you know and thirdly I would say I reflect the power of the Chinese propaganda after that. Because, once this is deal in the acceptable topic of conversation you have sort of all of the kinds of things that you just mentioned and it's very clearly and it probably intended to bolster the view of the armed forces in China which has not necessarily be seen a much lately given the peaceful environment that China has enjoyed and I think it also finds a lesson I would say i don't think much of it is actually directed at India. It all seems very clear that for the most part has been directed to its internal audience that occasionally, especially all the time, may draw attention to something like this when it comes out of English Indian media. But for totality they are doing, I think is very much internally focused propaganda, a style campaign, a focused on real heroes from China standpoint and less about targeting India even if one is sitting in India the whole unit has been quite clearly not targeted at India

Sushant: Taylor can the Communist Party, Chinese communist party really dial down the nationalism once they are anti so to speak? Do they really have the power to calibrate this up and down? Because, in most countries, you can dial up nationalism but you cannot dial it down very quickly. Can the Communist Party dial it down if tomorrow there is, if the situation de-escalates and both sides need to step back can they quickly dial it down?

Taylor: I think they can quickly dial it down than other societies, especially more democratic ones because after all you control the news media, the party's propaganda department. Certainly the past has seen efforts to do such things with Japan or in other circumstances so I think this propaganda campaign was viewed as presenting an obstacle in some way could turn down the reign. All that being said though, it won't go back to the way in which Xi Jinping has elevated sovereignty when defensive sovereignty is the part of the Chinese dream. This is the party standpoint a legitimate issue to cover and discuss and so, that also reflects the power of the party in shaping the discourse but that kind of discourse might be certainly hard to change or to tone down because now it's so clearly attached to China’s leader. That said I think the party and leadership did wanted to pursue at least the tactical pauses they can certainly issue the propaganda directives that would say do not cover you know the China-India border or only use tax permission ones agency to cover the China-India border and very quickly you can see sort of how the marginalization of coverage of these stories, certainly within China.

Sushant: Taylor, just coming back to the border crisis per se, you know the arrangements, agreements, SOPs between India and China or the border areas held good for nearly three decades. Why did they break down now in the summer of 2020? Or was it always coming, did we not see it, did we not see what happened with Doklam, did we misread the resolution of the Doklam crisis of 2017. What is it really that  happened here?

Taylor: So mind you, these United Nations agreements could no longer contain the level of activity of either side you know along the line of actual control in disputed areas, which is to say those were the agreements of the time when the Line of Actual Control in many places was difficult for either side to access plus you had very few opportunities for forces to come into contact with each other, especially on the same day. So, you might have a weekly patrol or monthly patrol on one side, you would leave a tin can for the other side to find something you might be familiar with but no actual contact. And, there has been a very significant increase in the border infrastructure, especially on the Chinese side but also on the Indian side, which means you have increased the rates of patrols, I don’t know the rates of patrols on both sides, I assume Chinese patrol quite regularly but at least, Indian media reports that come across indicate a shift of patrolling certain areas from a weekly basis to patrolling on the daily basis and so. In essenceyou have such a high level of contacts that you know and forces in such closer proximity that these forces that agreement is no longer relevant to the circumstances that now exist on the floor. Certainly, not at all relevant now that incidents of Gallon valley have happened and you are quite a significant forward presence of the Chinese side and what appears to be on the Indian side as well. So, It seems to me that new agreements are needed, right that these agreements, held for a period of time, but new agreements would be needed to sort of address new challenges to stability on the border created by this much-agreed presence and ease of operating. And, you look at it in different ways: new agreements could be crafted but I think simply, old agreements outlived their usefulness because the situation on the border changed the way, the past agreement simply could not contain.

Sushant: Taylor, actually you are absolutely right on that one. When I speak to Indian retired or serving Indian military officers they tell me that somewhere around the second half of the first decade of the century, that is between around 2007,8,9,10. The quantum of Indian forces on LAC increased, as well as the infrastructure on the LAC, and the frequency of the patrols consequently increased and this is one of the complaints from the PLA commander that historically you have never come to these areas or have come very very infrequently, why are you coming so frequently what’s your design and why are you asserting your claims and that's as you know fair clashes have taken place from border patrol have come into contact with each other and that clearly as you rightly brought out has put strains on the existing agreements, existing protocols and they clearly now have broken down. Taylor, do you also think that the 2017 Doklam crisis where the Indians went and stopped China and Bhutan. Did it also in a material way also affect the Chinese thinking about it?

Taylor: I think it has a significant impact on the Chinese assessment of Indian intentions. And, Indians sort of resolve not just their claims along the border but also Bhutan’s claims, because as you may recall India moved forces across, what both China and India agree as international frontier they just don't agree which countries a lot on the opposite side of the that international frontier that China has claimed as part of the Chinese territory and certainly where the clash took place its been under effective Chinese control and heavy build-up for quite some time. At least one can find images of roads via Google earth that connected China back to 1990s when those images first became available and so I think the Indian action really the Chinese, and if you recall the level of rhetoric in red alert in the summer 2017 was actually harsher than the level of rhetoric in the summer of 2020. Despite the fact that you had the first debonair clash in decades, actually, quite a serious situation, summer of 2020 but summer of 2019 that Chinese concluded that India had violated a pretty important principle from their standpoint and this I think was then projected across the other disputes between China and India. And, so you see of course an increase, in India reporting of Chinese interrogation across the LAC, especially after in the western sector of Ladakh where it gets easier for certain controls to come in contact with each other. So I think China probably elevated its posture in response, and then of course we see the action reaction cycles. The trigger of Doklam, Chinese should have re-building was not connected with the Indian perception or Chinese perception of India but simply to decade long effort to basically be able to have decent roads that go right upto the actual Line of Control I don't think China was by building road was seeking cut the chicken’s neck, actually, it's very difficult for China to move forces there and India has I don't know how many division on the other side it is a very heavily defended area. So I don't believe that was China’s intention to simply engage in this manifestation of this road building in that area but to trigger Indian sensitivity. But of course, it's a mystery which I do not understand is that China has notified the Indian commander multiple times in May that they will be undertaking this activity and so it seems to me, I don't understand what happened to that information, or why knowing that information there were no other efforts to address the situation I think that was the historical turning point. It wasn't meant by China as a fate accomplice because it's recorded I think it ended didn’t acknowledge on the Indian side that these notifications were made now maybe the scale at what China brought in was simply inconsistent with the notifications that the Chinese made or could be another explanation but it's a bit of a mystery that I do not yet fully understand.

Sushant: But whatever, may have happened as you say the outcome or the impact that was much bigger than what seemed at that point, or that point of time. Taylor, what exactly now we see this crisis going on, the rhetoric etc? What exactly are China’s intentions, and are they really driven by Xi's own personality? Are they linked to Chinese domestic politics in some other way to the party Congress that's coming up? Is it about Taiwan the fact that they are not able to get back Taiwan, is it about some other  external drivers Vis a Vis India chord Indo-pacific, the United State? What really are the drivers of this crisis in China now?

Taylor: If you mean now as in February 2022, China has taken a position that it does not, it appears to maintain the new status quo on the border and to prevent the escalation of the situation or conflict, and not to pursue a reset with India may be possible to maintain some semblance of workable diplomatic ties, perhaps impart to set the table for driving wedge through the quad later on but I think China has adopted a position and even it did quite quickly after Galwan that it wanted to try to put the Genie back into the bottle as it works. It will be fun to assess Chinese diplomacy in June and July 2020. Now, who wants to talk about China's intentions leading up to May-June 2020. I think after June it simply says their perception of the situation on the border and perhaps exacerbated by the pandemic in China and heightened sensitivity to sort of external threats at that time, what China accuses as the Indian provocations occurred mostly in 2019 and early part of 2020. Also, to answer this question, we need to distinguish what were the intentions that motivated China to sort of make those moves in May or late April end of May 2020 versus verses motivating China now. But this is the year of Party Congress , China seeks a stability whenever there is a party Congress, this party congress is perhaps the most important Congress held since the start of reformative opening like we all most certainly consolidate as Xi’s third term as the general secretariat of the party, his third term continuing his chairmanship of the central military commission, becoming president of the following sprint for another term and maybe or maybe not depending on what happens signaling some succession plan based upon some kind of the ages of the individuals who make it to the powerful standing committee whether or not they will still be eligible to serve in the era of 2027 party Congress. Also, there is a massive turnover in the central committee which is the body that is elected or selected to make it to the political standing. Also, there is massive turnover in the central committee, which is the body which is elected or selected or predesignated at the party congress which is an opportunity for Xi to consolidate his position in that leading body perhaps for several more Party congresses to come so I think China’s attention is very much focused in words on Xi ping, the attention of China’s leadership is very much focused on this party congress. Which makes me think if they can they will prefer to maintain a stable equilibrium and their external ties to generate that, the external environment allows them to do so and not upset or create issues that can upset the arrangements that have been put in place for the party congress is coming for.

Sushant: Taylor, so how will this problem now between India and China be resolved. Are you hopeful about it to be resolved or are we walking closer to the conflict between two nuclear major powers in  Asia?

Taylor: I don't think it will be resolved in the sense, there being an agreement to demarket the border, I do think one can see stability for the time to come, and that is of course shorter resolution but than the alternatives. I don't think China has a strong incentive to take offensive actions against India. The same time I can see the signal very clearly that they are not going to compromise, especially in Ladakh where I don't know, you would know better, that India has always bullied them to gain more concessions from China sort of forward deployment and entrenchment of forces that I am guessing you discussed with them. Dennis Blasco indicates that the current situation along the border with India is the one that China will support in the final settlement. So, that has the potential to stabilize in the agree or have a fact to an agreement accept and not challenge that would include China not challenging India in certain areas and Indian army not challenging china in certain areas, specially in the areas where the perception of the line of actual control defers, of course, there are unresolved issues, include those you have written about yourself, mainly around devsung but I think at least at the strategic level, China probably sees little benefits now of antagonizing India so long as it can maintain and deepen the consolidated control over those areas in the western sector has no intention of giving up in any case of final negotiation or settlement. As I said China has lived with the unresolved issues for a long time or has a part depending on the issue from China’s standpoint depending on is it a stable one or unstable one which importantly is a function their perception like Indian policies instead of haters along the Line of Actual Control but I don't see China necessarily as seeking to further antagonize India now, both in the short term due to question-related to the chord to the party congress in the longer term of quad and so forth so I think, it's not an inherently stable situation when you have for more deployed forces there is more work to be done in a particular. I think the two sides should consider renegotiating the 93 and 94 agreements into account and with the new situation along the border it could include they are diplomatically created by creating, no - go zones perception of LAC, conflict because that is always the spark that it seems to me and so if that is all the spark that to remove opportunities for fires to start that would be hugely, sort of , beneficial in terms of peace and stability would not help resolve the dispute and if I think if both sides knew they would be giving up something because you won't be able to go to their extent of Line of Actual Control but the benefit will be a more stable situation along the border.

Sushant: On that hopeful and optimistic note Taylor that both sides would agree to a newer status quo, which is more stable, more peaceful, less tense. Thank you so much, Taylor, this was so illuminating and wonderful talking to you.

Taylor: It was so great to talk to you. Thank you so much for having me.

Sushant: Thank you listeners for listening, for more information on our work, follow us on Twitter at CPR_India, and log on to our website