The Real Threat from China's Military: Going "Rogue"

Why a series of recent incidents along the disputed China-India border could be a sign of a much bigger problem.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping was humiliated during his just-completed meeting with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, turning the long-awaited summit into a “fiasco,” according to one observer. Sino-Indian relations, which were supposed to be propelled to new heights last week, now look troubled, at least in the short term.

In mid-September, Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control, the demarcation of the disputed China-India border, in the Chumar section of eastern Ladakh, high in the Himalayas. Reinforcements brought their number up to battalion strength, about 1,000 soldiers, according to reports. Although the Sino-Indian boundary there is ill defined, it was clear China’s commanders intended to create a provocation as they advanced several kilometers on the Indian side of the temporary line.

Last Wednesday, while meeting Modi in Ahmedabad, Xi said he had ordered his forces to return to the Chinese side of the border. On Thursday, in New Delhi, Chinese officials told their Indian counterparts that the troops had in fact been directed to return to their original position. In fact, China’s commanders added soldiers late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

“Even such small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships just as a little toothache can paralyze the entire body,” Modi told Xi on Thursday, after it was clear the People’s Liberation Army had not returned to China’s side of the line. The tense standoff, perhaps the worst in years, continued Friday, when Xi ended his three-day visit. The incident—actually a series of intrusions—lasted into the weekend.

At the same time, there was a “civilian confrontation” at Demchok, a village also in Ladakh. There, Chinese yak and pony herders set up tents about a half kilometer on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, clearly at the direction of Chinese authorities, most likely the army.

Indian government officials, in the words of the Times of India, are “pretty sure” that the incursions “were timed to coincide” with Xi’s visit to India. If so, who timed the provocations? Some believe it was Xi Jinping himself, engaging in a particularly duplicitous form of diplomacy.

The argument that Xi is the villain begins with the notion, shared by almost all China watchers, that he is in full control of the armed forces. If he is, the Chinese leader, by talking peace while deploying his military, was exhibiting a typical Chinese tactic toward the Indians. After all, this would not have been the first time in recent years that Mr. Xi had combined soft and hard tactics against the Indians. For instance, in April and May of last year, on the eve of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi, Chinese troops in platoon force marched about 19 kilometers into India, in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector of Ladakh. They stayed about twenty-one days and left only after the Indians threatened to cancel Li’s visit.

Yet circumstances have changed since last year, and it is hard to see how Mr. Xi thought the intrusions would advance his country’s cause at this moment. This year, Beijing seems particularly anxious to develop warm relations with New Delhi, something the Chinese leader attempted to do with his many goodwill gestures during the symbolism-rich trip.

Why the recent change in China’s approach to India? Beijing has apparently woken up to the possibility that it could be surrounded by powerful adversaries. The last thing Chinese policy makers want is for India to form working partnerships with Japan (Modi went to Tokyo in the beginning of this month) or the United States—where he will meet President Obama in Washington on the 29th and 30th. The deliberate incursion theory, therefore, does not compute as Beijing believes—correctly—that the American “pivot” to Asia does not have credibility without New Delhi’s support.

Of course, the Chinese tend to put new leaders of other countries under stress to see how they react, but that explanation is also hard to accept in this case. Beijing had to realize that the cost of testing the Indian prime minister at this time would be long-term suspicion and that it was unlikely for Modi, with his known nationalist bent and big majority in the lower house of Parliament, to buckle.

In fact, the provocation damaged Beijing’s reputation in New Delhi, perhaps significantly. “As the military face-off continued on Friday,” the Times of India noted, “it was clear that the visit of the Chinese president, which held the promise of improving ties, may have in fact aggravated the trust deficit because of the Ladakh incursions.” Leading Indian academic Madhav Nalapat, writing in New Delhi’s Sunday Guardian, noted that Xi “has been blamed for this apparent show of bad faith.”

It is always possible that Xi and China’s policy makers have lost touch with reality and deliberately ordered the intrusions in Ladakh this month, but it is far more likely that visiting Chinese officials were telling the truth last week when they “pleaded ignorance about the provocation,” implying that elements of the People's Liberation Army were acting on their own. The Chinese words were not, as the Indians generally took them to be, a “feint” because in all probability Xi does not control his army's movements in the Himalayan regions.