OPINION: Understanding the logic behind China's border incursions

China times border incursions with geopolitical chaos, domestic strife


Chinese boundary claim lines defy logic to everyone other than the Chinese Communist Party. Interestingly, the word ‘logic’ is not in the Chinese lexicon: The Chinese term for logic is “luoji”, a term clearly borrowed from English. The emperor draws a line and his ministers intimidate or even go to war to annex whatever territory is within those lines and the Chinese people are forced to believe that these areas were historically a part of China.

Look at the ‘nine-dash Lines’, which were drawn to cover the areas traversed by a Chinese sailor, Zheng He, in the 15th Century, thereby amalgamating the territories into China. Traditionally, geographically and according to international conventions, most of the area belongs to some of the Southeast Asian nations. China has occupied and created a few islands within the 9-dash-lines and has even deployed military forces there. This is despite objections by nations to whom the areas belong, rulings of the International Court of Justice and even freedom of navigation operations by the mighty US and allies. Even offshore oil exploration by Russia and India was not spared.

The logic of the Chinese line is still a delusion, for those outside of it.

The India-China border is another line where China displays consistency in defying logic. A boundary line became necessary in October 1950, when China occupied Tibet and became India’s neighbour. The traditional boundaries that existed between India and Tibet were clearly not logical to China and they proffered a series of lines to India in 1956, 1959 and 1961. The lines kept moving into India and led to the war of 1962.

A few notable events in the period leading to the war were as follows:-

  • Marshal Ye Jianying of China was the Chief Guest for the 1958 Republic Day, showing the close relationship the two countries appeared to have.

  • India and China held foreign ministry official-level discussions on boundary perceptions in 1959-60. While it was on, the PLA ambushed Indian border force patrols at Kongka La in Ladakh and in Longju in Arunachal Pradesh.

  • China feared that India was getting too close to the USA and USSR and tried to contain them. On 29 May 1962, Foreign Minister Marshal Chen Yi mentioned the possibility of a conflict with India, in case she allowed herself to be used by USA to aggravate tensions against China.

  • The Great Leap Forward, the anti–rightist campaign and famine led to millions of Chinese dying and CCP losing popularity, resulting in a perceived dilution of Mao’s power; Mao’s reaction to the situation was to divert the people’s attention so that they do not challenge Chinese socialism.

  • Increased patrolling and forward move by Indian and Chinese troops.

  • End of 1962 saw the Cuban Missile Crisis and on 20 October, Kennedy ordered the quarantine of Cuba. The same day China launched an offensive into India. It may be a coincidence but on 20 November 1962, the Cuban quarantine ended and on the same day China declared a unilateral ceasefire.

The war led to the Indian realisation of logic (or lack of it) regarding the Chinese lines; a rising nationalistic fervour against China and the rapid expansion of Indian Armed Forces. China now had to live with a strong neighbour, who could not be “taught a lesson” as they had planned. Mao came back to power and was in a position to launch the Cultural Revolution to consolidate his position.

Fast forward to current times and it can be seen that China has been consistent in defying the logic of the lines. After the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement was signed between India and China in 1993, the process of LAC delineation commenced through Joint Working Groups and Experts Group meeting regularly. In 2002, maps showing each other’s perception of LAC and IB in the Central Sector were exchanged during the Experts Group Meetings. In a subsequent meeting, exchange of maps with the lines of Western Sector was not done as China showed a claim line which was very different from what existed on ground since 1962. Subsequently from 2007, their perception of border in Sikkim, Depsang, Chumar and many other places continued to change and led to the Doklam Crisis in 2017 as the Chinese line extended into Bhutan. The number of Chinese transgressions and patrol face-offs increased considerably during this period. The current face-offs in Sikkim and Ladakh are consistent with this pattern of Chinese intransigence. A few notable events in recent times, comparable to the Mao period are as follows:-

  • Reduced economic growth and COVID-19 have put considerable pressure on the CCP, necessitating a diversion. The CCP had to project Xi Jinping as a strong leader during the ‘Two Sessions’, held last week. The activities in Hong Kong, South China Sea, Indian borders, rhetoric against Australia and ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, to name a few, could well have been a prelude to this.

  • With growing and comprehensive national power, India, Australia and Japan have become strong and capable of swinging the power balance in the ensuing ‘Cold War’. They are getting close to USA and also taking actions which China feels are detrimental to their unimpeded rise. China’s concern is reflected in the title of an article published in the state-run Global Times on May 25, 2020, describing the border stand-offs with India with the title: ‘India should eschew Western views of China for border peace’. The essence of the article is that China is very strong and India would do well to be on their side.

  • China has come out of the COVID-19 scare and probably think it is the right time to exert pressure while India is in the grip of the virus and facing an economic slowdown. China appears certain that under present conditions, the USA is not in a position to help India. Before India and USA recuperate, China will plan to make maximum gains.

The logic-defying nature of Chinese lines seem to have rubbed off on Nepal too. It is quite likely that even the Nepalese political parties are raising nationalistic fervour on the Kalapani issue at this point of time, based on Chinese coaxing. Even though political stability is at stake, a Nepalese PM is unlikely to use such harsh words against India, while they are fighting COVID-19 and badly need India to buy palm oil and tea from them. Blaming India for the spread of COVID-19 in Nepal is likely to be a leaf out of Chinese books.

The current imbroglio caused by the growing Chinese border lines, will not lead to a war, but will certainly coax India to strengthen the military and form strategic alliances to deal with China more aggressively. The world will also wake up to the Chinese ‘luoji’ of lines.

The author is a retired Major General and a PhD scholar with Madras University,  who was a faculty member at the National Defence College for the last four years.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.