Beating the Chinese fait accompli trap

Written by Ameya Pratap Singh

One of the more perplexing but underdiscussed aspects of the on-going Sino-Indian border stand-off relates to the gains of territorial expansion: Why has China used fait accompli strategies on the Sino-Indian border? Recently, there have been reports of Chinese construction of three villages in Arunachal Pradesh 5 kilometres from the Bum La pass. In total, China is said to have illegally occupied at least 38,000 sq. km. of Indian land over the years. To some observers the question posed here may seem odd as increases in territorial holdings have been part of the raison d’etre of the modern nation-state for centuries, and motives often range from intangible gains such as reputation for resolve, domestic legitimacy, or status to more tangible one’s such as control over natural resources.

But, since World War II, the territorial integrity norm and self-determination have caused territorial conquest to decline sharply. If local populations cannot be convinced of the legitimacy of foreign rule, then their occupation becomes expensive and a risky as well as morally dubious enterprise. Moreover, “size of territory” has declined in importance as a vital indicator of state power, being replaced with nuclear weapons, military modernisation, technology, industrial production etc. In fact—as India knows all too well—the inability to defend vast territories can restrict a state’s rise. Especially in Ladakh, large parts are still largely inhospitable mountainous terrain with scarce human population or vegetation and lack any key natural resources. The territorial sovereignty of each state is often held to be a sacred and inviolable feature, but this still does not explain the rationale behind China’s choice of fait accompli strategies for territorial conquest across the Sino-Indian border.

Well, China does so because faits accompli is the preferred mode of modern territorial conquest. American political scientist Dan Altman has argued that while territorial wars and invading armies indeed became exceedingly rare after 1945, modern conquest has evolved to encourage a different type of territorial conquest. Expansionist states now purposefully target the seizure of smaller pieces of unpopulated and ungarrisoned territories that keep the risk of conflict within manageable proportions. Instead of “brute force” they use “fait accompli”. The goal is to gamble on the military occupation of a small piece of territory that is unlikely to provoke large-scale war. In this case for example, China presents India with a difficult choice — if India chooses to evict PLA forces and escalate, it could risk war. But it would be unlikely to risk such a war over 1000 sq km of territory. Altman argues that this logic also undergirded Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974.

This means the credibility of India’s red line against China’s use of force across the LAC is in peril. What can India do? Can it ensure China does not profit from its aggression meant to induce fait accompli? India certainly needs to improve its deterrence by denial posture and expedite its road infrastructure plans, modernise its military, and make appropriate changes to bring operational efficiency to the Army’s Northern command for rapid mobilisation (C4I2 capability). India will also need to improve its radar surveillance systems, long range fire power, air power and missile capability in border areas along with electronic warfare and cyber capabilities. Loopholes exposed by the Chinese ingress in Ladakh in the analytic framework for intelligence processing need addressing too. In essence, India should be able to better pre-empt and quickly respond to Chinese fait accompli strategies to prevent them in the future. While financial and administrative limitations have prevented fuller realisation, this has arguably been the intended strategy of the Indian government so far.

However, this may not be enough. India also needs deterrence by punishment options. New Delhi needs to invest in its 17 Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), which is intended to act as a counter-offensive force against China along the LAC. There have already been reports that the Indian Army has mobilised two strike corps for the mountains facing China. But their use should not be limited to counter-offense in response to Chinese fait accompli strategies (especially when delayed), since this makes for a predictable script. Instead, the MSC should also focus on the possibility of India offering faits accomplis of its own across the LAC during situations of low-threat expectation and exposed vulnerabilities on the Chinese side. If faits accomplis are attractive to Beijing because they are perceived to be low-risk, their use can only be discouraged by awakening the Chinese to the grave escalatory risks and debilitating costs of a constant threat of a limited but difficult to reverse territorial ingress along a 2100-mile long border from the Indian side. In world politics, norms restraining competition often emerge from the fear of inadvertence and escalation rather than the goodwill of rivals.

Such force projection may not be possible in the short term—considering India was unable to raise a second division of the MSC in Pathankot in 2017-18 due to paucity of funds—but is nonetheless necessary in the long run to raise costs for Chinese “salami slicing”. One must also remember that such a strategy went horribly wrong for Jawaharlal Nehru before the 1962 War and therefore adequate funding and capacity-building are essential before this option can be fully explored and deployed successfully. But if this strategy is indeed implemented dexterously—although it will play out over a longer timeline—India’s crisis bargaining position and demand for the restoration of the status quo as of April 2020 may finally have some teeth to it.

An equally pertinent policy solution for the Chinese challenge on the border is the economic development of India’s border populations and regions. Beyond building roads to gain access to vital strategic points, allowing border areas to flourish as population centres has been part of the Indian government’s agenda at least since the Himmatsinghji Committee Report of 1951. While there is a strong case to be made for such measures from the perspective of public welfare, there is also a defence imperative, both for internal (against insurgencies and armed separatist factions) as well as external security. First, as border regions become denser population wise, the potential for cross-border encroachment diminishes. This approach may have limits in certain inhospitable parts, but to prevent Chinese settlements in lower-lying areas local populations may be nearly as important for border security as the Indian Army. Second, not only will this improve India’s own administrative control and acceptance in these border regions, it will also offer Tibetans on the other side a glimpse into what state-led economic development can look like in a democratic society.

According to Altman, faits accomplis are part of an “advancing without attacking” strategy and notoriously difficult to deter and draw red lines against. Considering this, India’s security interests simply cannot afford an ill-managed economy, bureaucratic inefficiency, and delays in plans for military modernisation. To finance this increased defence burden, India’s economic growth and need for domestic stability will assume salience like never before. Due to the successful staging of its “peaceful rise” policy, China under Deng Xiaoping could bide its time and rise without the overhang of geopolitical competition. But India under Modi faces Xi’s revanchist China on the border along with an increasingly hostile regional security environment. There is no margin for error.

Singh is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.

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