Aggression or Pre-emption? The Name of Xi’s Sino-Indian Game

Christina Burjan | China Fellow

Following the June 2020 outbreak of fighting along the China-India border, then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that the clash served as a stark reminder of China’s intent on “remaking the international order anew…to include literally redrawing the world map” . Indeed, commentary from both academic and policy circles tends to reiteratively emphasise President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy posture as one dominated by aggressionist and expansionist objectives.

Chinese aggression in theatres of conflict such as the South China Sea, as well as Xi’s signature ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ more broadly, are testament to the validity of this claim. Yet there too is a risk in unquestioningly accepting the characterisation as a blanket rationale for Chinese behaviour writ large. Specifically considering the Sino-Indian dispute, closer examination of China’s conduct suggests that Xi, contrary to popular belief, is not primarily concerned with territorial gain. Instead, the main aim of Xi’s game seemingly lies in pre-emptively securing areas of strategic significance.

The desire to maintain strategic stability is indeed evidenced in China’s behavioural tendencies across outbreaks of Sino-Indian border conflict, during Xi’s presidency. Chinese aggression vis-à-vis the April 2013 and September 2014 clashes is understood to have been a response to renewed Indian activism along the border and the subsequent erection of an Indian observation post respectively. Similarly, reports regarding the 2020 skirmishes point to the Indian construction of a road in the Galwan river valley as having incited Chinese resistance.

The 2017 Doklam standoff presents a slightly more complicated case. The cause of the dispute is most commonly cited as the expansion of a road by Chinese soldiers. It is noteworthy, however, that the territory through which the road travels is claimed by China and Bhutan, yet not by India. With this in mind, it becomes easier to rationalise how, from Beijing’s perspective, India’s subsequent deployment of approximately 300 troops to the same location, was interpreted as a crossing of international boundaries. In this way, the demonstration of Chinese aggression can again be linked to the pre-emptive securing of a strategic foothold.

Whilst often characterised as unprecedented and rogue, Xi’s strategically pre-emptive mentality is not so far removed from that demonstrated by his predecessors. The “Forward Policy” policy pursued in late 1961 by Indian Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru, sought to establish a series of outposts and thereby regain Chinese controlled territory in the Ladakh region, and numerous scholars interpret the Chinese aggression associated with onset of the 1962 Sino-Indian War as a direct response to the policy. Moreover, the 1967 six-day clash at Nathu La in the eastern region of Sikkim, and 1987 conflict at Sumdorong Chu, were Chinese offensives launched, respectively, in response to the establishment of fencing by Indian soldiers along the perceived borderline, and the creation of outposting along the banks of the Sumdorong river.

The subtle distinction emphasised here between pre-emptory and aggressive intent aligns with a theory of escalatory tendency regarding Chinese territorial conflicts, as proposed by MIT professor, Taylor Fravel. Professor Fravel argues that a decline in China’s bargaining power, or relative strength over a strategic territorial claim, is often linked with an increased use of force.

Importantly, the intention here is by no means to ‘lay the blame’ on India. Indeed, statements from New Delhi would suggest that India has and continues to remain committed to the pursuit of peaceful resolution. Moreover, having come to strengthen itself domestically and similarly adopt a greater international role, the need for the Indian government to capitalise upon former resentment associated with the loss of the 1962 war has long since subsided.

What this assessment of the conflict does intend to do, however, is highlight a clear degree of misperception at play between China and India, as well as on the behalf of external observers. Perhaps more significantly, it emphasises the way in which this has seemingly played a part in the proliferation of conflict itself.

This misperception has arguably been compounded by the shortcomings of previous peacebuilding efforts. Whilst the milestone Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement, 1993 was fruitful in its formation of a working group committed to deliberation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it fell short of specifically demarcating this. Furthermore, whilst patrols conducted beyond the limits of the LAC have been mutually prohibited in peacebuilding negotiations, no concluded agreement has addressed the implications of the development of infrastructure in these same areas. Looking forward, an attempt to redress these deficiencies seems a sensible starting point.

It would of course be unwise to advocate for an interpretation of Xi’s grand strategy as entirely devoid of belligerent sentiment. Prudence and attentiveness must be maintained with regard to further developments in the Sino-Indian conflict. Yet, as can be seen, outright commitments to aggressionist rationales of Chinese behaviour likewise threaten to compromise the prospect of peaceful development. As such, these must be subjected to just as robust a degree of critical assessment and scrutiny.

Christina Burjan is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.