Reading Chinese "new assertiveness" into Sino-Indian border kerfuffle

The Sino-Indian war in 1962 is not well-known and for that reason the actual resolution of the conflict is not well-known either. Recently, India claimed that Chinese military crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which marks the de facto border as it stood after the 1962 conflict. Is this some grand strategy push? Is this China's way of keeping India on its toes? What's the reasoning for this military move at this specific time?

DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

DIPTENDU DUTTA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Srinath Raghavan answers these conspiratorial questions at The Hindu Business Line. The incursion may be an honest mistake since the LAC is so ambiguous:

This is in contrast to similar lines with Pakistan in Kashmir. Both the Cease Fire Line of 1949 and the Line of Control of 1972 were drawn up by formal agreements between the two countries. There was no such agreement on the LAC both because the war ended with a unilateral ceasefire by China and because subsequent efforts by third parties to mediate ended in failure. In the Ladakh sector, these differences in perception are compounded due to another reason. During the war of 1962, China occupied territory beyond the line that it had been claiming in previous negotiations over the boundary. The issue of where exactly Chinese forces stood after the war remains contested. The areas where Chinese intrusions occur are claimed by both sides as lying on their side of the LAC. The Chinese are perfectly sincere when they claim that their forces are operating on their side of the LAC — just as the Indians are when they claim that the Chinese have intruded into the their side of the Line.

This argument is supported by other observations; principally, long-term thinking is more uncommon than we think and so Beijing is unlikely to be staging a secret plot with these incursions. In addition, look at the way China has invited India into the conversation of maintaining a stable Afghanistan after the U.S. pulls out, whereas it could choose to work strictly with Pakistan to the exclusion of New Delhi.

The logic here can be applied to the school of pundits pushing a "new assertiveness" narrative onto Chinese foreign policy. The claim is that in 2008-2009, during the financial crisis, Beijing decided to be more proactive in its foreign policy--a coming out party marked by the 2008 Olympics that led to the hot year of 2010 (Copenhagen, Taiwan arms sales, Dalai Lama's US visit, marking South China Sea as core interest, Senakaku/Diaoyudao trawler incident, etc.).

In addition to this logic, let's consider the insights of Alastair Iain Johnston in his recent publication "How New and Assertive Is China's New Assertiveness?" in International Security  (Spring 2013). Johnston lays out three analytic flaws in "new assertiveness" punditry that could potentially be applied to the recent news on the Sino-Indian border:

  1. Selecting on the dependent variable: In other words, only looking at evidence confirming the hypothesis while being blind to counterexamples. In this case, Raghavan give us the counterexample in Sino-Indian cooperation on Afghanistan.
  2. Ahistoricism and the assumption of major change: Just because something hits the news doesn't mean that it's sui generis or an unheard of development. 
  3. Problematic causal arguments: Is there any reason for China to change or intensify the way it has treated India in the recent past? India is paranoid about Beijing trying to box it in, but what evidence is there that this is the motive behind an allegedly new aggressive tactic on the border.

To these three, we might add, in this case, Raghavan's fourth: Governments are just not very good at long-term conspiratorial planning.