New Delhi: Preoccupied and possibly obsessed with the general elections next year where defeat stares it in the face, the United Progressive Alliance regime at the Centre has neglected to come to grips with the enhanced expansionistic fervour of the new leadership in China. Yesterday’s revelation of the five-day detention of some Indian herdsmen in the Chumar sector of Leh by the People’s Liberation Army may be the first incident of its kind, but it reveals a pattern of greater and more determined Chinese expansionist tendencies on the disputed border with India experienced throughout this year, and it follows upon Beijing’s controversial decision to enforce a so-called Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

Soon after this “air defence zone” was set up, China clarified rather suspiciously that a similar mechanism would not go online on its contentious border with India and accordingly, and rather naively, the Indian government played up this dissimulation. The zone was initiated to neutralize Japanese claims on islands that China covets. Both Japan and South Korea have scrambled military aircraft to this zone to defy the Chinese. There is now growing fear that China may establish a similar air defence zone for the South China Sea to overcome claims of its increasingly hostile neighbours to some of the mineral- and hydrocarbon-rich islands there. The United States while siding with Japan and the others against Chinese attempts to usurp international and disputed airspace has nevertheless also advised civilian planes to notify China before flying there which may encourage Beijing on its expansionist course.

What if an emboldened China seeks to replicate these measures on the disputed border with India and at a stroke put India at a psychological disadvantage? Knowing India’s strange and all-pervasive dread of the Chinese since the 1962 debacle, it is nearly certain that it will not follow the example of the United States and Japan and have the air force shred China’s unlawful zone. On the ground, Indian patrols are told to avoid Indian territories which the Chinese claim and skirmish for. In the sky, a similar surrender would gift vast swathes to the Chinese, and permit them an upper hand in map-making. The Indian government takes the Chinese at their word, but trust is not something that can be placed on a treacherous, expansionist regime. In fact, after the Chumar incident, the defence minister, Arackaparambil Kurien Antony, has admitted of the possibility of regular face-offs with the Chinese.

Dealing with an expansionist power is never easy, but appeasement is not a solution. Traditionally, India has appeased China and particularly so after 1962. Out of disdain for India which it considers an inferior power, China has preferred to use Pakistan as a cat’s paw, going so far to transfer to it nuclear bomb and missile technologies. Given its own restive Muslim minorities whose fighters in Afghanistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan have made common cause with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, you would expect China to have concerns about jihadi terrorism that would bring it into a measure of alignment with India, but that has not occurred. China is convinced that its leverage with Pakistan would contain the terrorism of its disaffected Uighur population, and continues to visualize India alongwith the United States, Russia and Japan as its long-term enemy. Faced with the Chinese threat which could transform into hostilities simultaneously on two fronts with China and Pakistan at a signal from Beijing, India has chosen proverbially to bury its head in the sand. ‘We want peace,’ declaims Anthony. But as China’s audacious measures in the seas and on the Himalayas show, it may be shedding its Deng Xiaoping-mandated reserve and the soft approach of peaceful development, and be ready to strike. The suspense only remains about where and when.

Too many hopes are being pinned on the new government in 2014, and course corrections in foreign and strategic policies do not -- and cannot -- happen all at once. Relations with China and Pakistan have been grossly mishandled, with romanticism entering one domain, and the other animated with misplaced optimism. There has been no attempt by establishment strategists to gain a core understanding of these hostile neighbours and to proceed systematically and relentlessly from such insights. In the handling of territorial disputes, governments usually lean on military advice, but the Indian Army has a limited role in determining the contours of India-China relations. To be sure, political, economic, diplomatic and military interests guide and determine bilateral relations, but India places excessive emphasis on diplomacy with the military element, more often than not, substantially compromised. A succession of national security advisors have come from the diplomatic stream. Why this bias, especially when they have proved singularly incapable of advancing Indian interests? And when the advisor also happens to be a China scholar, the results are toxic.

Almost certainly, China is preparing for a major showdown with India, and this will likely occur in the northern section of the disputed border, because such a scenario brings Pakistan into the picture. The new prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharief, has already spoken of a fourth war with India. On the other hand, the Manmohan Singh government shows no urgency, mouthing platitudes about seeking peace and tranquillity on the frontier with China. Of all the hollowing out of India that has happened under the United Progressive Alliance regime, conceivably the most appalling and terrifying is in the strategic sector, and it has left the country grievously unprepared for challenges from China and Pakistan. For the incoming government next year, this will prove a terrible and crushing legacy.