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India-China standoff: PM Modi should use JFK’s Cuban Crisis playbook

Raj Bhala
Monday, June 22, 2020

This is the second article in a two-part series on India’s strategic options vis-à-vis China. Read the first here. 

India must deal with the lethal drama on June 15 at the Line of Actual Control. But India cannot alter Chinese behaviour solely through private boycotts and government quarantines. India needs to couple those economic measures with diplomatic action.

Here are the diplomatic choices: 

  1. Isolate the lethal LAC battle as a confined confrontation, or 
  2. Frame it as illustrative of a global strategic threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party of President Xi Jinping.

The first option means Prime Minister Narendra Modi focuses on the Indian electorate and negotiates directly with President Xi. The second option obliges the Prime Minister to emerge as a grand peacemaker.

Here, too, India should pursue both choices if the Prime Minister cares not to be bullied. Indeed, the choices are connected. The Prime Minister’s bilateral diplomacy must resolve the ambiguities of the 3,440-kilometre (2,100-mile) de facto Sino-Indian border to minimise the risk of escalating clashes. Multiple rounds of talks across the last 30 years have been inconclusive. The Prime Minister must persuade President Xi that it’s different this time: the world regards the status quo as untenable.

In so doing, Modi should learn from John F Kennedy and the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy disproved his domestic critics who faulted him for being too soft to handle Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He showed grace under pressure with a military strategy that gave his counterpart in Moscow a face-saving exit.

Modi is used to wowing enthusiastic non-resident Indians in Houston and New York. Now he has to persuade Parisians and show Singaporeans that Mr. Xi’s CCP poses a strategic threat not only to Indians at 14,000-foot elevations, but also to the family of nations, and that he has the courage to present solutions to which his counterpart in Beijing can agree.

JFK knew a Soviet Security Council veto would render collective security action under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter impossible. Millions around the world watching his Oct. 22, 1962, speech were the decisive venue. A Chinese veto of any Indian resolution on the LAC renders the Security Council irrelevant. Ironically, though, India is back on the Council effective Jan. 1, 2021.

So, it’s the ‘Court of World Public Opinion’ that Prime Minister Modi must court.

That’s hardly an impossible brief. Self-defence aligned with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter is its core argument. That’s what JFK urged with a “defensive quarantine” of Cuba, plus invocation of a network of treaties in Latin America contemplated by Articles 52-53. Like JFK, Modi can cite his adversary’s behavior that undermines relevant agreements: the Soviets tried to intimidate Berlin in 1961; now China does so to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, across the Nine-Dash Line, and Taiwan across that Line and the Formosa Strait. 

Three Points To Make To The World
Prime Minister Modi’s self-defence brief should cover three key points:

First, as to the June 15 fight, China alleges India provoked it by twice crossing the LAC and attacking its troops. India says Chinese soldiers attempted to construct tents on India’s side of the LAC. When Indian troops tried to burn the tents, a patrol of 100 Chinese soldiers attacked them. Because the LAC is poorly delineated, both sides could be correct, but the detailed nature of India’s account bolsters its credibility. Moreover, the Chinese version fails to rebut India’s resort to self-defence. Indian troops might have unwittingly traversed the LAC when forced to fight.

Second, JFK was shown maps of concentric circles of the targets that Soviet medium-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba could reach across North, Central, and South America. Those MRBMs and IRBMs genuinely threatened the Western hemisphere. There is no such map that President Xi Jinping could be shown with respect to India’s military assets in Ladakh. On the contrary, India’s work in Ladakh is legitimate. It is developing infrastructure, for dual civilian and military use, but not such that it would give India enhanced offensive military capabilities that would alter the balance of power at the LAC.

Third, thousands of Chinese troops are in the Galwan Valley. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency initially thought there were 10,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, but in 1992, JFK's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, revealed that was an underestimate – it was 43,000. China occupies 38,000 square kilometres (14,700 square miles) of Indian-claimed territory. That’s about 53 times bigger than Singapore and twice the size of Massachusetts. The presence of the troops is an effort to intimidate India into submitting to what Xi decides India can do on Indian soil.

Prime Minister Modi must press these advantages, yet already he’s misstepped. He’s failed to realize the strength of his legal position. He doesn’t need to argue for preventive self-defence (i.e., acting to halt a future threat, which is not legal under Article 2(4) of the Charter), nor even pre-emptive self-defence (i.e., acting against an almost-certain attack, which, under the “less restrictive” interpretation). In his June 17 speech, Modi said that “if provoked,” India is “capable of giving a befitting reply.” If? Capable? The remains of 20 Indian soldiers are the provocation he needs.

While All Attention Is On One Crisis… 
In October 1962, China took advantage of the world’s focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis to launch an unprovoked war against India in the same region in which it engages Indian troops today. Now the world suffers with the Covid-19 pandemic. Exercising its economic and diplomatic options, India can galvanise the world’s attention, and maybe resolve a longstanding problem. 

India’s third and fourth options – more fighting at the LAC, or another war with China – are worse. Continued adherence to the 1996 Sino-Indian bilateral agreement, which says “neither side shall open fire … conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the” LAC, is tenuous. They last shot each other in 1975, in Arunachal Pradesh, and four Indian soldiers died. If there’s a next time, the sub-zero Himalayan temperatures might not cool tempers.

Raj Bhala is the inaugural Brenneisen Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law, Senior Advisor to Dentons U.S. LLP, and Member of the U.S. Department of State Speaker Program. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or University, Dentons or any of its clients, or the U.S. government, and do not constitute legal advice. 

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its Editorial team.

Faculty name: 
Raj Bhala