Arka Biswas & Yogesh Parale
Chinese Incursion in Ladakh
ON the night of April 15 a platoon-strength contingent of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered 10 km inside the Indian Territory from Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Burthe in Daulat Begi Oldi (DBO) sector of eastern Ladakh. Confirmed by the Indian officials, the platoon, consisting of 50 PLA soldiers, constructed a tented post with assistance provided by two PLA helicopters.
Responding to the reports, Defence Minister AK Antony on April 22 said India would take all steps necessary to defend and protect its interests, especially at its borders. Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, said India and China would hold the second flag meeting on April 23 to address the issue of incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh. However, the second flag meeting collapsed after China asked India to destroy some of its positions in eastern Ladakh as a precondition for withdrawing its troops. China has rejected reports of intrusion by its troops in Ladakh, saying the PLA soldiers are stationed on the Chinese side of LAC without transgressing across it. Presenting China’s stand, their Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said ‘China’s frontier troops have been abiding by the agreement between the two countries and abiding by the LAC agreed by the two countries. Our frontier troops have been patrolling on the China’s side of LAC’.
Thus, India accepts that incursions have taken place, but China categorically rejects the claim. A convenient explanation, which the Government of India has given, is the difference of perceptions of the LAC in India and China. More than 500 incidents of Chinese incursions into the Indian side of the LAC have been reported between 2010 and 2012 and the Government of India have downplayed them all giving the same explanation of the difference in perceptions.
It, therefore, becomes critically important to understand what are the differences of perception of the LAC between India and China and what progress have yet been made in resolving them. Since 2003, the two Asian giants have had 15 rounds of talks at the level of Special Representatives to resolve border disputes. The latest meeting between the two SRs was held on December 3-4, 2012. However, it was not designated as the 16th round of talks, but an informal parley, considering that China was going through political transition.
Despite the large number of talks being held so far to resolve the boundary dispute, the LAC has not yet been delineated on military maps and grounds. In fact, China is yet to send its version of the LAC to India, without which negotiations to align the LAC is not possible. Indian Military and Defence experts have repeatedly stressed on the urgent need for China to send its military map to India, for an early demarcation of the LAC, agreeable to both India and China, on ground and in maps, but the Indian Government have given no such priority to it so far. Meanwhile, China continues to needle India along the yet un-demarcated LAC via frequent incursions, claiming that they are obeying the agreements made on the LAC and are patrolling their side of it.
It is clear that India and China are not in a position to arrive at a solution in the near future. It is, however, more important to strategically understand whether China wants a settlement of the boundary dispute over the LAC at all. Is, not sending across its military map of the LAC, avoiding an early settlement, and thus justifying frequent incursions inside the Indian territories a part of China’s strategy? Is China continuing on its strategy to purposely put off the dispute ‘for future generations to resolve’, as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in as early as 1988?
The new Chinese leadership has attached great importance to building good relations with India, to bolster economic ties, build people-to-people relations and to establish cooperation at multilateral fora. At the 5th BRICS Summit held in Durban in March 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed five steps to boost ties with India, which emphasised on the need for maintaining strategic communication, harnessing each other’s comparative strength, strengthening cultural ties, collaborating in multilateral affairs, and accommodating each other’s core concerns.
However, despite promising assurances given by the Chinese Leadership of respecting core-concerns of India, the PLA seems to not recognise Indian sovereignty as one of India’s core concern. China is in physical occupation of an area of 38,000 sq. km on the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh. It also controls 5,180 sq. km of the Indian Territory in the Shaksgam valley, which Pakistan illegally ceded in 1963 under a bilateral agreement which India does not recognise. In the eastern sector, China continues to lay its claim over 96,000 sq. km of the Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. China has repeatedly claimed that the Tawang Tract, in particular, is part of Tibet and that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable. Recently, the Chinese Government had issued e-passports with water-marked map of China, which showed Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh as part of China. China had also denied visas to those hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, recognising them as Chinese.
In the year 2003, China had accepted Sikkim as a part of India on condition that India recognises Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as a part of China. However, China is back to playing the Sikkim card to pressurise India on Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Southern Tibet. To add to that, China in the past few years have carried out massive militarisation in TAR. The heavy military build-up near the LAC highlights their immensely aggressive stand, despite their assurances of building amicable relations with India and resolving the border disputes peacefully.
There is a clear difference in the positions taken up by the Communist Party of China (CPC)-led Government and the PLA regarding their India policy. On the one hand, the new leadership promises to engage with India in warm and cordial relations. On the other hand, the PLA continues to build up military infrastructures along the LAC, conduct incursions into Indian territories frequently, and refuse any early settlement of the boundary dispute by not providing the military map of its version of the LAC. The recent incident of incursion at DBO in Ladakh amidst warming diplomatic relation illustrates that the speculation of growing difference between the Chinese Government and the PLA have some validity.
PLA’s growing manifestation of power in the outer world and some differences which have emerged within the PLA certainly do denote that the CPC-PLA relationship is on the verge of a certain change. The CPC’s firm support to the modernisation drive of the PLA could well be the precursor for some aggressive foreign policy decisions supported with their military might. The trends are evident that the CPC’s control over PLA has suffered some setbacks. The PLA Generals are now asserting their opinions on foreign policy issues and socio-political balance, and these opinions do not necessarily correspond with the official opinions of the CPC. Dynamics of the Chinese statecraft which rests upon PLA’s share of power is merging with the other undercurrents of populist nationalism and a mounting assertiveness displayed by PLA professionals.
It is unclear so far how the new leadership would deal with the emerging CPC-PLA differences. However, it is imperative that the new Chinese leadership urgently clarifies its position on the LAC and on the two visibly different approaches taken by its Government and the Army on their respective India policy. Considering the growing uncertainty and aggression shown by the PLA, it would be unwise for India to not be prepared for the worst.
The obvious Chinese strategy on India which can be deduced so far is to not settle the boundary dispute at the earliest. Not exchanging maps of their version of the LAC is an obvious part of it. Minimal urgency shown by the Indian Government has only assisted China further in its strategy. Any early settlement of the LAC would have left the Chinese with no room to expand further their claims over Indian territories in future. Instead, by keeping their perception of the LAC unclear, China has been able to justify such incursions into Indian territories. These incursions, if unchecked, would go deeper than 10 km from the LAC in future and would result in more such Chinese tent posts being created in India, which would enable China to either blackmail India to stop border patrolling or argue in future that those territories belongs to China, labelling them as “non-negotiable”.
There is an urgent need to understand the strategic value of these incursions and to establish India’s own Grand Strategy to counter-balance the Chinese. China has played its cards well. It has, firstly, created many “non-negotiable” pressure-points such as Aksai Chin, the Tawang Tract and Arunachal Pradesh, the TAR, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile, and it could well be DBO in eastern Ladakh in future.
Secondly, it has countered Indian core-concerns with its own individually, like resolving the entire Tibet question with Sikkim in 2003, thus leaving India with almost no significant strategic pressure points over China. India needs to formulate a broader strategy. A strategy that includes factors of Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh, the LAC and its settlement, the entire Tibet question, China’s military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan, Chinese military build-up in TAR and along the LAC, incursions into the Indian territories, economic relations, diplomatic exchanges, etc., as critical variable for solving the convoluted Indo-Chinese equation. India needs to create and maintain strategic pressure-points so as to not get outnumbered by the continuously expanding list of China’s “non-negotiable” core issue.
All these variables must be weighed and utilised together and not separately, if India is to deter Chinese aggression without engaging in a direct military confrontation. It is high time India and China settled and demarcated the LAC, so that no justifications remain for such incursions in future. This Chinese incursion at DBO, like many others, has much strategic importance and, even though no incidents of violence have been reported so far, these incursions damage, not only our sovereignty and stature, but also the larger security interest of India. It is absolutely bizarre that the Indian Government have so far downplayed these incursions, without realising their short and long term strategic impacts.