Contest, co-operation, and confrontation are part and parcel of a relationship between two rising powers on a developmental spree and vying for influence in several parts of the world. India and China often face off with each other over the long unsettled Himalayan border. Most border incursions tend to be benign, i.e., when the intruder retreats without a discord, but sometimes they mutate into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The provocative act of pitching tents by a platoon of the PLA’s Border Defence Regiment in Burthe area of Depsang Valley in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector of northeast Ladakh on the night of April 15, also reported as the Raki Nullah incident, had snowballed into one such volatile confrontation. DBO sector hosts the world’s highest airstrip and was a historic camp site on the ancient Silk Route. The sector, which until 2010 was under the Indian Army’s command, is now manned by troops of the 5 Ladakh Scouts as well as personnel of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, which comes under the Home Ministry. The PLA squad that trespassed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in DBO belongs to the Lanzhou Military Area Command, which operates on the Ladakh border.
Is India capable of mounting a counter offensive by intruding and squatting inside Chinese territory? Can India do a China on China? Perhaps! Those who have come across the tales of brave hearts like AP Verma in sourcing human intelligence (HUMINT) from deep inside Chinese territory, historical accounts of the Khampa rebellion, and the ghostly exploits of Special Frontier Force personnel will attest to the depths of India’s clandestine reach. But “counter-coercive” measures may not yield the expected strategic results for India. Prudence calls for restraint in defusing border flare-ups. But pushed against the wall, India can well turn into a cog in the wheel of the US’s China containment strategy. And this would be least preferable to Beijing itself. Delhi did well in refraining from adopting a hawkish stance, as there are limits to India’s powers in facing twin threats from the “all-weather allies” in case of a spiraling conflict as border wars have often escalated from minor territorial infringements in many parts of the world.
Chinese military activism is in full play whenever Delhi is perceived to be weak and vulnerable due to political or national security exigencies. The Wangdung incident or Sumdorong Chu incursion of 1986 came close on the heels of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and early in the Prime Ministership of Rajiv Gandhi. The Chip Chap Valley intrusion took place during the Kargil war. The 2008 incursion into the Finger’s Area of northern Sikkim surfaced at a time when the beleaguered Congress-led UPA government was on the verge of collapse while entering into a nuclear pact with the US. And the recent incident came to light at a time when the UPA government is struggling to last its full term. But there is a flip side to the latest spat. The PLA could be testing the political resolve of the new regime in Beijing in aligning with the interests of the military apparatus. The PLA’s belligerent stance was conflicting with Beijing’s stated position of finding a peaceful solution to the border impasse with India. This points to a disconnect between the veritable wings of the Chinese establishment – political and security. That the mandarins in Beijing are not always in the hot seat in managing foreign policy issues, especially over territorial disputes, is fairly evident.
The PLA is wary of India’s military fortifications and infrastructural upgrade along the LAC. India has acted with urgency in completing 804 km of road along the China border and re-activating several Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs). Delhi has also given the go-ahead for raising new mountain divisions, strike corps and airborne units to deploy behind enemy lines. China has demanded that India put on hold the re-activation of ALGs at Nyoma, Fukche, and DBO; dismantle the observation posts at Fukche and Chumar, which are key vantage points for Indian troops to remain unseen while overseeing the activities of the Chinese troops in that area; and refrain from pushing nomadic cattle herders into Chinese territory. Here, it is pertinent to note that Chinese pastoralists also infiltrate into the Indian side of the border. The Chinese ploy is to thwart Indian military activism in those areas of the Karakoram where it is involved in the development of road and energy corridors from Gwadar in Balochistan to Xinjiang. China is deeply concerned about the involvement of India in the development of the Chabahar port in Iran near the Strait of Hormuz that lies in close proximity to the Gwadar port on the Makran coast, where reportedly a Chinese naval base is coming up.
Denial or stapling of Chinese visas to Indian citizens of border states, border transgressions and blocking ADB loans for development projects in Indian frontier areas are aimed at achieving diverse objectives like undermining India’s sovereignty or sway in those areas, extracting concessions in other aspects of the bilateral relationship, testing Indian defenses, or browbeating India in other areas of strategic concern. India could be hard-pressed to open up sensitive sectors like telecom for Chinese investments. Earlier, Beijing had urged Delhi to curb the activities of a Dharamshala-based Tibatan lama who is alleged to be the mastermind behind the acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks in Tibet. But Delhi stopped short of submitting to the Chinese demand due to the lack of incriminating evidence. What is worrisome is the latest trend of deep cross-border forays by PLA troops into Indian territory in utter disregard of the 1993 Agreement on Tranquility along the border. Such incursions will not stop until the border is fully demarcated, and India may not be able to prevent a slide in its holdings along the LAC even though the Indian Army enjoys numerical superiority. Studies have shown that India is operationally disadvantaged across the LAC. Limited border wars are solely determined by conventional fighting capability – battlefield support and operational readiness. In contrast to the PLA’s massive military build-up along the entire LAC, the Indian Army is strait-jacketed by poor mobility. Our troops are stymied by decrepit border infrastructure, inadequate defense modernization, sluggish defense indigenization and a budgetary allocation which is just a third of China’s. Defense related development projects are almost always bogged down by time and cost overruns and defense deals often fall through due to institutional weaknesses.
Further incursions can be prevented through a three-pronged strategy. First, the media on both sides must desist from whipping up jingoism and provoking confrontation. The Indian media has pilloried China for the strategic encirclement of India through the so-called “String of Pearls” policy, which was actually conceptualized by the American military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in January 2005. But a dispassionate assessment shows that Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Marao in Maldives, and Mahe in Seychelles are not yet the Chinese pearls (naval bases or staging posts) that some media reports would have us believe. On the contrary, Hambantota port was first offered to India for development. But Delhi could not step up to the plate as its plate was full with more pressing engagements in Jaffna, Trincomalee, and Kankesanthurai – all of which lie in closer proximity to India than Hambantota, which sits at the southern end of the island nation. Mahe is a refueling stop for Chinese tankers, commercial vessels, and naval ships on anti-piracy missions. And in Maldives, more than China it is the US that is trying to establish strategic presence. Beijing was also blamed for, though not with irrefutable evidence, the termination of the GMR group’s contract of upgrading and operating the Male international airport. Second, intensifying the process of ‘demarcation and de-lineation’ for final settlement of the border. Demarcation of a de-militarized buffer zone along the border to prevent patrol clashes, face to face confrontations and tailing incidents will be conducive to maintaining tranquility along the border while the diplomatic sherpas of both sides step up their interactions to de-lineate the border. Third, it is incumbent upon Delhi to drum up international opinion on the historical and legal aspects of the border issue in our favor through a pro-active global media blitz and to leverage our existing strategic partnerships with leading world powers and other concerned nations of the Asia-Pacific embroiled in territorial disputes with China to build pressure on Beijing in preventing Chinese adventurism and finding an honorable border solution.
This article first appeared at The Foreign Policy Journal and is reprinted with permission.