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ground zero
The new Chinese puzzle
India must make the right moves on the Chinese intrusion, for its actions on this incident would set the tone for its dealings with the new Chinese leadership over the next decade. And it has to assert its national interests.
Raj Chengappa

Daulat Beg Oldie — the name has a curious origin. Located far north in the cold desert region of Ladakh, abutting the forbidding but strategic Karakoram range, the place reportedly gets its name from a 16th century Yarkandi merchant, who died there while traversing the Silk Route.

Ever since India’s dispute with China over the border issue, that resulted in the 1962 conflict, Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) has been viewed by Delhi as critical to its defence fortifications on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Recently, apart from refurbishing the airstrip, one of the highest in the world, the Indian government has been making efforts to connect DBO by a road to Leh.

Dr Manmohan Singh with China’s President Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit in Durban.
Dr Manmohan Singh with China’s President Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit in Durban. File Photo

That’s why last week when a platoon of China’s People’s Liberation Army pitched tents and set up a camp 10 km from the LAC on the Indian side, it was viewed by the Indian government as a serious transgression. It sparked a diplomatic and military row on the 50th anniversary of the India-China war. Initially, a volley of hot words was exchanged and the Indian Army flew in reinforcements.

China, on its part, played down the incident and denied it had violated the LAC, pointing out that since the border remains undefined in many sectors, both sides have frequently intruded into each other’s zone. A spokesperson of the Chinese Defence Ministry is quoted to have said, “Chinese border troops have strictly observed the relevant agreements between China and India and have been working to safeguard border peace and tranquility.”

India, too, then began toning down the tenor of its statements. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid announced that he was not cancelling his planned trip to China on May 8, stating that both sides were keen that the dispute does not “destroy” the substantial progress they have made in their ties. And the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on Saturday described the DBO intrusion as “a localised problem” and that “we do believe that we can solve this problem.”

Clearly, there are efforts being made to de-escalate the crisis arising out of the recent Chinese intrusion. China had earlier indicated that its new premier Li Keaqiang would make his first foreign visit after assuming office to India, signalling the importance that the new Chinese leadership, which took the reins in March, places on its relationship with India. The new President, Xi Jinping, seemed to have got off to a good start with Manmohan Singh when they met for the first time on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Durban in March.

That’s why the recent DBO intrusion remains a Chinese puzzle. Before the intrusion, the new Chinese leadership had sent the right signals. Before he arrived in Durban, Xi Jinping had outlined Panchsheel type of policy principles in relations with India. Among them was to “maintain strategic communications and keep bilateral relations between the two countries on track.” The others were to expand cooperation in infrastructure and investment, strengthen cultural ties and people-to-people contact, increase collaboration in multi-lateral affairs to tackle global challenges, apart from accommodating each other’s core concerns and handling differences existing between the two countries.

That the new leadership would adopt such an aggressive posture before a major bilateral visit with India has perplexed China watchers. Was the intrusion a routine episode pushed through by an assertive local commander in retaliation to an Indian incursion into the Chinese side of the LAC at another sector? After all, there are reports that such intrusions happen frequently across the LAC and annually there are over 100 such incidents. Or was the new leadership trying to send a strong message to India, indicating that on territorial concerns whether with India or in the East with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, it would make no compromises?

The key to understanding the latest Chinese move is the context in which it is happening. There is little doubt that the new Chinese leadership is keen to establish its credentials both domestically and internationally. Part of that means sending a signal to the PLA that it would make no comprises on territorial disputes such as Tibet.

There are also major internal issues, including signs of a restless rural population that have not benefited much from the phenomenal economic progress. The new leadership has to ensure that the Communist Party of China continues to have a tight grip over the affairs of the country. There is also tendency of the Chinese to externalise their internal problems and the DBO incident should also be studied to see if there is such a thread in the Chinese thinking.

Whatever be the context of the DBO intrusion, it is important that India makes the right moves. For its actions on this incident would set the tone for its dealings with the new Chinese leadership over the next decade. In doing so, India must do more, rather than less, in asserting its national interests. While dealing with China it doesn’t pay to be docile or passive.

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