G R O U N D   Z E R O

How India should respond to China’s new tactics
Raj Chengappa

India's strengthening of defences may have spooked the Chinese, who sense there is a dramatic change in the balance of power on the border as compared to 1993, when they were still in full control. Rather than feeling inferior, India should now move with confidence and force a new equilibrium more favourable to it.

Raj Chengappa
Raj Chengappa

A platoon, five tents and a dog is what the Chinese intrusion 19 km inside the Line of Actual Control (LAC) comprises in a sensitive sector that India has regarded as being under its control. In that sense, it is not a big, belligerent message that China has sent to India. However, it has been sufficient to trigger a wave of condemnation and misplaced hysteria across India’s political spectrum.

Yet, as the standoff with China over the intrusion in Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) sector enters its fourth week, it is apparent that this is not the initiative of a local Chinese Army company commander trying to settle territorial scores with his Indian counterpart in “both men’s” land, as the LAC has come to be regarded. The key to understanding the recent Chinese moves is to discern the multiple messages they have been sending India recently, some overt and others symbolic.

The continued presence of a small contingent of Chinese troops at the intrusion point without signs of a large army build-up to back them indicates that so far China would prefer the situation to remain fluid, and alter it depending on the response. Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying, while maintaining that Chinese troops hadn’t intruded, did not stridently contradict India’s assertions that this was India’s territory. She said “China and India are committed to resolving disputes, including the boundary one, through peaceful negotiations” and maintaining continuing “peace and tranquillity” on the LAC as part of the 1993 agreement the two countries had signed.

Paramilitary policemen walk past a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the forerunner of China’s revolution, ahead of May Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Paramilitary policemen walk past a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the forerunner of China’s revolution, ahead of May Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. — Reuters

At three flag meetings held between the two armies after the intrusion, China reportedly insisted that India should halt work on certain infrastructure projects on the LAC that it believes are too close for comfort before it pulls back from DBO. Meanwhile, Beijing announced the dates for External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Beijing, May 9-10. Khurshid is expected to lay the ground for the visit of the new Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, later this month. That the Chinese premier chose India for his first foreign visit after taking over in March is a signal of the importance the new leadership places in its relations with Delhi.

Khurshid remained ambiguous over whether he would go to Beijing if the standoff continued, even as Opposition parties like the BJP demanded he call off the trip. But if Khurshid cancelled the trip it would mean spurning China’s offer to settle the border intrusion through “mutual understanding”. That is likely to result in the cancellation of the Chinese premier’s visit and an escalation of tensions on the LAC, which neither country wants, especially with both preoccupied with other pressing concerns.

Perhaps the answer to the recent Chinese intrusion lies in the statement made by the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when they met in Durban this March on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. While following the usual script on the border dispute of “a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement based on mutual understanding and accommodation”, Xi added significantly, “Let’s do the boundary framework agreement quickly.” Chinese leaders never make such statements on an impulse and India took it as a positive signal.

The border negotiation, elevated to the level of Special Representatives in 2003 during Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s tenure, was a three-stage process. The first stage, an agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles signed in 2005, laid down among other things that the “differences on the boundary would be settled through peaceful and friendly consultations without use of force by any means.” The next stage was laying down a framework for settlement, which has made only glacial progress despite over a dozen meetings between the Special Representatives. The final stage was to delineate and demarcate the 3,500 km boundary line on a map as per mutual agreement.

If the DBO intrusion is seen in the context of Xi’s statement, it would be a signal from China that the status quo with regard to the boundary is no more acceptable to it. It is laying down the rules for a faster settlement on Chinese terms. The change in Chinese tactics appears to be in response to the rapid, almost frenzied, infrastructure development that India has done all along the LAC in the past five years.

India’s efforts may not match those of the Chinese, who have had the first-mover advantage, but it has built or is building a network of 72 strategic roads along the China border. India has set up seven advanced landing airfields, including the one at DOB, and three more are under construction. The Indian Army has set up two mountain divisions and there is talk of setting up a mountain strike corps. A squadron of Sukhois has been positioned in the east for deep penetration strikes into Chinese territory if required. Meanwhile, India is readying Agni V to counter any threat of a nuclear strike from China, apart from the Arihant, a nuclear submarine.

All this may have spooked the Chinese, who sense that there is a dramatic change in the balance of power on the border as compared to 1993, when they were still in full control and India was hesitant. So rather than feeling inferior, as we as a nation are wont to do while confronting China, India should move on the border issue with confidence, and force a new equilibrium more favourable to it. If China is saying “Don’t waste any more time, let’s fix the border issue,” India must say, “We are ready, whenever, and we are not going to take things lying down anymore.”





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