China wants to secure strategic depth to its civilian and military projects in the vicinity by pushing the Indian troops far away, says Srikanth Kondapalli
The continuing imbroglio on the Western Sector in eastern Ladakh with China’s border patrols reportedly crossing 10 kilometres inside the Indian claimed areas and pitching semi-permanent structures, despite two rounds of flag meetings between the local commanders, point to the precarious nature of the bilateral relations cobbled up two decades ago.
Firstly, even if the next third flag meeting results in the withdrawal of the Chinese patrols (which is a big if considering the change in the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswomen’s tone of ‘no transgression’) and both sides going back to the status quo, as suggested by the Indian foreign ministry spokesman, the current face-off could flare up again in the near future as fundamentally the issue indicates to the uncertainty on the unresolved border areas, with China’s pounding pressure to strategically dominate the region.
In the 17 areas where transgressions by the border patrols on either side is rampant, a majority of these are reported in the Western Sector -- at Debsang Valley (with the current incident on April 15), Daulet Beg Oldi, Trig Heights, Pan Gong Tso Lake, Samar Lungpa, Chushul and Dem Chok, although last five years saw Chinese patrols’ increasing forays in Chumar -- an area surprisingly not identified by the Chinese as disputed before.
Chushul and Chumar also witnessed helicopter intrusions. These indicate multiple pressure points that will test the resolve of both sides -- but significantly contributing to the growing mutual mistrust in bilateral relations.
It is no coincidence that after China had developed infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang, specifically feeder roads to the border areas, railway projects, air fields, fibre optics, etc, China’s transgressions in the region expanded in the last decade. It is also quite queer that China demands rollback of similar infrastructure developments being attempted by India in the region.
China’s border patrols closer to the recently re-activated advanced landing ground by the Indian Air Force at Daulet Beg Oldi points to this pressure from China, in addition to the official communications from Beijing to New Delhi. Indeed, it was reported that the Indian side had to demolish passes across the IndusRiver near Dumchile under Chinese pressure.
Second, overall the disputed region is closer to the large-scale projects being undertaken by the Chinese companies in Northern Areas and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir -- be it in the hydro-electricity projects or the expansion of the Karakoram Highway or the proposed railway line connecting Xinjiang with the interior of Pakistan.
China also reportedly sent troops to the region to protect the Chinese companies, although denied by the former defence minister Liang Guanglie during his visit to Delhi in September last year.
It appears then that, in the background of the current transgression issue, China wants to secure strategic depth to its civilian and military projects in the vicinity by pushing the Indian troops far away. The Chinese side reportedly suggested the idea of setting up a demilitarised zone across the trans-Himalayan region by withdrawing troops, although geo-strategically again this is advantageous to China sitting as it were in the high altitudes of Tibet.
Third, the transgression incident and the bilateral responses indicated to the inability of the current mechanisms to deal effectively with any flare-ups on the borders. Indian responses to such incidents are pitched at three levels -- political leaderships’ intervention, invoking diplomatic-bureaucratic procedures, and tactical conventional military preparations.
The high-level political leadership in India had identified the territorial dispute with China as triggering not only mutual suspicions but also security issues. To curtail any negative influence, successive Presidents and prime ministers have conveyed to the Chinese leadership that the territorial dispute needs to be resolved “immediately”. In reply, Chinese leaders suggested that this dispute is “complicated” and that only the “next generation” is capable of resolving this issue.
President Xi Jinping in his Five Point agenda last month vis-à-vis India identified the territorial dispute as such and that during his tenure in the next 10 years both sides need to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.
At the diplomatic-bureaucratic level, India had invoked the agreements on confidence building measures of 1996, additional protocol of 2005 and the last year’s joint mechanism on border stability to address the fallout of transgressions and other issues. Remedial measures included flag meetings (initiated at Chushul in 1978), border personnel meetings (typically four or five a month), courtesy calls on national days, hot lines between local commanders, etc.
While both leaderships suggest that no single firing incident occurred since the 1967 Jelep La incident in Sikkim, with the exception of a face off at Daulet Beg Oldi in December 2000, border transgressions have been reported repeatedly -- indicating to the mounting destabilising trends on the border.
At the conventional military level, to counter any Chinese push, a series of measures were undertaken by the Indian armed forces -- including the recent announcement of a Strike Corps, three new air bases in the Eastern Sector, plan to construct strategic roads connecting border areas, procuring new equipment, revamping the advanced landing grounds, etc.
Yet these remained tactical and ad hoc in nature, with robust nuclear deterrence not yet in place, besides command and control coordination problems between the paramilitary and the military.
Thus all the above three-level response need a radical revamp in the medium term while India needs to stand its ground in the short to medium term.
Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU, New Delhi