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What the Chinese gameplan against India is

Last updated on: April 24, 2013 11:05 IST

The military gap between India and China is growing steadily.
Clearly, China's negotiating strategy is to resolve the dispute when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd).

A 50-strong Chinese patrol crossed the Line of Actual Control in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh last week and pitched tents 10 km inside Indian territory.

Attempts made by the government to get the area vacated through the mechanism for confidence building have so far been unsuccessful. It has been reported that there have been 600 border violations by China since 2010.

Illegal Occupation of Indian Territory
China has been in illegal occupation of large areas of Indian territory since the mid-1950s.

In Aksai Chin, which is part of Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of Indian territory. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in the Shaksgam Valley of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, north-west of the Siachen Glacier, to China in 1963 under a boundary agreement that India does not recognise.

Through this area, China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Xingjian and Pakistan. There is now talk of Pakistan leasing the Northern Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan to China for development and the exploitation of natural resources.

China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Southern Tibet. The then Chinese ambassador Sun Yuxi in New Delhi had reiterated this claim before President Hu Jintao's visit in November 2006.

Since then, Chinese interlocutors have claimed several times that the Tawang Tract is part of Tibet. It has been implied that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable.

China has often stated official position is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty. At the last Communist Party of China party congress, four resolutions mention the unification of China's lost territories.

More new projects have been sanctioned by China's Central Military Commission after the party congress for an enhanced military build up in case of any hostility.

China has already amassed a large number of troops in Tibet and constructed the metalled Western Express Highway as well as the world's highest railway line which will enable faster mobilisation of troops from Gansu and Qinghai region in case of war.

The PLA has constructed two major missile bases in Tibet and deployed missiles that can reach major targets in India.

Demarcation of the Line of Actual Control

It is not so well known that the Line of Actual Control between India and Tibet, implying de facto control after the 1962 war, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps.

The LAC is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km-long boundary between India and Tibet. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off of 1986 can recur.

The only positive development has been that after over a dozen meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, maps showing the respective versions of the two armies have been exchanged for the least contentious Central Sector of the LAC, that is, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet, where no fighting had taken place in 1962. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is.

Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify 'guiding principles and parameters' for a political solution to the decades-old dispute. Many foreign policy analysts had hailed it as a great leap forward.

This was not the first time that India signed a 'feel-good' agreement with the Chinese. The Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement signed with the Chinese in 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the military field signed in 1996 were expected to reduce the operational commitments of the army from having to permanently man the difficult LAC with China.

However, it has not been possible to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far.

In fact, despite the 1996 agreement, several incidents of Chinese intrusions at Asaphi La and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh have been periodically reported in the media and discussed in Parliament.

While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face in areas like the two 'fish-tail' shaped protrusions in the north-east corner of Arunachal Pradesh.

Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and despite the best of military training the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. An armed clash in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.

In the western sector in Ladakh, the LAC is even more ambiguous because the paucity of easily recognisable terrain features on the Aksai Chin makes it difficult to accurately co-relate ground and map.

Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which, in their perception, the LAC runs. These patrols leave 'tell-tale' signs behind in the form of burjis (piles of stones), biscuit and cigarette packets and other similar markers in a sort of primitive ritual to lay stake to territory and assert their claim. In this sector too, many transgressions of the LAC by Chinese patrols have been reported.

While the government invariably advises caution, it is extremely difficult for commanders of troops to advocate a soft line to their subordinates.

There is an inherent contradiction in sending soldiers to patrol what they are told and believe are Indian areas and simultaneously telling them that they must not under any circumstances fire on 'intruding' or 'transgressing' Chinese soldiers.

This is the reason why it is operationally critical to demarcate the LAC on the ground and map. Once that is done, the inadequacy of recognisable terrain features can be overcome by exploiting GPS technology to accurately navigate up to the agreed and well-defined LAC on the ground and even unintentional transgressions can be avoided.

In this light, the Chinese intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors, while talking of lofty guiding principles and parameters to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, is neither understandable nor condonable.

It can only be classified as an attempt to put off resolution of the dispute 'for future generations to resolve,' as Deng Xiaoping had famously told then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988.

The military gap between India and China is growing steadily. Clearly, China's negotiating strategy is to resolve the dispute when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms.

In a step forward in resolving minor disputes on the LAC, India and China have framed mutually agreed rules to operationalise the January 2012 agreement on constituting a border coordination mechanism to avert conflict.

The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, which was agreed during the 15th round of border talks held in New Delhi in January 2012 between the two special representatives, has now been given a fillip.

The agreed measures will include regular consultations and flag meetings or telephone and video conferences during emergencies along the LAC. It is to be hoped that the mechanism is expected to help prevent misunderstanding between the two countries arising from incursion into each other's territory. The joint mechanism will also study ways to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel on the ground.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is a well-known commentator on strategic affairs.

Gurmeet Kanwal