The misfortune of India is that its government rarely shares the true facts with the people, cynically trashing even those concerns that have bearings on the strategic national security of the country, says R N Ravi
Recent reports of Chinese PLA’s transgression of over 10 km within the Indian territory in the north subsector of the Western sector of the India-China border and their intransigence in remaining squatted there in the face of India’s protests have renewed our anxiety over China’s intentions on the sensitive issue of border.
The issue has been deliberately kept on the backburner for quite a few years while letting the bilateral commercial interests take lead in improving the atmospheric and reducing the lingering trust deficit between the two countries.
While considerable heat has been generated in the public discourses over the Chinese audacity and demands made on the Government of India for a muscular response, the Indian establishment is playing down the intrusion calling it a consequence of an unsettled border and differing perceptions of the two countries on the Line of Actual Control.
Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, sought to further trivialise it calling the determined Chinese transgression a mere “acne” which would be cured by application of some simple ointment.
The misfortune of India is that its government rarely shares the true facts with the people and tends to be disdainful of the popular sentiment, cynically trashing even those concerns that have bearings on the strategic national security of the country.
The latest aggression by the PLA in grabbing the Indian territory is consistent with China’s forward policy that it has been pursuing for the last several decades to acquire more and more strategic depths in the region beyond the Aksai Chin -- a territory of India sandwiched between the restive Tibet and Xinjiang provinces of China.
Aksai Chin has been under forcible occupation of China since 1962. Having grabbed this area, China has built a vast network of strategic infrastructures -- roads, airstrips and military garrisons on it. The highway linking Xinjiang and Tibet, the two turbulent peripheries of China, passes through the Aksai Chin. The strategically located Karakoram Pass in this sector offers an alternative connectivity between these regions.
In a far-sighted strategic move to secure its unstable and tenuously held far-flung provinces, China captured Aksai Chin in 1962 and four months later got a crucial chunk of Jammu and Kashmir, west of the Karakoram Pass adjoining Xinjiang, under Pakistan’s occupation through an illegal treaty with Pakistan on March 2, 1963. Not content with grabbing a large Indian territory, some 38,000 sq km and building through it an all-weather connectivity to its remote provinces, China has been steadily nibbling more and more areas of India in this sector.
Taking advantage of its superior military capabilities along the border, China has been making increasingly aggressive military pushes along Karakoram-Daulat Beg Oldi- Track Junction- Burtse axis in the Depsang Plains inching closer to Shyok river and seeking to substantially alter the “differing perceptions” of the LAC in its favour, forcing the Indian troops to yield and incrementally retreat. Loss of territory in this sub-sector grossly undermines India’s strategic future vis-a-vis China in this sector and increases vulnerabilities of its supply axis to the Siachen sector vis-a-vis Pakistan.
Although the latest aggression by China caught the attention of the nation, thanks to the media, the countrymen have been kept in the dark about their ongoing numerous such transgressions. While in 2005 there were 150 transgressions of the Indian LAC in this sector, the number increased to about 240 by 2010. In fact the Chinese aggression escalated after 2009.
They built a 20 km motorable road along Jeevan Nallah in 2010 and 15 km long motorable road along Raki Nallah from JAK II to GR 626516 in 2011-- both on the Indian side in the Depsang Plain without a scintilla of resistance.
China looks at this sector as crucial for the strategic defence of Xinjiang province, a multi-ethnic restive region predominantly inhabited by Uighurs waging a violent separatist insurgency alleging hegemony of Han Chinese and iniquitous ill-treatment by the Chinese government. It is also crucial to ensuring stability in the restive western Tibet. China has been steadily adding to its strategic depth in this region at the cost of India. These are to deny India any future capabilities to challenge its predominantly comfortable position in this region -- the Aksai Chin, Tibet and Xinjiang. These aggressions will also severely impede India’s plan to build strategic infrastructures including roads in this sector.
China vigorously disputes India’s position in all the three sectors of the border -- western, middle and eastern. It challenges India’s position in most of the western and eastern sectors. In the middle sector disputes are limited to Barahoti in Uttrakhand and Shipki in Himachal Pradesh. Of all the disputed pockets along the border the ones with utmost strategic significance to China are the Aksai Chin sub sector in the western sector and the sub-sector in the eastern sector along the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar. Chinese aggressions are on the increase in these two areas.
In the eastern subsector along the tri-junction with Myanmar, the Chinese have escalated aggression in recent years in Tatu Bowl-Dichu area in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. Here again escalation began since 2009. Until then Chinese patrol did not transgress our perception of the LAC except for rare marginal detour. However, suddenly in 2009 they intruded into our territory over 100 times and have been building up the pressure since then. In 2011, they breached the LAC over 125 times.
This area falls along the flow of Lohit river as it enters from Tibet and joined by two tributaries -- Dichu and Wach Chu. The Lohit river flows into India at this point through a gap in a mountain feature known as Madan Ridge. At this point Madan Ridge forks into two spurs. While the McMahon Line is along the northern spur, the Chinese have built a road, in 2009-2010, up to the base of the southern spur, way within the Indian territory. This severely inhibits India’s border patrol to the tri-junction with Myanmar and China as the patrols follow the track passing through this point. It has the potential to drastically alter the tri-junction to the huge disadvantage of India.
It is a fact that China disputes India’s map delineating the border all along except in Sikkim sector. As mutually agreed, pending final settlement both the countries are to respect the status quo -- that is not to disturb the Line of Actual Control by far determined by the 1962 war. It is also a fact that China keeps its perception of the LAC dynamic. Consistent with its strategic interests it keeps altering it from time to time claiming and grabbing more territory.
Both countries tacitly know that eventually the LAC would freeze into the border. The regrettable fact is India has not been adequately defending its perception of the LAC and meekly yielding territory to China. The vehemence with which smaller countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei challenge China’s territorial hegemony is in stark contrast to India’s hush-hush retreat.
When it comes to China, the Indian establishment responds with a cringe. Going for a full-scale war with China to defend its territory, for now, is not a rational option for India. War should not be a preferred option in contemporary international relations. There are alternative tools for settling such disputes. However, trashing away our territory and blithely calling the aggressions as mere “acne” is a humiliating capitulation and betrayal. The country must make the government account and atone for it.
R N Ravi is a retired special director of the Intelligence Bureau and monitored the China border for over 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org