Making sense of the Depsang incursion
If the Chinese action on the ground on the Depsang plain, initiated on April 15, is taken in conjunction with President Xi Jinping’s March 29 statement in Durban that the border issue should be resolved “as soon as possible”, we can conclude that China is signalling a new activism in its border dispute with India. This also becomes evident through Beijing’s official statements of the past two weeks that accompanied their three week-long non-threatening, but provocative, military action.
China steadfastly refused to acknowledge that its forces had in any way breached the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but agreed that the issue could be resolved through diplomacy and negotiations. “The two sides are in communication through the working mechanism for consultation and coordination on boundary affairs… for a solution to the incident…” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua
Chunying told reporters last Friday.
She added that both countries were “committed to resolving disputes, including the boundary ones, through peaceful negotiations and [to] try to ensure that this kind of dispute will not affect the development of the bilateral relations”.
The Chinese action needs to be viewed at two levels. The first is an established pattern where the PLA keeps nibbling at Indian territory to create new “facts on the ground” or a “new normal” in relation to their claimed LAC. They do this, as they have done in the past — occupy an area, then assert that it has always been part of their territory, and offer to negotiate. In this very sector, Chinese claim lines have been varying since 1956. At that time, for example, the entire Chip Chap and Galwan river valleys were accepted by China as being Indian territory. But in 1960 China insisted that these areas were within their claim line and occupied them following the 1962 war. The April 2013 Depsang encampment seemed to be pushing even further westward.
The fact that the border is neither demarcated nor inhabited, and there is no agreement on the alignment of the LAC in many areas, aids this process. We need to keep a sharp watch in the coming months to see if this pattern is repeated in other areas where there are differing perceptions as to the LAC’s location.
At another level, China appears to be expressing its unhappiness over the Indian military build up on the Sino-Indian border. In the past five years, India has activated forward airfields in the Ladakh sector, completed important road building projects in the Chumar sector, begun work on the road to link Daulat Beg Oldi with Leh, and moved high-performance fighter aircraft to bases proximate to Tibet. In addition, it has raised two new mountain divisions, plans to establish two armoured brigades across the Himalayas and may raise a new mountain strike corps. In other words, the Indian posture is moving from the purely defensive vis-à-vis the PLA in Tibet, to one which could also include offensive action. In addition, India’s strategic forces have begun to mature with the test of the Agni V and the launch of the Arihant.
If you faced a country with which you have a disputed border, you would not be happy about its growing military profile. But China seems to have developed some amnesia here. After all, its own infrastructure and military build up has outpaced that of India’s by at least a decade and a half. In this period, China has developed a railway, an extensive road network in Tibet and Xinjiang. In addition it has deployed powerful forces, which include armour, rocket artillery and battlefield support missiles. They have developed new airfields and have conducted as many as four major military exercises in Tibet in 2012.
It is useful to look back at the last major crisis which took place in 1986-1987 over Sumdorong Chu. This coincided with ‘Exercise Chequerboard’ involving the movement of forces from the plains of Assam to the Arunachal mountains. When the panicked Chinese moved forward their forces, India began Op Falcon and used its heavy helicopter lift capability to build up rapidly across the entire LAC and even deployed infantry combat vehicles and tanks in some areas.
The result was the 1993 and 1996 confidence building agreements. They are far reaching and important, and yet they have never been seriously implemented. For example clause 2 of the 1993 agreement accepted that there should be ceilings on forces on either side, that the two sides would reduce their forces along the LAC and that the “extent, depth, timing, and nature of reduction of military forces” would be determined through mutual consultations. Article 3 of the 1996 agreement specified that the major category of armaments such as tanks, infantry combat vehicles artillery guns, heavy mortars, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles would be reduced with the ceilings to be decided through mutual agreement.
However, to implement such an agreement required one key step spelt out in Article 10 of the 1996 agreement — that the two sides would work out a common understanding of the alignment of the LAC. But the Chinese have baulked at working this out and so the key clauses of the agreements remain in a limbo.
Indian chicken hawks who have been advocating a military response to the Chinese action on the LAC are wrong on two counts. First, we are in the middle of our modernisation cycle, lacking vital elements such as mountain artillery and heavy lift helicopters. Second, an over-the-top military response to what was a non-threatening military action on the part of the PLA would have needlessly escalated the situation. In the last count there appeared to be five tents and seven men and a dog in the Chinese encampment. In retrospect, the handling of the situation which involved a symmetrical non-threatening military response by Indian forces, along with patient diplomacy, paid off.
The message from China right now seems to be that it is ready to engage India across the entire spectrum, which includes the disputed border. There is nothing in Chinese actions suggesting that they are looking for a fight. New Delhi needs to firmly tell the Chinese not to put the cart before the horse, and that it cannot and will not freeze its border dispositions or its modernisation schemes.
The upcoming visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang should be used to push the long pending exchange of maps detailing the Chinese and Indian versions of the LAC as a prelude to working out a common alignment of the LAC in a time-bound manner. Only this will ensure peace and tranquillity on the Sino-Indian border and open up the possibility that the border dispositions are not only frozen, but actually drawn down as per the 1993 and 1996 agreements. This in turn could give life to the stalled Special Representative process which was set up in 2003 to work out a mutually agreed border.
The Hindu May 7, 2013
China's motives remain a mystery
The big problem in handling the Chinese in the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) area of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is in figuring out just what they are up to.
India and China have differing perceptions on where the LAC lies in this area. This difference covers a band of some 10 kilometres and usually both Indian and Chinese patrols enter this zone and return to their base. However, this time the Chinese patrol has gone past that zone and, according to the government, camped on what is unambiguously the Indian side of the LAC.
The Indian perception of where the LAC lies is shaped by the fact that as of September 7, 1962, the line separating the Indian and Chinese forces was to the east, but after the war, the Chinese occupied positions to the west, including most of the Galwan river Valley - and did not go back.
The Chinese aim in the DBO area is not difficult to fathom.
It is to provide in-depth protection to their major all-weather highway linking Xinjiang with Tibet, which is some 150km away from the LAC. It would appear that Indian deployments here are viewed as a potential threat by the Chinese. But this has been a given, so why was there a change of a pattern in April 2013? Here, we can only speculate.
Some say that this is in response to some Indian bunkers that have been constructed. This is unlikely since there are mechanisms through which the Chinese could have raised the issue. Others say that this incident reflects some inner party struggle between hawks and doves and the PLA which makes foreign policy when it comes to militarily important areas, wants to send its own signal on the eve of the visit of the new Chinese premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi in May.
Then, it is also possible that there is a new and more activist PLA commander who is pushing his forces forward and that had the Indian media not raised a hue and cry, the Chinese would have quietly returned.
But one thing we do need to understand. The Line of Control, wherever it is, is an entirely notional line. Unlike the Line of Control with Pakistan, which has been detailed by Indian and Pakistani military surveyors on a mosaic of 20-odd maps, each signed by officers of both sides. In the case of the LAC, both sides claim that the other side knows where it lies. And they also agree that at certain places they have differing perceptions as to where it lies.
The two countries have signed four agreements - in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 to deal with their border dispute; in addition, since 2003, they have created a new institution of the Special Representative level dialogue to resolve the border problem.
However, despite a great deal of "jaw jaw" there is no agreement between the two countries on just where the LAC lies, something they committed to resolve through the 1996 agreement. They have exchanged maps for the central sector, comprising Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, but not of the more contentious eastern and western sectors.
Without a mutually acceptable LAC, there are bound to be what each side terms "incursions" by the other side. In January this year, the two sides signed yet another agreement, this time to establish "a working mechanism for consultation and coordination" to ensure that the steps they have taken to maintain peace in the LAC are implemented efficaciously.
All these agreements have their roots in the 1986-87 border crisis in the eastern sector when the two armies came eyeball to eyeball. In 1983, a high-level decision was taken that in the event of a future conflict, India will defend the monastery town of Tawang in the western part of the North East Frontier Agency.
As part of this exercise, intelligence officials began patrolling forward into what India considers its side of the McMahon Line. One of the places they started visiting was Sumdorong Chu.
However, in the summer of 1986 when they went to the place they found that the Chinese had occupied it. That year the Army had planned an exercise to check their speed of deployment. Using the new heavy lift Mi-26 helicopters, a brigade was quickly landed short of a ridge facing the Chinese.
Alarmed, the Chinese moved their forces forward, and the Indians responded by moving forces along the entire LAC. This coincided with the decision to rename NEFA as Arunachal Pradesh in December 1986.
The Chinese saw red and there was talk of war in the summer of 1987. Fortunately diplomacy cooled tempers and both countries realised that they needed to take steps to control the situation. In 1988 Rajiv Gandhi visited China in return for Zhou Enlai's 1960 visit and in 1993 the first CBM agreement was signed to prevent future conflict.
Twenty years later, we seem to be back at square one. This time there has been no mobilisation. It does need to be pointed out that from the Indian point of view the DBO area is the worst place for a crisis to take place. This is perhaps the only area across the LAC where we cannot easily deploy counter-force.
Because of the terrain, the nearest road-head is 15 days' march away and the posts there are maintained by air. The DBO airstrip is too small to support any major deployment, which in any case would be foolhardy because the Chinese have an all-weather highway and connecting roads just hours away.
We are yet to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Chinese actions in the area. But the rhetoric that is coming out from New Delhi and Beijing now seems to suggest that the issue may quietly die down.
As it is, it comes on the eve of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's visit to Beijing, and, more Chinese premier Li Keqiang's visit to New Delhi. The visits could provide an opportunity for the political leadership on both sides to take a hard look at the past agreements to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC and figure out just why they don't seem to be working.
Mail Today April 29, 2013
Lesson from an unsettled boundary
In 1950, the Survey of India issued a map of India showing the political divisions of the new republic. While the border with Pakistan was defined as it is now, including the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir area, the borders with China were depicted differently. In the east, the McMahon Line was shown as the border, except in its eastern extremity, the Tirap subdivision, where the border was shown as “undefined.” In the Central sector of what is now Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, including Aksai Chin, the boundary was depicted merely by a colour wash and denoted as “boundary undefined.”
In March 1954, the Union Cabinet met and decided to unilaterally define the border of India with China. The colour wash was replaced by a hard line, and the Survey of India issued a new map, which depicts the borders as we know them today. All the old maps were withdrawn and the depiction of Indian boundaries in the old way became illegal. Indeed, if you seek out the White Paper on Indian States of 1948 and 1950 in the Parliament library, you will find that the maps have been removed because they too showed the border as being “undefined” in the Central and Western sectors.
What was the government up to? Did it seriously think it could get away with such a sleight of hand? Or was there a design that will become apparent when the papers of the period are declassified? Not surprisingly, the other party, the People’s Republic of China, was not amused and, in any case, there are enough copies of the old documents and maps across the world today to bring out the uncomfortable truth that the boundaries of India in these regions were unilaterally defined by the Government of India, rather than through negotiation and discussions with China.
It is not as though the Chinese have a particularly good case when it comes to their western boundary in Tibet. The record shows that the Chinese empire was unclear as to its western extremities, and rejected repeated British attempts to settle the border. The problem in the Aksai Chin region was further compounded by the fact that this was an uninhabited high-altitude desert, with few markers that could decide the case in favour of one country or the other. But there was cause for the two countries to sit down and negotiate a mutually acceptable boundary. This as we know was not to be and, since then, the process has gone through needless tension and conflict.
In the initial period, India’s focus was on the McMahon Line which defines the boundary with China in what is now Arunachal Pradesh. It tended to play down the issue of Aksai Chin because it was a remote area and of little strategic interest to India. But for China, the area was vital. Indeed, according to John W. Garver, it was “essential to Chinese control of western Tibet and very important to its control of all of Tibet.” In other words, in contrast to India’s legalistic and nationalistic claims over the region, for China, control over Aksai Chin had a geopolitical imperative.
For this reason, it entered the area, built a road through it and undertook a policy to expand westward to ensure that the road was secure. India woke up to the issue late and when it sought to confront the Chinese through its forward policy in 1961, it was already too late. And the 1962 war only saw a further Chinese advance westward which led to almost the entire Galwan River coming under the Chinese control.
We can only speculate on the causes of their present westward shift in the Daulat Beg Oldi area. But one thing is clear: the central locomotive of Chinese policy remains Tibet. Despite massive investments in the region, large numbers of Tibetans remain disaffected. No country in the world, including India, recognises Tibet as being a disputed territory yet, for two reasons. The Chinese constantly seek reassurance from New Delhi about its intentions. First, because of the past support that Tibetan separatist guerrillas got from the U.S. and India, and second, because of the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. Despite the massive growth of Chinese power, their insecurities remain high. In great measure, they are due to Beijing’s own heavy-handed policies and only China can resolve the issues through accommodation and compromise with its own people. But not untypical of governments, Beijing seeks to deflect the blame of its own shortcomings on outsiders.
There could be other drivers of the tension as well. In the past five years, the Chinese have been generally assertive across their periphery and this could well be an outcome of policy decisions taken by the top military and political leadership of the country or, as some speculate, because of an inner-party conflict. Exaggerated Chinese maritime boundary claims have brought them into conflict with the ASEAN countries, principally the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. A separate order of tension has arisen with Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. In the case of India, an important initiative to resolve the border dispute through Special Representatives has been allowed to run aground.
Another possible explanation for the Chinese behaviour could be the steps India is taking with regard to its military on its borders with China. India’s border infrastructure and military modernisation schemes have been delayed by decades. But in recent years, there have been signs that New Delhi may be getting its act together. In any case, the cumulative impact of the huge defence expenditures since 2000 is beginning to show in terms of better border connectivity and modernisation programmes. This momentum could see Indian forces’ confrontation with China become even stronger when you take into account new manpower and equipment such as mountain artillery, attack helicopters, missiles and rocket artillery.
Even so, it would be hazardous to speak definitively about Chinese motivations. After being lambasted by the Indian media for occupying “Indian territory,” the Chinese might be concerned about losing face with a hasty retreat. The fact of the matter is that the boundary in the region is defined merely by a notional Line of Actual Control, which is neither put down on mutually agreed maps, let alone defined in a document through clearly laid out geographical features. While both sides accept most of the LAC and respect it, there are some nine points where there are overlapping claims and both sides patrol up to the LAC, as they understand it. In such circumstances, the Chinese could well withdraw after a decent interval.
This more benign interpretation of Chinese behaviour is also in tune with the statements that the new leadership in Beijing has been making. As has been noted, following his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS conference in Durban, the new supremo of China, Xi Jinping, was quoted in the Chinese media as saying that Beijing regarded its ties with New Delhi as “one of the most important bilateral relationships.” Belying the belief that the Chinese were dragging their feet on the border issue, Mr. Xi declared that the Special Representative mechanism should strive for “a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible.” This last sentence is significant because a week earlier, he was quoted as making the standard formulation that the border problem “is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won’t be easy.”
2013 is not 1962 and the Indian media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a hawkish course on the border. But what the recent controversy does tell us is unsettled borders are not good for two neighbours because they can so easily become the cause of a conflict that neither may be seeking.
The Hindu, April 27, 2013