Millennium Post

Chinese Chequers redux with tents

On 22 March 2013, Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Deputy Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo heading an eight member delegation met Defence Minister A K Antony, Defence Secretary Shashi Kant and had talks agreeing, according to the DPR Defence press release, ‘to finalise the plan of bilateral exchanges between the armed forces of India and China.’
It has been decided that exchanges will be conducted between the Armies, Navies and Air Forces on both sides. Both sides also discussed preparations for the 3rd Joint Army exercise to be conducted in China this year. It was agreed that the strengthening of exchanges between the armed forces should be carried out as a way of building mutual trust and confidence and consistent with the overall bilateral relationship between both countries. The implementation of measures to ensure continued ‘peace and tranquility’ along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was also discussed. These talks were a follow-up of the meeting between Kant and Gen Qi in Beijing in the January 2013 Annual Defence Dialogue of which both are co-chairs.
About 23 days later, on the night of 15 April, a Chinese PLA platoon (36 soldiers in Indian Army and over 40 in PLA) came reportedly varying from 10 to 19 kms inside Indian territory in Burthe, Daulat Beg Oldi sector, Jammu and Kashmir at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, and established a tented post there. While a couple of flag meetings over the next 10 days or so failed to convince the Chinese, it remains to be seen how Antony’s statement to media – ‘We are taking every action to protect our interest’ – will be implemented on the ground. ‘Negotiations and consultations are on at various levels to find a peaceful solution to the Chinese incursion issue in Ladakh’, said Antony.
Earlier, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is reported to have said that India was ‘not a pushover’ and that the issue of Chinese incursion in Ladakh would be resolved before he visits Beijing on 9 May. He also referred to the matter as a mere ‘acne that mars an otherwise beautiful face.’ A look back at some incidents in the past few years will make it obvious that the Chinese impression of India’s present political leadership is exactly that – they are pushovers – and that this incursion is much more serious than just an acne.
By the end of August 2009, there were at least 26 violations of Indian air space in the Eastern Ladakh part of J&K by Chinese helicopters including two air-dropping canned food, as PLA soldiers were busy painting their country’s name on rocks in Indian territory. Reminiscent of dogs marking their territory by urinating, it takes quite an effort for soldiers to negotiate a couple of kilometers across a guarded border in high altitude terrain to paint rocks.
Both the air and land intrusions were in southeast J&K, in the general area of the barren land at Chumar, east of the picturesque Morari Tso (lake), Zulung La (pass) and the 22,420 feet high Mount Gya located at the tri-junction of Ladakh in J&K, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet. Indian Army border troops reported on 31 July 2009 that Chinese troops had entered nearly 1.5 kms into the Indian territory and painted ‘China’ in Cantonese script on various rocks and boulders along the Zulung La.
That August 2009 was a month packed with Sino-Indian negotiations at New Delhi, followed by Indian Army’s then GOC-in-C Eastern Command (and later chief) Gen V K Singh visiting Beijing and even Lhasa, capital of Tibet, is not surprising, but the fact that they were over J&K, where Pakistan has been brewing trouble for decades, came as a new development which raised some worrisome questions. An interesting development in 2006 was the Chinese ambassador to India publicly declaring in November that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory and in December, conducting joint military war games west of J&K, codenamed ‘Friendship 2006’, to mark the 55th anniversary of Sino-Pakistan diplomatic relations, which have always based on India being viewed as a common enemy. Subsequently, the Chinese build-up began in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which now amounts to an army division.  
The Chinese are also known for punctuating diplomatic dialogue with India  – ‘in an atmosphere of warmth’ – by some aggressive cross-border action.  Former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing was timed with a Chinese patrol coming at least 16 kms inside India and intimidating an Indian detachment.
In 2000, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Mukut Mithi accused China of violating the LAC and crossing into Indian territory. Mithi said Chinese-built mule tracks had been discovered by Indian Army soldiers near the Kayela Pass in the state’s Dibang Valley district, bordering Tibet. ‘They come in the guise of hunters, cross the LAC and at times even claim that parts of Arunachal belong to them,’ he had said. The Chinese build-up and incursions, with release of maps in early 1950s, were brought to the notice of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by Indian Army’s top brass were trashed by him based on his belief in Panchsheel and Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai mantra, which ironically led to the 1962 Chinese aggression. According to Achamma Chandersekaran, neice of Major T P Francis, who was one of the official interpreters during Zhou En Lai’s visit to India in 1962, his understanding did not go along with the interpretation that others gave. He predicted that China would attack India in six months. With nobody in the government, including Nehru, who met him, willing to go along with his interpretation, Major Francis resigned in protest. China did indeed attack India within six months. Indian Army lost 1860 personnel and everything from potatoes to postage stamps became dearer. Nehru was a broken man and then Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon was at long last sacked.
In 1967, when PLA upped the ante at Nathu La, Sikkim, by mortar bombardment and direct fire killing some Indian Army officers and soldiers, Indira Gandhi overturned the 1962 humiliation by sanctioning use of artillery requested for by the then Brigade Commander, Brig M M S Bakshi, resulting in a PLA convoy being destroyed and about 400 of its troops being killed. The message that 1962 cannot be repeated went to the Chinese very effectively.
Thereafter, the first major step forward was Rajiv Gandhi’s path-breaking visit to China in 1988. This was followed by other high level visits on both sides. Narasimha Rao took the process forward and in September 1993 by signing a Treaty of Peace and Tranquility between the two countries, which also signified India quietly accepting the loss of 90,000 sq km of its territory. While this agreement ended the ‘eyeball to eyeball’ confrontation, soon after, late General B C Joshi became the first Indian Army chief to visit China. While his visit was a success, it did not stop the Chinese from continuing to enter Indian territory ‘looking for herbs’ – a favourite excuse – or deploying surveillance stations all around India as its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, or targeting it with their nuclear warheads, also substantially supplied ‘by private arrangement’ to Pakistan.
Coming back to the current stand-off, it is reported that in the second flag meeting, China demanded dismantling of certain Indian military installations near the LAC in eastern Ladakh as a major  precondition for troop withdrawal. Other demands are reduced helicopter flights by the Indian Army and Air Force and less aggressive patrolling along the border.
While the crux of the problem is ‘difference of perception’ about the LAC in the absence of any demarcation, China’s hegemonic mindset, voracious appetite for territory, sustained modernisation and enhancement of offensive capability and now stepping into J&K, where its old friend Pakistan has been busy for over six decades, India needs to take some serious and urgent steps to be able to at least give calibrated responses in no uncertain terms.
The author is a defence and strategic analyst.
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