Chinese games

Border Incursions


Recent reports speak of the incursion by Chinese helicopters into the Indian side of line of actual control (LAC) in the area of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh. Interestingly, this was initially reported to Indian security forces by local villagers just as the Kargil incursion, which was also first reported by a grazier.

Consequently, two small Indian helicopters of army’s aviation wing are reported to have swung into action to tackle the situation created by the intruders. But, by then, it was too late as the Chinese choppers had got back to their territory. There are other reports, again from Ladakh, of the Chinese foot patrols intruding into Indian territory, and inscribing ‘China’ on rocks in that area.

The incident of intrusion by helicopter has been underplayed by the military stating that it is not of great concern since there is a difference of perception between the two nations as regards the LAC in this and other regions. As was to be expected, India’s protests have been dismissed by the Chinese foreign ministry. Incursions by the Chinese, both by air and surface modes are not rare in this and other disputed regions.

China occupies 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in Aksai Chin — over 5,000 sq km ceded to it by Pakistan in the Shaksam valley adjacent to Pak-occupied Kashmir — and claims 90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh.

The difference of perception, or plainly put, areas of conflict exist not just in eastern Ladakh, where Pangong Tso is located, but also in other sectors along the Sino-Indian border. It may therefore be relevant to have an overview of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute, which spans across three regions, termed as sectors by the two sides. These sectors are eastern (Northeast), middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and areas adjoining Sikkim) and western (Jammu and Kashmir).

The eastern most sector of dispute borders Arunachal Pradesh. Here, as per Indian claims, the border is delineated by the 880 km long MacMahon line, north of Arunachal Pradesh, the erstwhile North East Frontier Agency. This line was agreed upon by the British and the Tibetan governments in 1914. However the Chinese have never accepted this as they challenge Tibet’s right to enter into such an agreement with the British India.
China not only refuses to recognise the McMahon line but also claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, running down to the foothills of the Himalayas till the Brahmaputra River. She considers this area to be southern portion of Tibet, which by itself is under Chinese governance.

The second sector is the middle (central) sector. Except for the minor disputes of the Barahoti grazing grounds (Wuje, as the Chinese call it) and Palam Sumda, along the Uttarakhand-Tibet border, this area is largely free of border disputes or ‘differences of perception’. However, the strong Chinese military garrison at Taklakot keeps a watch over this region.

In the third sector, the Western, in the area of Aksai Chin, the Chinese are in occupation of sizable areas that India claims as its own. India’s claims on this region are based on maps produced after a survey conducted by W H Johnson, a civil assistant, in 1859 in which he had shown this area in the Maharaja of Kashmir’s province of Ladakh. Since 1947, when Jammu and Kashmir became a state of India Union, India claims this region to be her territory.

Not unusual

Returning to the incursions. Incursions by Chinese have not been unusual. Most of these go unreported in the media. This is so because they occur in areas which are very sparsely populated.

As a matter of interest, the remarks by the Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, that just as Chinese side made intrusions into Indian territory, the Indian Army, too, may have sometimes intruded into the Chinese land, was termed as unfortunate by Jaswant Singh, former Union minister.

While all incursions and ceasefire violations by Pakistan draw immediate and strong response from India, these are often muted in case of similar actions by the Chinese. General Deepak Kapoor, as recently as late last week, cautioned Pakistan to resist from violating ceasefire. But neither Kapoor nor any other political or senior bureaucrat has issued any public missive to the Chinese — not now, not ever earlier. That George Fernandez termed the Chinese as the biggest threat to India came under animated debate is though another story.

India’s stance may be viewed in light of its efforts to work out a workable solution to the vexed boundary issue. It also needs to be viewed in relation to its anxieties along the border with Pakistan and terrorism sponsored and supported by her.  But India needs to be extremely cautious as the recent Chinese military doctrine suggests that its south western border (with India) is a likely flash point for a possible military conflict.

Within China too, there are some ‘non-governmental’ opinions, which are for a harder line towards India. Recent reports also speak of large scale construction activity in Tibet, mostly for improving the quick and large scale deployment of its military. These include constructing several roads, railways, airports, telecommunication lines, etc. Though India has also embarked on improving its infrastructure in this region, yet it is no match to the Chinese.

Talks to resolve the border issue have been on since 1981 — though with a break in 1986-87 due to the border incidents in Wangdung area of Arunachal.  Lack of sincerity and of deviousness on the part of Chinese along with absence of political will in India for long has resulted in no solution emerging.

As compared to the Chinese, India’s military and economic might do not give it sizeable leverage to negotiate from a position of absolute strength. Therefore, till the border question is settled, incursions by the Chinese are likely to continue. Also, until then, our military and political leadership will continue to downplay the incursions — actual or those of our imagination.

After all, incursions are of settled borders, not those lines which are perceived to be borders. And abundant caution is to be expected from India when the perceived boundary is challenged by China which has given us a bloody nose once and ever since systematically grown in all fields including its military might.

(The writer, who teaches at the Manipal Institute of Communication, has worked on Chinese issues at the Army HQ)

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