China’s Arunachal strategy comes into full view

China’s Arunachal strategy comes into full view

The Chinese kept themselves rather busy along the Eastern Sector of the LAC

Indian Army soldiers stand next to Bofors guns positioned at Penga Teng Tso ahead of Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Credit: AFP Photo

In November 1910, upon receiving reports of Qing movement in the North Siang basin, British officials in Assam would send an ominous missive to Shimla: “Should the Chinese establish themselves in strength, or obtain complete control up to our outer line, they could attack us whenever they pleased, and the defence would be extremely difficult.”

At the time, Qing China was undertaking a great forward movement along the Eastern Himalayas that began soon after the British left the Chumbi Valley in 1908, which the latter had occupied during the Younghusband Expedition of 1903-04. Supporting the concerns of the frontier officials in Assam, the British Consul in Chengdu further feared that the Qing intended to set up military-agricultural Han colonies in the region with a view to eventually colonising Assam itself.

Today, the echoes of the past sound louder than before, what with reports of the Chinese having built an ‘enclave’ in the North Siang basin, ostensibly south of the McMahon Line in what is the Shi Yomi district of Arunachal Pradesh. 

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While the Indian Army (IA) says that this development lies to the north of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it is nevertheless clear that the Chinese are once again executing a forward policy reminiscent of the one attempted by the Qing in the second decade of the 20th century. After all, this particular enclave is but one of many such dual-use ‘model settlements’ being constructed by Beijing all along the Eastern Himalayan Watershed, supposedly to ‘improve’ the living conditions of border populations.

In fact, the North Siang discovery is the second such ‘south of the McMahon Line’ development brought to public attention this year, with the first being the expansion of an old People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) post to a ‘101-home village’ in the Upper Subansiri basin. ‘Model’ border villages are also cropping up in undefended Bhutanese territory south of the watershed. Incidentally, the Qing used to say that Bhutan was ‘like a wall of Tibet’ and that their Emperor ‘thinks that the Gurkhas, Bhutanese, and Tibetans should live like three men in one house’.

With the keys to the house being in Beijing’s possession, naturally.

Any power sitting to the North of the Himalayas will inevitably feel the need to exert influence to its South on account of the peculiar historical geography of the region.

At this juncture, Beijing’s insecurities about its ethnic borderlands are particularly acute while its capabilities are rather considerable. This mix of need and opportunity is what lay behind China’s Summer 2020 intrusions in Eastern Ladakh.

Now, the situation precipitated by those intrusions continues to fester. Despite several rounds of talks, the PLAGF is as yet unwilling to disengage from Patrolling Point 15 (PP-15) and withdraw to its post at Galwan Camp. This is not surprising since the Indian Army holds PP-16 in force and any return to the pre-April 2020 status quo in the area would negate whatever advantage the Chinese had gained via their ingress in the Hot Springs sector.

Meanwhile, in Depsang, the PLAGF remains postured a number of kilometres to the west of the LAC and is closer to threatening India’s existing axis to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) Post than it has been in the past. However, India does have certain options in the region (albeit involving an element of risk) that could make the Chinese more amenable to a restoration of status quo ante.

Recent revelations

Be that as it may, recent revelations should make it clear that the Chinese kept themselves rather busy along the Eastern Sector of the LAC even as the standoff in Eastern Ladakh ensued. In fact, given the proximity of this area to the Lhasa-centred core of Tibet (U-Tsang), its trans-Himalayan tribal populations, not to mention its splendid hydrological resources, it is not surprising that Arunachal holds great interest for the PLA.

In recent times, Chinese strategic analysts have become fond of saying that the PLA withdrew from its 1962 NEFA occupations primarily because it did not have ‘loyal border populations’ to rely upon. Well, the PLA certainly seems keen to change that with its policy of promoting Han-Tibetan and Han-Tribal families who would be induced to settle in the border villages alongside regular soldiers.

Besides looking to settle such ‘hybrid’ families in the emerging model military colonies, Beijing is also likely engaged in some ‘shadow state’ play by signalling to trans-watershed tribes such as the Adi and Nyishi as to what it can do for them compared to the material provisioning of the Indian government. Beijing could be forgiven for looking to kill more than one bird.

Interestingly, the two recently discovered enclaves south of the McMahon Line may also help in securing the headwaters of some Siang and Subansiri tributaries that are scheduled for future hydropower exploitation by the Indian side. Their surroundings probably also have some cultivation potential. The Qing in their time had eyed Walong and Tawang precisely because both had rice-growing areas. The passes in these two sectors also serve as gateways into the Assam Plains. Fortunately, successive Indian governments have worked to fortify and essentially shut these gates, alarmist projections notwithstanding.

However, the Chinese development of Nyngchi as a major communications hub, which in turn is connected to other hubs such as Lhasa and Nagqu has meant that the PLAGF can now posture forward in hitherto difficult areas such as North Siang. Of course, relying upon supply lines from Nyngchi alone will not suffice for these new enclaves. They will ultimately have to be military-agrarian colonies with loyal populations.

Now, that is where India’s opportunity lies. While increasing the pace of its own border works and reaching the last village is sine qua non, New Delhi can also leverage historic people-to-people ties to neutralise Beijing’s ambitious frontier strategy. The Indian military buildup must of course continue in order to ensure that the game remains firmly in the ‘grey zone’ — below the threshold of conventional war — as that is where salvation lies for India’s Himalayan policies.

(Saurav Jha is chief editor, Delhi Defence Review)