Just weeks before Xi Jinping is to visit India for the first time as president of China, Beijing has reaffirmed its claims on Indian territory and signalled there will be no concessions. During his visit to India on July 8-9, foreign minister Wang Yi had stated China’s unyielding position on the border issue.
In late July, General Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and former commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), visited Ali Military Sub District (MSD) in the Lanzhou Military Region, which exercises operational jurisdiction over the areas across India’s Ladakh. He was accompanied by Admiral Sun Jianguo, PLA deputy chief of General Staff and General Miao Hua, political commissar of the Lanzhou Military Region. Xu Qiliang, a “princeling” and close associate of Xi Jinping, is an advocate of military modernisation and has for long pushed for improvement of joint operations capability and digital capacity in the PLA’s war preparations.
During his tour of the Ali MSD, he visited the Shenwenxian Frontier Post located on the Karakoram and jurisdiction of which includes the Depsang Plains in Ladakh where the protracted stand-off between India and China took place last April. He also visited Khurnak Fort situated on the northern slopes of the hills opposite Chushul in Ladakh and inspected the PLA’s “water squadron” deployed nearby on the northern side of the disputed Pangong Lake. This is the first time in decades that such a high-ranking Chinese military official has inspected these areas and his visit would have boosted the morale of the troops posted there. Xu Qiliang’s visit follows through on CMC chairman Xi Jinping’s directions that the PLA must enhance war preparedness. The PLA has just days ago concluded what Chinese military analysts describe as its “most intense”, largest and longest trans-regional military exercises. These exercises disrupted civilian flights at several airports across China.
Reports in circulation since last November mention that plans have been drawn up for a reorganisation of the PLA and the existing military regions. There was also noticeable emphasis, in the latest round of promotions of officers in July, on promoting those with experience of war or “military operations other than war”. For example, Xu Yong and Diao Guoxin, commander and political commissar of the Tibet Military District respectively, who were promoted to the rank of lieutenant general have experience of the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979.
China, incidentally, as if to affirm sovereignty over these areas has established civilian border police inspection posts at nine places in the western sector. These are subordinate to the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government and three of them are located at Bangongluo (Pangong Lake), Kena (Khurnak Fort) and Shenwenxian.
Coinciding with Xu Qiliang’s visit to the Ali MSD, China also announced it was beginning work to renovate and expand three airfields in Tibet. The Bangda and Nyingchi airports are opposite Arunachal Pradesh while the third is Lhasa’s Gonggar airport.
The spokesman of China’s ministry of national defence, Geng Yansheng’s comment on the Sino-Indian border issue, made during a routine press conference on July 31, is interesting. He said “the Sino-India border dispute is an issue left by history, and the border between the two countries is not yet demarcated. The governments of both nations reached an important consensus on resolving the border dispute. In October 2013, China and India have signed an agreement on ‘Border Defense Cooperation Agreement’. The Chinese border troops always abide by the relevant agreements reached by the governments of both countries. We are willing to work together with the Indian counterpart to maintain peace and tranquility along the Sino-Indian border areas. There is a difference in understanding about the line of actual control for China and India. Last year, some incidents occurred on the border area and the two sides resolved it properly through dialogue and consultations”. Geng Yansheng added that following the exchange of visits by PLA deputy chief of General Staff Qi Jianguo and Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh, both sides “have maintained a close communication”.
The Chinese defence ministry spokesman’s reference to the “difference in understanding about the line of actual control for China and India” and mention that “last year, some incidents occurred on the border area and the two sides resolved it properly through dialogue and consultations” alludes to the protracted 20-day stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops on the Depsang Plains last April. At the time Chinese diplomats, military officials and official media maintained that Chinese troops were “well inside Chinese territory”. The Chinese defence ministry spokesman’s statement reaffirms that position.
Xi Jinping, as CMC chairman, exercises direct and close control over the PLA. For example, he heads the “Office to Respond to the Diaoyu Crisis” set up in early 2013. It is known too that PLA Navy vessels and other craft operating in South China Sea often receive communications directly from the CMC.
The timing, extended depth and prolonged military intrusion near Daulet Beg Oldi in the Depsang Plains in Aksai Chin, along with Beijing’s failure to respond to New Delhi’s requests to withdraw or pay heed to the damage caused, make clear that this was deliberate and not an isolated action by a local commander. It additionally occurred immediately before the arrival of Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Delhi. Moreover, some senior diplomats in the Chinese Embassy disclosed at that time that the plan was proposed by the PLA and had been approved by the Politburo, which had also considered its likely impact on Li Keqiang’s visit but assessed that India would allow his visit to proceed. In conversations with foreign diplomats they dismissed description of the PLA’s action as “intrusion” or “incursion” asserting the troops were inside Chinese territory. It was echoed by officials in Beijing.
Xu Qiliang’s visit to locations across Chushul in Ladakh and its timing together with the other announcements clearly signal that China is bolstering border defences and will not yield territorial concessions. By alluding to the incursion in the Depsang Plains, the defence ministry spokesman has sought to reinforce this, though his remarks simultaneously suggest that contacts at the operational level between China and India on such issues could be more frequent.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.