The intrusions by Chinese troops in the past week in the Walong-Choglagam sector in Arunachal Pradesh, occurring so soon after the weeks-long intrusion in the Depsang Plains in Ladakh, are disturbing. While the number of intrusions all along the 4,057km border have been increasing in frequency since 2007, the nature of the recent intrusions are different. They also coincide with the increase in military activity along the line of control with Pakistan. The intrusions clearly signal that China’s new leadership, while continuing to keep India engaged on the diplomatic front, has decided to adopt a more assertive policy on the substantive issues of territory and sovereignty.
The long drawn-out stand-off between the military personnel of the two countries on both occasions — reports suggest Indian and Chinese troops have erected tents and remain encamped opposite each other in the Choglagam area — and Beijing’s reluctance to withdraw its troops despite remonstrations by India and the adverse media publicity in India, demonstrate that Beijing is impervious to the embarrassment caused to the Indian government or public opinion. Chinese troops are additionally learnt to be building a track up to Khola village in the Walong sector for porters to carry military supplies.
It is worth noting that these Chinese actions materialised after the operationalisation of two major high-altitude airfields in Tibet. The first is at Ngari-Gunsa near Shihquanhe opposite Demchok in Ladakh. The second is at Bangda, north of Arunachal Pradesh that was operationalised some months ago. Both are modern, dual-use civil-military airfields equipped with latest advanced facilities and capable of accommodating the largest passenger airliners. The airfields are among the six modern operational airfields in Tibet with dozens more planned.
The intrusions simultaneously suggest an escalation in Chinese behaviour along the border usually timed to coincide with high-level visits. While the latest incursions, as on past occasions, also coincide with important events like the strategic dialogue at the foreign secretary-level and before the Indian prime minister’s visit to the US, they have certainly been more robust. They also confirm that the actions are not local incidents provoked by local commanders, but initiated with the full knowledge of China’s top leadership. They bring into sharp definition China’s new policy towards its neighbours and nations in the region with which it has unresolved sovereignty and territorial disputes. The message is that for Beijing’s leadership issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity trump other considerations. In August 2011, China had separately declared that developing economic ties would not translate into good bilateral relations unless its “core national interests” are accepted.
At the military level the prolonged intrusions by Chinese forces are intended to send four clear signals. The objectives are to: continue to mark an increasing extent of Chinese claimed territory along the entire length of the border with India, especially in areas of military significance and inhibit India from activities, including civil construction, near the border on its own side; nibble away pockets of Indian territory by establishing a presence through continuous intrusions; test the rapid reaction capability of Indian forces to deploy and counter a threat, and to test the time it takes India’s military command as well as political leadership to respond to a threat; and signal that the border can be activated militarily at any time of Beijing’s choosing.
Of particular importance to PLA commanders is ascertaining the readiness and response capability of the Indian forces deployed along the border and that of the Indian military and political commands. This has become important as preparations by PLA commanders are for a quick, decisive local war. Statements by Chinese leaders and current Chinese military literature make amply clear that China’s political and military leadership envisage a decisive short-duration conflict using overwhelming firepower that concludes with a Chinese victory within a few days. The desired objective is to conclude the action before it enlarges or gets protracted and pulls in other powers. China is, in fact, preparing for a local war where in the initial phase it launches a cyber-offensive targeted at military and civilian public utilities and follows this up with the use of missiles and the PLA Air Force. Ground troops would be used only in the final mopping-up stage, if required.
Beijing’s proposal to Delhi on border management carries forward the tentative suggestions of the early 1990s regarding thinning out of troops deployed along the line of actual control (LAC). The proposal for a Border Defence Co-operation Agreement was carried by the then Chinese defence minister Liang Guanglie when he visited Delhi late last year. The major military objective in the proposal related to construction of border defences. The PLA has completed construction and refurbishing border defences along the entire length of China’s border with India, including construction of roads along the length of the LAC, adequate accommodation for additional troops that may be inducted, and ammunition and storage dumps. Secure fibre-optic communications link each Chinese border post with the other and also their command posts and the rear echelon headquarters. The airfields yet to be built in and around the Tibet Autonomous Region are far to the rear of the LAC. Completion by China of its border defence network is a major factor prompting Beijing’s proposal to Delhi on border defence management. The proposal, in effect, suggests that neither side should patrol the LAC up to a specified depth on their own side or augment existing border defences or build new ones. This will effectively allow Chinese troops to establish a presence over Indian territories of interest because of increased intrusions, much like China is attempting in the Sea of Japan and South China Seas.
Moves by India to modernise its Indian border defences would have contributed to the Chinese proposal. However, India will take a while yet to complete construction. Meanwhile, China hopes to apply military pressure on India to accept its proposal while China still retains logistical and other advantages. Realities of capability and terrain will place India at a severe disadvantage in case it accepts these provisions. It is imperative that India not only resists Chinese pressure but accelerates construction of border defences.
(The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.)