Lt General VIJAY OBEROI | 30 MAY, 2020
Disputed borders and coercive diplomacy
China is a confirmed Expansionist Power. Till recently, it was also a Rising Power. However, the ‘China Virus’ or COVID 19 has put paid to that and today, China finds itself on the back foot on the global chess board!
China started its expansionist activities when Chairman Mao led the communist takeover of China by driving the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek from the Mainland to Taiwan. It then secured its peripheral states like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang; and Tibet; including by employing military force.
Thereafter, it has adopted a variety of ways to expand its power. These include wars, as against India in 1962; military conflicts with the Soviet Union and Vietnam, though inconclusive; amalgamating Macao; unilaterally declaring that a large number of Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea belong to China; threating countries by overt show of force, like in the case of Taiwan and Japan; and by transgressions across undefined borders, like across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) against India.
It also uses its economic clout to usurp sovereignty as in the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, Pakistan’s port of Gwadar and Port Piraeus in Greece; giving loans at exorbitant rates for projects in many countries of Africa and Southern Pacific amongst others, where only Chinese workers were employed and acute cost-escalation was the order of the day.
China’s much touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are in trouble. Pakistan is seeking debt write offs/ delayed debt re-payments/ conversion to equity on both projects. Others are also seeking such arrangements. Overall most of these projects, which are in high risk countries, are not progressing. There is also criticism in some African nations due to the racism factor.
The other methods used by China are pressure tactics, like in the case of amalgamating Hong Kong; transfer of military arms, including knowhow for nuclear weapons as in the case of Pakistan; and many more.
This article will only discuss the transgressions created against India at several places on the LAC. The second part of the article, dealing with the changing China will appear separately.
Disputed Borders with India
The northern border issue first surfaced in the early 1950’s. The India-China War of 1962 was a result of China not budging from its stands relating to the northern borders. After the War, Chinese troops had unilaterally withdrawn to positions as they were prior to the war. For nearly 20 years thereafter, in accordance with the policy of India, no Indian troops were deployed on the disputed border in Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh, till the then Army Chief, Gen KV Krishnarao persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to permit forward movement of troops.
Years later, Ministry of Home Affairs managed to hand over many segments of the northern border, including in Ladakh, to ITBP (border guarding armed police force), against the advice of the Army. This resulted in dual control with all its drawbacks, especially in Ladakh. China has been taking advantage of deploying ITBP, which is not as well trained or led as the army. At the start of the current face-off in Ladakh, the media had reported that an Indian Army patrol had been detained by Chinese troops, which has been denied by the army. Possibly, this patrol was from the ITBP!
Following a historic meeting between Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi of India and Chairman Deng Xiaoping of China, dialogues on the northern boundary issue commenced but have made little headway in real terms.
The disputed areas are broadly in three sectors, as shown in the map marked MAP I.
While sectors and disputed areas were identified by both sides, the Chinese side has so far given no details of the line that they consider as their version of the LAC. Consequently, there is confusion between the border guarding troops of both sides. This results in face-offs and clashes while each side carries out patrolling up to their perceived LAC. At times, such clashes/face-offs flare up with both sides bringing in fresh troops. Resolution of such issues are carried out by both local military commanders on the ground and at the diplomatic levels.
Most clashes that cannot be resolved at the local military commanders’ levels are due to intransigence by China, which wants to convey or signal a non-LAC related message by showing-off its military capabilities. In the past many cases, analysts have accused India of giving in to China’s demands by calling them appeasements.
Since I have been a member of the policy making China Study Group (CSG) a number of times at various senior ranks and its Joint Chairman while I was holding the appointment of Vice Chief of Army Staff, the analysts are not wrong. On most occasions while the military advice was to face the transgression squarely by military and political means, the views of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and other civilian members (intelligence agencies, ministries of defence and home; ITBP and others) usually prevailed. Over a period of time, this has resulted in emboldening China, as we have been witnessing every few years!
Since the 1950’s, the Chinese Government has been claiming that India is in illegal occupation of China’s lands as the border is undefined and un-demarcated. This is a typical case of ‘offence is the best way of defence’ with a view to place the other party on the defensive. As an example, in the eastern sector, China first stated that the McMahon Line was incorrectly marked and defined. Later, they kept claiming more and more areas, including Tawang, till they are now claiming the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as theirs!
Further to the west, when Sikkim became a part of India, China refused to accept it and transgressions in different portions of the Sikkim-Tibet border keep occurring periodically. Despite getting a bloody nose in 1967 at Nathu La (Sikkim) and in 1987 in the Wangdung-Sumdrong Chu sector (Arunachal Pradesh), the Chinese continued their transgressions. Similarly, their claims kept changing in the Central and Western Sectors. In 2017, Chinese troops created a major problem in the Chumbi Valley in the guise of lengthening a road southwards in an area they called a disputed border with western Bhutan. That face-off on the Doklam Plateau lasted 73 days.
If one goes through the history of negotiations between India and China on the border issue, two aspects emerge clearly. Firstly, China has no intention of solving the border issue and secondly their un-demarcated lines of what they consider as China’s LAC keep shifting to grab more areas of what in earlier negotiations was never mentioned.
This is how the present transgressions of Chinese troops in a number of areas in Ladakh, one at Naku La in the Sikkim sector on May 9 and small incursions in the rest of the eastern sector need to be seen.
The Central Sector
In the Central Sector, besides frequent transgressions in the disputed area of Barahoti Plains, China has now instigated Nepal, which is currently ruled by a China-friendly communist regime, to rake up the old issue of Nepal’s western border with India that runs along the Kali Nadi and especially the Lipulekh pass that is the tri-junction where India, Nepal and China borders meet. The traditional route to Mansarovar in Tibet has recently been made motorable to facilitate travel by pilgrims from India. Nepal has objected, as it claims the area as part of Nepal.
Demarcation of the modern India-Nepal border began on March 4, 1816, after the Treaty of Sugauli was signed between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Nepal. The treaty declared the Mahakali (also called Kali) River as the border between the two countries. The River is formed by the union of two headwaters: the Kalapani river that originates below the Lipulekh Pass and the Kuthi Yankit river that rises below the Limpiyadhura range. Both the streams have been termed ‘Kali River’ on different occasions. Nepal’s case is that both the passes are on Nepal border with Tibet and India says that both are part of the Kumaon region of India.
Since the current focus is on the number of transgressions in Ladakh, some additional details need to be discussed. The LAC in Ladakh is about 489 km long. The two traditional disputed points at Trig Heights and Demchok have now expanded to ten, as China has raised fresh dispute points at Pangong Tso and at Chumar. Please see MAP II.
Over the years China’s transgressions in Ladakh are focused on grabbing those parts of Indian perception of LAC that enable them to reach a line that is favourable to them both strategically and tactically. Moving from north to south, the important areas are firstly the disputed Karakoram Pass, India’s airstrip near Daulat Beg-Olde (DBO), 260 km long Shyok-DBO road on the Indian side and the Chip Chap Valley, which are coveted by China for various reasons including as entry points for Uighurs.
Secondly, areas on both sides of the Pangong Tso as well as the lake, including areas of Galwan and Chang-Chenmo, which are under control of China. Thirdly, lukung to Chushul, which cover the approaches to Leh. Finally, in extreme south are the areas of Chumar and Demchok. Chumar is strategically important due to its proximity to the Manali-Upshi-Leh axis and Demchok is the traditional route from Tibet to Ladakh.
The aim of writing this article will be achieved if it has answered a variety of questions that come to mind as to why there are recurring incursions across the LAC by Chinese troops. It is not that the Indian Army is not sufficiently prepared to counter the Chinese troops or it is less vigilant. We no doubt have structural problems in the manner in which we deploy border guarding forces, which need to be rectified. We also have flaws in our decision making structures which are slow and ineffective, where committees seem to prevail instead of well-reasoned professional advice by those who know the business of deterrence and war fighting.
Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff
Second Part - The Knives Are Being Sharpened For China