Thursday, May 17, 2012

Countering Chinese Incursions - India's Options

The differing perceptions of the undemarcated and disputed boundary between India and China have resulted in Chinese troops ‘transgressing’ into the Indian side a whooping 505 times since January 2010.

The LAC is 4,057-km-long and traverses areas of Himalayan states, principally in Eastern Ladakh (J&K), parts of Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Historically, there has never been a demarcated boundary. These are strategically vital portions which are contiguous with Tibet.

Explaining ‘transgressions’, officials said India and China do not agree on the LAC, hence soldiers on either side patrol up to the point they perceive as the LAC. Soldiers on both sides show a banner asking the other party to withdraw when the LAC is crossed. Despite the underlying tension, the process of withdrawing by both sides keeps a lid on the situation along the tense frontier between the two edgy neighbours. 

The matter of transgressions was raised in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha recently and the Minister of State for Home Affairs Mullappally Ramachandran said, “There have been 228 reported cases of transgression in 2010, 213 in 2011 and 64 till April this year. It was clarified, “There has been no intrusion along the India-China border. However, there are cases of transgression (by People’s Liberation Army, PLA) due to different perception of the LAC.” The word ‘intrusion’ is the official nomenclature to indicate a breach of the sanctity of the border and is different from transgression on LAC, that too on sections which are disputed. 

Similar figures have recorded in the past. According to the Indian Defence Minister, A. K. Antony, the number of Chinese transgressions has been generally as per established pattern during the last five years.

But one cannot overlook the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has been flexing its muscles through an aggressive border management policy in order to stake claim to the disputed areas in all the three sectors, viz. western (Ladakh), middle (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) and eastern (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh).

Incursions in the past
PLA soldiers, in 2011 damaged a 200-metre long wind-breaker wall in Yangtse area of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. India rebuilt the wall after lodging a strong protest with China. In September 2011, it was reported that two Chinese helicopters had entered into Indian air space and landed one-and-half kilometres into the Indian territory at Chumar in Chingthan area of Tehsil Nyoma. The Chinese troops also attempted to dismantle Indian army bunkers which lay unused for a long time. So also in July 2009, Chinese troops had intruded about 1.5 kilometres into Indian territory near Mount Gya, recognized as international border by both India and China, and painted boulders and rocks with red spray paint. (The 22,420 ft Mount Gya, also known as "fair princess of snow" by Army is located at the tri-junction of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet).

Armed motorized as well as boat patrols by PLA in the strategically-located Trig Heights and Pangong Tso lake in eastern Ladakh have also intensified since 2009. Similarly, Chinese have stepped up claims along the 206-km border between Tibet and Sikkim, which India long considered was "a settled matter", with the so-called 2.1 sq km "finger area" in the northernmost tip of the state remaining a specific matter of concern. (See the author’s post on the flare up in the Finger Area

New Delhi hopes the new bilateral boundary coordination mechanism, which became operational two months ago after being inked during the 15th round of border talks between national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo in January 2012, will help prevent border flare-ups between the two armies.

New Delhi also has been taking up specific incidents of transgression with the Chinese side through established mechanisms such as hotlines, flag meetings, border personnel meetings (BPM) and normal diplomatic channels. 

During the 4th India-China annual defence dialogue last December, India also told China that military patrols along the LAC should not be undertaken at night, nor should they "surprise each other". Moreover, laid-down stand-operating procedures to cool down tempers should be followed in the event of face-offs between the two armies.

Despite the transgressions, peace is maintained along the LAC following an agreement thrashed out in April 2005. India and China have worked out what is called a ‘banner drill’, which helps keep tension under check.

Whenever either side perceives that a transgression has been made across the LAC, soldiers show a 10-feet-wide banner with a slogan painted across to each other. The banner primarily cites the 2005 agreement and says there is a need to back off from the present positions of patrolling. 

The above-mentioned measures and mechanisms set up pursuant to an agreement by both the countries, howsoever commendable, only provide for peace in the short-term. These measures and mechanisms have utility for a limited duration only. These measures cannot bring about a resolution of the border dispute. 

India needs to counter China

India must not disregard the fact that Tawang is considered to be part of China’s core interests. In fact China claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh, referring to it as Southern Tibet. And China will not compromise on its core interests. In order to achieve its objective and in furtherance of protecting its core interests, China set up a massive military infrastructure in Tibet with five airbases, an extensive rail network through which it can rapidly mobilize troops and over 58,000 kilometres of road. With such infrastructure in place, China started resorting to what is referred to as “cartographic intrusions” in a slow and steady manner. India, instead of meeting this challenge head-on has played down the issue by referring to the intrusions as transgressions which have occurred due to differing perceptions about where exactly the LAC lies.  

India cannot expect the boundary dispute to be resolved by peaceful means if it is not adequately backed up by military force. China has been keeping up the pressure on India by means of intrusions only due to the fact that India does not have the requisite military means to counter China along the LAC and in part to its submissive attitude in dealing with Beijing. India’s poor infrastructure along the border is one of the biggest impediments facing the armed forces, especially in a crisis situation. This author, in earlier posts, has emphasized on the development of infrastructure particularly in the North-East apart from augmenting the number of troops.

Force Augmentation

In response to China's growing military strength in Tibet, India has raised two new mountain divisions with 30,000 troops in the North-East as a counter-measure and to augment its mountain warfare capabilities. The two new mountain divisions comprising of 1,260 officers and 35,011 soldiers, raised at a cost of Rs 700 crore/ Rs 7 billion each, will be under the command of the Rangapahar-based 3 Corps in Nagaland with headquarters in Zakama (56 Div) and the Tezpur-based 4 Corps in Assam with headquarters in Missamari (71 Div) of the army's Kolkata-based Eastern Command. New Delhi has also sanctioned a new mountain strike corps, of an additional 40,000 soldiers, to be permanently located in bases in northeast India. The new mountain strike corps will control two divisions, trained and equipped for an attack into Tibet. The new strike corps will have its own mountain artillery, combat engineers, anti-aircraft guns and radio equipment. It would also be supported by Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters, operating from newly renovated bases in North-Eastern India. The sanctioning of a strike corps, therefore, signals a dramatic new assertiveness in New Delhi.

India has also deployed a Sukhoi SU-30 air superiority fighter jet squadron in Tezpur as one of the aerial offensive measures apart from upgrading airfields and helipads in the North-East. The Cabinet Committee on Security had approved the raising of the two new divisions in early 2008 and preparations for raising the offensive infantry formations began the same year.

Under the first phase, the two new divisions' headquarters, along with a brigade each, have come up, including the headquarters' support elements such as signals, provost, and intelligence units. 

The divisions have been armed with state-of-the-art technology such as heavy-lift helicopters capable of carrying 50 troops each; ultra light howitzers that can be slung under the helicopters for transportation; missile and cannon-armed helicopter gunships; utility helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

The air assets, such as the helicopter gunships and attack helicopters, will provide the two divisions capabilities to carry out manoeuvres for countering the terrain impediments. According to an officer, the gunships and attack choppers were necessary for providing the two formations firepower in a mountain terrain, as the army would not be in a position to deploy tanks and armoured vehicles.

Notwithstanding the proposed force enhancement in the North-East, the intrusions have continued unabated. The 64 intrusions in 2012 apart from being disturbing, clearly indicates the true nature of Chinese intent and policy towards India in general and the boundary dispute in particular. 

It is suggested that India adopts the following measures to enable it manage the border with China in an effective manner as well as to settle the boundary dispute satisfactorily without succumbing to Chinese pressure tactics-

·     India needs to send out an unequivocal message across to China that Arunachal Pradesh is part of India’s core interests and incursions (or intrusions or transgressions, irrespective of the nomenclature used) must cease.
·     Improve infrastructure in the North-East (build all-weather roads and extend railway network in remote areas of the region)
·     India needs to expeditiously operationalise the two newly-raised mountain divisions as well as raise the new mountain strike corps in a compressed time frame. (The mountain strike corps is slated to be raised under the 12th Defence Plan 2012-2017).
·     The Indian Air Force must operationalise the new airbases in the North-East in order to enable rapid deployment of air assets in case any conflict. (The former chief of the IAF had stated in June 2011 that Jorhat, Guwahati, Mohanbari, Bagdogra and Hashimara were being developed as air bases. It must be pointed out that IAF has already based Sukhoi-30MKI fighters at airbases like Tezpur and Chabua. Eastern sector ALGs (advanced landing grounds) like Pasighat, Mechuka, Walong, Tuting, Ziro and Vijaynagar as well as several helipads in Arunachal Pradesh are also now being upgraded, much like western sector ALGs like Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyama in eastern Ladakh).
·     Operationalise and deploy the new nuclear capable Agni – V. (This will effectively counter the DF-21 deployed in Delingha in Tibet)
·     India must strengthen its military ties with Vietnam and South-East Asian states like Singapore and increase its naval presence in the South China Sea. 

In conclusion, the Ministry of Defence and Home Affairs ought to concentrate on formulating policies to counter China effectively and strengthen nation’s defences against Chinese incursions rather than keep count of the incursions like a statistician. The whole objective behind the qualitative and quantitative increase in force levels is not only to counter any possible Chinese adventure but also to enable India to negotiate settlement of the border issue from a position of strength rather than from a position of weakness.


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

I think an Indian military and broader surveillance buildup will help manage China on the border for the medium term.

However, in the longer term (2020s on) India and China's increasing populations will course greater competition for living space and water.

This will increase Indian and Chinese public pressure for their countries to annex land from the other country. The Governments might be forced to act - even against their good intentions.

Open borders might be ideal in 30 years but probably held as undesirable and overly optimistic (like the European Community system).


Kumar said...

Hi Pete

China is going to pose problems for India in the foreseeable future. A border conflict like 1962 may not be in the offing, but certainly, China is not going to stop intrusions, especially in the North-East (read Arunachal Pradesh). I have time and again emphasized in my posts the importance of defending the North East and more particularly the Siliguri Corridor (Chicken's Neck).