Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confronting the Dragon in Ladakh

The last post “Dragon's presence in the Indian Ocean” highlighted the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Many Indian experts on China were of the opinion that a change of guard in Beijing may bring about a change of policy on bilateral relations and in particular bring about an amicable and just resolution of the border dispute between the two countries. Just as these views were being expressed, People’s Liberation Army upped the ante and carried out a well-planned incursion into Indian territory.

A Platoon-strength contingent of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) intruded ten kilometres inside the Indian territory in Burthe in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector, which is at an altitude of about 16,568 feet (5050 metres), on the night of April 15, 2013 and established a tented post there. A Chinese Army Platoon usually consists of around 50 men. The troops were provided logistical support by two helicopters to enable them to set up a camp on Indian territory. Within two days of the Chinese putting up a camp in Daulat Beg, the Indian Army dispatched the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts which set up its own camp barely 500 metres away from the Chinese camp.

When the Indian foreign minister was asked about the incursion, he said that India and China were holding flag meetings to address the issue of incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh. "We are addressing this issue in an appropriate manner. We just do not want any departure from proportionality. I do not think we should allow this to get beyond the immediate area and we should retain at that level and not allow it to escape that level," Khurshid said. The Defence Minister A. K. Antony said that India would take "every step" to protect its interests to resolve the situation arising out of deep incursion by Chinese troops into Indian territory in eastern Ladakh. 

It is relevant to point out that Daulat Beg Oldi lies at the easternmost point of the Karakoram Range in a cold desert region in the far north of India in Kashmir, just 8 km south of the Chinese border and 9 km northwest of the Aksai Chin Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The base was established during the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. It was operated with American-supplied Fairchild Packets from 1962 to 1966. It was closed down after an earthquake which caused loosening of the surface soil, making it unsuitable for fixed wing aircraft. The base was re-opened in May 2008 in response to Chinese activities in the Aksai Chin region. The decision to reactivate this advance landing ground in the Aksai Chin was announced in the third week of April 2008.

According to Prashant Dikshit, former director of Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS)[1], a 50-strong contingent of Chinese soldiers had been spotted building a road in the vicinity of DBO, back in 1999. There have been reports since that "China made 24 attempts to take hold of the DBO air base during the last India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil." They were thwarted, albeit, through persuasion. Analysts have painstakingly recorded that China, as of 2008 was pursuing 13 different projects to build infrastructure in the region with a view to enable speedy movement of military wherewithal to the area. This has been going on for a very long time on the Chinese side but the Indian side has woken up "very late," according to one experienced analyst. 

Firstly, how confident is India of resolving this incursion? For in the past Chinese troops have never camped inside Indian territory for a long time. Secondly, the timing of the incursion is baffling. Thirdly, why has China chosen to intrude close to a strategic Advanced Landing Ground? While the answers to these questions are not easy, one can only speculate that the PLA contingent has probably been assigned to test Indian will and defence preparedness.

China rejected reports of intrusion by its troops in Ladakh, saying the People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers patrolled the Chinese side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) without "trespassing" into it.

Presenting China's stand, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also called for resolution of the issue through talks.

"China's frontier troops have been abiding by the agreement between the two countries and abiding by the LAC agreed by the two countries.

"Our frontier troops have been patrolling on the China's side of LAC", Hua said at a media briefing here, responding to a spate of questions.

"Our troops are patrolling on the Chinese side of the LAC and have never trespassed the line", she said.

China having denied the intrusion, what are India’s options? India should, without much fanfare firstly determine the intention behind this border violation and thereafter with the minimal use of force evict the enemy platoon from the area. While carrying out this exercise, India must be prepared to counter any form of Chinese retaliatory action. In other words, it is necessary to convey a strong message to the enemy that intrusions and encamping on the Indian side would not be tolerated. Anything short of this will convey a lack of political will and timidity on the part of New Delhi. This blog has often called for qualitative and quantitative improvement of Indian naval and air assets; in the event of any hostile Chinese action in the high Himalayas, India must be prepared to choke the Chinese at sea.  

The action on the ground is totally contrary to what Chinese leaders talk. Less than a month ago, China’s new leader Xi Jinping during his meeting in Durban on the sidelines of the just concluded BRICS Summit with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for India and China to boost military contact and deepen trust. On the border issue, he said “China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of special representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible,” Xinhua said. 

He also called on both sides to “continue to safeguard peace in their border areas and prevent the issue from affecting bilateral relations.” 

The author has been of the firm opinion that China and its leadership cannot be trusted. Chinese actions on the ground have never matched with their utterances. China has always talked of a peaceful solution to the boundary problem while its troops have intruded across the Line of Actual Control on numerous occasions. According to Indian government sources, there have been more than 600 intrusions or border violations since 2010. And the Indian response has been far from satisfactory. This is probably the reason why China has gone a step further and started encampment on the Indian side. The last time such an incident had taken place was in 1986 at Wangdung in the Sumdorung Chu area in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian Army chief General Krishnaswami Sundarji responded swiftly to air-lift an entire infantry brigade under Operation Falcon to Zimithang, a makeshift landing area close to Sumdorong Chu, to counter Chinese moves in the region. Troop reinforcements from both sides continued till about mid-1987 when diplomatic engagement finally led to cooling down of the stand-off, with even a pact to move back some border outposts of either side.

While continuing to engage China diplomatically, India must continue to develop and upgrade its military capabilities and be ever-prepared to thwart Chinese territorial ambitions.

[1]Daulat Beg Oldi: Taking Wing Again http://www.ipcs.org/article_details.php?articleNo=2595


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

Perhaps moving the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts from 500 metres to just 100 metres from the Chinese trespassers' camp might send a stronger signal.

I'm wondering whether Xi Jinping has total control over the PLA, with the PLA acting independently of the usual political-cadre direction?



Kumar said...

Thanks Pete
The Congress-led government has failed miserably particularly in the conduct of foreign policy. While nobody is advocating war or initiating a response which will involve the use of force, the statements made by the Foreign Minister and other dignitaries only proved that how impotent the government was in handling sensitive border issues. A strong response from the Indian Army was the need of the hour. Instead the government played a waiting game. The quid pro quo for the Chinese withdrawal is still not made public. The Indian government has itself undermined the country's security. It should not come as a surprise if China repeats this exercise all over again in future.