Chinese Checkers Redux With Five Tents

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By Anil Bhat
Chinese checkers has been described as a game in which players try to be first to race their pieces across the hexagram-shaped game-board to the opposite corner using single-step moves or moves which jump over other pieces. Redux  means ‘brought back’ or ‘resurgent’.

On  March 22, 2013, Chinese PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen.Qi Jianguo heading an eight member delegation met Defence Minister AK Antony, Defence Secretary  Shashi Kant and had talks agreeing, according to the DPR Defence press release, “to finalise the plan of bilateral exchanges between the Armed Forces of India and China. It has been decided that exchanges will be conducted between the Armies, Navies and Air Forces on both sides. Both sides also discussed preparations for the 3rd Joint Army exercise, which is scheduled to be conducted in China this year. It was agreed that the strengthening of exchanges between the Armed Forces should be carried out as a way of building mutual trust and confidence and consistent with the overall bilateral relationship between both countries. The implementation of measures to ensure continued ‘peace and tranquility’ along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was also discussed”. These talks were a follow-up of the meeting between Defence Secretary Kant and Gen Qi in Beijing in the January 2013 Annual Defence Dialogue of which both are co-chairs.

23 days later, on the night of April 15 a Chinese PLA platoon (36 soldiers in Indian Army and over 40 in PLA) came reportedly varying from 10 to 19 kms inside Indian territory in Burthe, Daulat Beg Oldi sector, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, and established a tented post there. While a couple of flag meetings over the next 10 days or so failed to convince the Chinese, it remains to be seen how Mr. Antony’s statement to media -“We are taking every action to protect our interest… We will take every step to protect our interest,”- will be implemented on the ground. “Negotiations and consultations are on at various levels to find a peaceful solution to the Chinese incursion issue in Ladakh”, said Mr Antony.

Earlier, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is reported to have said that India was “not a pushover” and that the issue of Chinese incursion in Ladakh would be resolved before he visits Beijing on May 9. He also referred to the matter as merely  acne that mars an otherwise beautiful face. A look back at some incidents in the past few years will make it obvious that the Chinese impression of India’s present political leadership is exactly that-that they are pushovers- and that this incursion is much more serious than acne.

By the end of August 2009 there were at least twenty six violations of Indian air space in the Eastern Ladakh part of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by Chinese helicopters including two air-dropping canned food, as Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers busy painting their country’s name on rocks in Indian territory. Reminiscent of dogs marking their territory by urinating, it takes quite an effort for soldiers to negotiate a couple of kilometers across a guarded border in high altitude terrain to paint rocks.

Both the air and land intrusions were in South East J&K, in the general area of the barren land at Chumar, East of the picturesque Morari Tso (lake), Zulung La (pass) and the 22, 420 feet high  Mount Gya) – meaning “fair princess of snow” – located at the tri-junction of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, and Tibet. Indian Army border troops reported on 31 July, 2009   that Chinese troops had entered nearly 1.5 kilometres into the Indian territory and painted ” China ” in Cantonese script on various rocks and boulders along the Zulung La.

August 2009, was a month packed with Sino-Indian negotiations at New Delhi, followed by Indian Army’s then GOC-in-C Eastern Command (and later Chief) Gen V K Singh visiting Beijing and even Lhasa, capital of Tibet, is not surprising, but the fact that they are in J&K, where Pakistan has been brewing trouble for decades, came as a new development which  raised some worrisome questions.

An interesting development in 2006 was the  Chinese  Ambassador to India publicly declaring in November that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory and in December, conducting  joint military war games West of J&K, codenamed “Friendship 2006”, to mark the 55th anniversary of Sino-Pakistan diplomatic relations, which have always based on India being viewed as a common enemy. Subsequently the Chinese build-up began in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which now amounts to an army disvision. 

Chinese are known for punctuating diplomatic dialogue with India  –“in an atmosphere of warmth etcetera…” by some aggressive cross-border action.  Former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing was timed with a Chinese patrol coming at least 16 kms inside India and intimidating an Indian detachment. Another act PLA famous for is  creating tension during normal deployment on the border without any incursion, by sparking off a dispute over just a few feet of territory.  Other irritants are stapled visas etcetera.

In 2000, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Mukut Mithi accused China of violating the LAC and crossing into Indian territory. Mithi said Chinese-built mule tracks had been discovered by Indian Army soldierss near the Kayela Pass in the state`s Dibang Valley district, bordering Tibet. “They come in the guise of hunters, cross the LAC and at times even claim that parts of Arunachal belong to them,”he had said.

In May 2007, BJP MP Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh made a startling claim that China had moved 20 kilometres into the Indian territory, amounting to 9000 square kms. “It has been continuing for a long time…I have written to Government of India and raised the issue in the Parliament. The government of India is not accepting the incursion openly. But defence personnel do acknowledge that this is happening and that the Chinese are occupying our land.” said Rijiju and claimed that Ministry of External Affairs had admitted to Chinese occupation of Arunachal Pradesh. 140 incursions reportedly occurred in 2007.

The Chinese build-up and incursions with release of maps in early 1950s  brought to the notice of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by Indian Army’s top brass were trashed by him based on his belief in Panchsheel and “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (India China brother brother) which ironically amounted to ‘bye-bye’ with the 1962 Chinese Aggression. According to Achamma Chandersekaran, neice of Major TP Francis, an  expert in 29 languages, who was one of the official interpreters during Zhou En Lai’s visit to India in 1962, did not go along with the interpretation that others gave. He predicted that China would attack India in six months. With nobody in the government, including Nehru, who met him, willing to go along with his interpretation, Major Francis resigned in protest. China did indeed attack India within six months. Indan Army lost 1860 personnel, everything from potatoes to postage became dearer, Nehru was a broken man and then Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon was at long last sacked.

In 1967, when PLA upped the ante at Nathu La, Sikkim, by mortar bombardment and direct fire killing some Indian Army officers and soldiers, Ms. Indira Gandhi overturned the 1962 humiliation by sanctioning use of artillery requested for by the then Brigade Commander, Brig MMS Bakshi, resulting in a PLA convoy being destroyed and about 400 of its troops being killed. The message that 1962 cannot be repeated went to the Chinese very effectively. In the 1980s when PLA raised tensions again, the stand-off ended without any exchange of fire. However incursions by Chinese continued in some form or the other.

Thereafter, the first major step forward was Rajiv Gandhi`s path-breaking visit to China in 1988. This was followed by other high level visits on both sides. Narasimha Rao took the process forward and in September 1993 by signing a Treaty of Peace and Tranquility between the two countries, which also signified India quietly accepting the loss of  90,000 sq km of its territory. While this agreement ended the ‘eyeball to eyeball’ confrontation and soon after, late General B C Joshi became the first Indian Army Chief to visit China. While his visit was a success, it did not stop the Chinese from continuing to enter Indian territory “looking for herbs” – a favourite excuse – or deploying surveillance stations all around India as its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, or targeting it with their  nuclear warheads, also substantially supplied ‘by private arrangement’ to Pakistan.

Increased political contacts and agreements followed over the next few years and by November 2000, after decades of dithering to put their positions on paper, remarkable progress was made by India and China exchanging maps marking out a 545-km section of the international border between Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand), known as the ‘middle sector’, which had relatively few disputes compared to the western and eastern sectors. This agreement was considered significant, first because, it moved the talks from broad principle to the practical details of physical features and measurements, settlement of which would create confidence for forward movement on settling the eastern and western sectors of the almost 2,500-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, even to start the process of settling the easiest, least contentious stretch took almost half a century.

As plainly expressed in Parliament by President Pranab Mukherjee, when he was External Affairs Minister, there is no clearly defined boundary separating China and India. He then stated, “China illegally claims approximately 90,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and about 2,000 sq km in the middle of the India-China boundary.” China also controls 38,000 sq km of territory India claims in Jammu-Kashmir.

Following the recent incursion, in the second flag meeting reportedly China   demanded  dismantling of certain Indian military installations near the LAC in eastern Ladakh as a major  precondition for troop withdrawal. Other demands are reduced helicopter flights by the Indian Army and Air Force and less aggressive patrolling along the border. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s statements about India not being a “pushover” and the incident being referred to as an “acne on a beautiful face”, or words to that effect, fetched wide criticism from media and analysts. Eventually it was a combination of rather late diplomatic moves and the fourth and fifth flag meetings after which the impasse was broken.

While the crux of the problem is “difference of perceptions” about the LAC in the absence of any demarcation, China’s hegemonic mindset, voracious appetite for territory, sustained modernisation and enhancement of offensive capability and now stepping into J&K, where its old friend Pakistan has been busy for over six decades, India needs to take some serious and urgent steps to be able to at least give calibrated responses  in no uncertain terms. Continuing talks,  joint exercises or visits till those tented troops remain there, would only have confirmed to China’s new leaders that India is indeed a pushover. And the Chinese retreat from Dailat Beg Oldi must certainly not make us complacent, because there may be such repeats.

(Anil Bhat is Editor, WordSword Strategic Affairs Features or Independent strategic analyst.)

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