By Anil Bhat
Following the unusual and disturbing kind of intrusion by Chinese border forces from 15 April 2013 in eastern Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which got solved after an impasse of three weeks, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid went to China soon after and returned with a rosy picture of his two-day visit. Noting that China has given a proposal for Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), the minister said India has also given a counter proposal and both countries were examining these proposals. Declining to give details of the Indian proposal, he also clarified that the proposals were not meant to replace any existing ones. While the Chinese reportedly expressed no regret for their intrusion into south -eastern Ladakh, Mr. Khurshid gushed to his hosts that he would “love to live in Beijing.” Shortly after Chinese troops were persuaded to withdraw from the intruded area, Mr.Khurshid was quoted saying that he “did not do a postmortem or apportion blame”, that he saw no reason to go into “details of hair splitting” and asserted that he “raised and flagged it and we said that we both need to do analysis of why it happened…On the problem on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), both countries are on the same page…We don`t have prickly issues of significant difference.” On the need to expand or set up a separate mechanism to deal with issues pertaining to trans- border rivers, Mr Khurshid claimed that for the first time, India has seen some “movement” with China assuring that China was committed to ensuring that India`s rights were “not harmed”.
Very shortly later, Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, arrived in New Delhi on his first foreign trip since assuming office in March and found himself traversing roads mostly empty, thanks to the super security cover provided for him, leaving millions of the capital’s commuters stuck in endless traffic jams miserable and cursing. Leading a large delegation of Chinese business leaders, including bankers and executives from two Chinese telecommunications giants, Huawei and ZTE, Li was at his keep the three-day trip focused on economic ties between China and India, which have grown rapidly over the past decade. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce said last week that bilateral trade reached $66 billion in 2012, setting a goal of $100 billion by 2015.
While it may sound hunky-dory that China has become India`s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade jumping from $5 billion in 2002 to nearly $75 billion in 2011 (although that figure declined to $61.5 billion in 2012 owing to the global economic downturn), the trade so far has been highly in China`s favor, which is another source of concern for India.
While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Khurshid and the diplomats involved in the negotiations may well have addressed all the contentious issues and the Chinese government-controlled media going to town cheering this meet as very successful-what with eight agreements signed-statements like premier Li’s: “India and China have differences, but our shared interests outweigh them”, have to be taken with a spoonful of salt. No doubt, Mr. Li has been on a great charm offensive, but all that he has said on this trip can only be assessed once implementation begins and remains sustained. With his next stop being Pakistan, it remains to be seen how the strategic/ border issues, particularly those of eastern Ladakh will be played out. And Premier Li’s repeated reference to India as a “strategic” partner is indeed quite ironic.
China’s possession of nuclear weapons targetable to any part of India, its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan resulting in swelling of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, boosting nuclear proliferation in South Asia; China supporting Pakistan in supplying conventional weapons and never checking Pakistan for its anti-India activities; China supporting/supplying arms to India’s north east and Left Wing Extremists; China competing for resources in third countries; China’s efforts to strengthen its relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean region; the China-India ‘perception-based’ border dispute, which keeps propelling its army/border troops to cross the LAC and intrude into India. China has kept the 4,057-km LAC live with incursions, albeit without firing any bullets. The stepping up was beginning with Finger, the northern-most point as named by the Indian Army in, Sikkim, by May 2010, motorised foot and amphibious armed patrols of the PLA intruded into the strategic Trig Heights and Pangong lake in eastern Ladakh, bringing the figure of transgressions to 30 in Trig Heights itself, thereby signifying a quantum jump up of 52 % from 27 % in 2009. Then there was a spree of painting ‘China’ on rocks in Mandarin and numerous air space violations also in the same area . While whatever intrusions there may have been in the Central and Eastern segments of the LAC, the same in the Western segment including Jammu & Kashmir’s Ladakh region are particularly worrisome for very obvious reasons. This should be particularly seen in the light of decades-old anti-India-based China-Pakistan relationship and joint military exercises, like Stride 2009, conducted in China’s northwest Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, at an unprecedented level of 50,000 troops and aiming to test its long-distance mobility; ‘Sympathizing’ with India on water issues with assurances of not adversely affecting India’s water resources while relentlessly pursuing its own projects of building dams is a mockery. In 2011 China said that it was constructing a hydropower project at Zangmu and that there will be four more on the Brahmaputra, which would be all inside Chinese territory and being a run-of-the-river project, it would not involve storage of water. China also made it clear that it did not really have to share its plans with India, but was doing it out of a sense of “trust”. The 510 MW project, worth $1.2 billion, is being built by Gezhouba, one of China’s biggest dam-building companies.
Governments, particularly of countries with multiple threats, must never play the ostrich in matters of national security. And in democracies like India, where control over the Armed Forces degenerated into total dominance coupled with contempt for them by the politico- bureaucratic establishment, national security has suffered great setbacks as valuable recommendations and advice on strategic matters was either not sought or, if sought or offered, it was disregarded.
The working arrangement for guarding land and sea borders of India has generally been that undisputed international boundaries are guarded by Border Security Force (BSF)/Ladakh Scouts/ Assam Rifles (AR) under command of the Army and Coast Guard under Indian Navy. In fact for Coast Guard, it was decided at the outset itself that it would be under Ministry of Defence, unlike BSF, AR ,which are under Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Of the two disputed borders, the Line of Control(LoC) with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, while both should be directly manned by the Army, with BSF/AR or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in situ being under Army’s command and control, the LoC is being guarded by Army. However, in the case of the LAC, it is not known as to why any part of it has been allotted for guarding to ITBP and that too under direct control of MHA and not the Army, as in the case of South East Ladakh, where both major Chinese incursions of 2008-9 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 and the recent one in Daulat Beg Oldi occurred.
Interacting with this writer, Lt Gen JS Bajwa (R), author of Modernisation Of The PLA:Gauging its Latent Future Potential (Lancer) and Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch(R), Director, Centre for Land War Studies (CLAWS) have both reiterated what they succinctly wrote about the drawbacks and disadvantages of deploying ITBP on the LAC in recent articles written for Indian Defence Review and the CLAWS website respectively. While Bajwa has gone into details about various aspects of ITBP’s lack of suitability for guarding the LAC, Katoch strongly recommends that Army must replace ITBP on the LAC and the latter be deployed against Left Wing Extremists (LWE), instead of requesting for Army’s assistance, which the Defence Minister has correctly declined.
Five battalions of the lightly armed ITBP are deployed in Eastern Ladakh including those on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) do not have the kind of integrated intelligence set-up, which is very essential in that scenario. The DIG Headquarter controlling these forces is located at Srinagar, 258 kms by air and 418 kms by road from Leh. Zoji La, on the Himalayan Range, and located on the main highway from Srinagar to Leh, is closed to road traffic from November to end May. Considering the separation of the Headquarter from the units, an adhoc Headquarter is functional under the Deputy at Leh. ITBP’s basically High Frequency radio communications are vulnerable to interception and being jammed. ITBP under MHA is a police force, whereas Chinese Border Defence Units deployed and garrisoned along the entire LAC are directly under the PLA, which is surely not mere “policing” duties. The Chinese have been very active on the LAC and those who camped in Depsang required more than a “police “ force response. Deploying ITBP on the LAC sends the wrong message to the Chinese who interpret it as a tacit acceptance of the Indian Government that the LAC is not active or live and as such does not need to be guarded by Army.
Bajwa states: “MHA’s reluctance to place the ITBP under the Army is indicative of the underlying resistance of the IPS lobby to serve under any commander from the Army. IPS as seen from the factual ground realities considers itself as an “administrative cadre” akin to IAS. They loathe the notion of leading from the front as field commanders. The direct entry ITBP young officers endorse the requirement of operating under the Army”.
New Delhi must not repeat the Himalayan blunders of trashing Army’s inputs and recommendations which led to avoidable humiliation in 1962. India’s political leadership and External Affairs Ministry must study many incidents on the LAC post 1962, particularly India’s retaliation at Sikkim in 1967 and the upping of ante in Sumdorong Chu in the 1980s. This recent intrusion is far out of the ordinary and must neither be taken lightly nor lull us into complacence after Mr. Li’s visit and particularly his hype. Because Sino-Indian history of the recent decades is replete with China proceeding with what and how it is benefited in trade, culture etc, while it actively pursues its predatory instincts on the ground. However, it has proved that it understands the language of strength and the will to use it.
(Anil Bhat is Editor, WordSword Strategic Affairs Features or Independent strategic analyst.)