Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sino Indian Standoff in Ladakh: Implications and Options

Amb Satish Chandra, 
Dean, Centre for National Security and Strategic Studies

On April 15th around 50 PLA soldiers intruded about 10 Km inside Indian territory in eastern Ladakh and erected a tented post there. Efforts to get the area vacated through flag meetings, activation of the bilateral joint secretary level mechanism set up to address such situations, and intervention of our Foreign Secretary with the Chinese Ambassador have so far failed. As a result, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police has established a camp 300 meters from that set up by the PLA troops leading to an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.
The problem has arisen because the 4057 Km long Sino Indian border is disputed and because a common perception about the course of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is lacking. This has led each country, with a view to bolstering its territorial claims, to undertake patrolling in areas perceived by the other to be on its side of the LAC. While such activity on our part has been relatively modest China has each year engaged in hundreds of incursions into Indian territory. Such decades long activity is not risk free as anything can happen when the armed personnel of two contending parties are in close proximity in a disputed area. Accordingly, we should have been much more proactive in seeking to resolve the border dispute or, at least, arriving at a common perception of the LAC.

The current incident is much more serious than earlier ones because it is the first occasion in decades when the Chinese are adamant about not vacating the area. Clearly China has decided to up the ante and this move constitutes yet another provocation which we need to appropriately address. 

Unfortunately, India has placed too much faith on the innumerable affirmations committing both countries to maintain peace and tranquility along their borders and to resolve their border related differences peacefully as well as in the multi tiered mechanisms to ensure that the channels of communication remain open at all times.

Such faith is misplaced as China has shown no desire to resolve our border related differences. As recently as March 2013, President Xi Jinping in response to questions from the media asserted that “the boundary question is a complex issue”, resolving it “will not be easy” and pending settlement we should not let it affect “the all-round development in ties.” China, obviously, does not want to work on the early resolution of the boundary issue with a view to keeping India off balance, to destabilize us and to choose the time and manner in which it would act against us.

The foregoing coupled with China’s rapid military modernization are naturally worrisome given its inimical approach towards India which is borne out by the following:

  1. Rapid upgradation of infrastructure and force levels in Tibet along with India specific military exercises;
  2. Ratcheting up of claims to Arunachal Pradesh;
  3. Non grant of visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh on Indian passports;
  4. PLA presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir;
  5. Claims that Sino Indian border is only 2000 Km thus questioning the legality of our possession of the Ladakh sector;
  6. Use of Pakistan as a proxy through grant to it of nuclear weapons related technology as well as conventional weapons;
  7. Pursuance of a string of pearls strategy to strangulate India.
  8. Opposition to India’s efforts to secure permanent membership of the UN Security Council and of various multilateral non proliferation related export control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group etc.
In view of China’s overwhelming military superiority and inimical disposition towards India we have the following policy options:
  1. Business as Usual Approach: characterized by a casual military modernization programme, timidity towards China calculated to avoid ruffling its feathers and a hedging strategy in our relationship with other major players in the region. This option is based on the hope that in the absence of any “provocative” steps by India, China will not take any aggressive steps against us. Such an approach smacks of appeasement and as history has shown will only encourage further Chinese adventurism.
  2. Reciprocal Military Build Up Coupled with Business as Usual Approach: This would entail a focused China centric military buildup while continuing to appease it. While superior to a pure ‘Business as Usual Approach’ it will invoke China’s ire without causing it to renounce its inimical policies vis a vis India. This is apparent from the fact that China is reported to have indicated that it will only vacate its recent incursion if India dismantles its fortifications along its borders.
  3. Firm Self Respecting Policy: This should be our preferred approach and comprise the following elements:
a. Rapid military buildup designed to inflict pain on China in the event of an attack on India; such an attack should invoke counter attacks on China’s vulnerable points and its lines of communication both on land and sea. Our nuclear forces should be appropriately upgraded particularly the submarine vector. Specific attention must be paid to neutralization of Chinese military superiority through asymmetric warfare and guerilla tactics.

b. Linkages with countries which are similarly threatened by China should be openly pursued and plans discreetly developed for reciprocal assistance in the event of Chinese aggression.
c. Inimical moves by China should not be brushed under the carpet and must be responded to firmly. In the instant case we should set up camps in areas regarded by China as being on its side of the LAC but are in India as per our perception. Grant of stapled visas for those from Arunachal should not merely be the object of protest but cause us to issue stapled visas for Chinese from Sinkiang and Tibet.
d. We must play the Tibet card by allowing the Dalai Lama and the Kalon Tripa greater access to our leadership, ceasing to reiterate that Tibet is a part of China, being more supportive of human rights in Tibet and in Sinkiang at international fora, instigating moves in the UN for Tibetan independence, projecting that Tibet is the water tower of Asia and its mismanagement by China threatens the entire region etc. 
e. While welcoming increased Sino Indian economic ties we must ensure that trade is more balanced and China does not use it as a means to damage Indian industry and enter into sensitive sectors like telecommunications.
Adoption of such a policy will, of course, provoke painful Chinese countermeasures but it will in the long term make India stronger. A prerequisite for the adoption of such a policy is, of course, the need to clean up our act at home by providing better governance and ensuring rapid economic development.         

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