Chinese Pla Camp Can Jeopardise Or Affect Stability
The sudden establishment of a Chinese People’s Liberation (PLA) camp in the western sector of the unresolved India-China border on April 15 shook the faith of those Indians who had begun to warm up to a sound and cooperative relationship between the two countries.
In the early hours of that day a patrol of the Indo-Tibetan border Police (ITBP) discovered a platoon strength of the PLA had pitched a camp around eight Kilometres inside Indian perceived territory of the border in Ladakh’s Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). After two rounds of flag meetings which the Chinese commander on the spot reluctantly attended, there has been no withdrawal by the Chinese troops.
There are two rudimentary developments related to this incident. This is not a normal intrusion when Chinese patrols come routinely inside Indian perceived territory, drop some Chinese made items like cigarette packs or noodles packets to establish their footprints and withdraw. This is akin to establishing a PLA post .That changes the entire scenario, as the Indian ITBP contingent which has set up camp a few hundred metres from the PLA tents are unlikely to concede ground.
This has the potential to transform into the eyeball-to-eyeball situation which prevailed for years in Sumdorong Chu in the eastern sector till it was diffused, following the 1993 peace and tranquility treaty (PNT) between the two countries, signed at the prime ministerial level.
The Chinese ambassador in New Delhi was called by the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai to lodge a protest and demand withdrawal of the Chinese troops. But the Chinese ambassador Mr. Wei Wei denied intrusion and claimed it was Chinese territory. The same position was taken by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson in Beijing.
How long will this stand of last? How soon can it be refused? What will it take for the situation to return to status quo ante?
This particular area of the Western Sector has been under Chinese probe for quite some time. The Chinese patrols in the Pangong Tso (Lake) have increased intrusion on the Indian side of the waters. This time around helicopters were used as back-up for the Chinese camp, introducing a new dimension. This would remind Indian observers about a book written by two Chinese Colonels saying the next India-China war will be fought in three dimensions-ground, air and sea, though Pangong Tso is a Himalayan Lake.
The DBO area, including greater Ladakh, is strategically important for both India and China. It overlooks the Chinese road connection through Tibet to Xinjiang and in the later stretch to the Karakoram highway to Pakistan.
For India, China increasingly threatens a pincer move into Ladakh to try and cut off road axis to Kashmir. Hence, India has no option but to fortify its position. The “Bhai-Bhai” (brother-brother) era hopefully will be never revisited by the Indians.
The biggest challenge for the Indian side is the deliberate Chinese policy not to settle the border dispute. This has left the Line of Actual Control (LAC) undemarcated and both sides have to work on their respective perceptions. At the same time both sides have a fairly clear idea of each other’s perception. But it leaves a lot of room for mischief by the Chinese.
There have been several mechanisms between India and China to resolve the boundary issue. The expert level groups, Joint Working Groups (JWG), and the highest at Special Representatives (SR) level talks. These have yet to deliver results, conceding the issue is complex and will take time. The identification of the LAC should not have taken this roundabout route. To establish the LAC the two sides have to exchange maps of the relevant sectors, marketing their respective perceptions. The Indian side offered but the Chinese walked away.
The exchange of maps would have clarified positions to the extent that each side could be more cautious in patrolling and putting up posts. The ambiguity has been maintained deliberately by the Chinese for good reasons of their own. Increasingly the discussions on the border issue is getting sucked into larger aspects of bilateral relations including regional and global developments.
The preceding month gave a ray of hope amid disappointments that the new Chinese leadership may finally be seriously considering a resolution.
Addressing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) journalists in Beijing on March 19 President Xi Jinping told an Indian journalist that border issue was the complex legacy of history and it will not be easy to resolve.
This was understandable as the old position was maintained. It was business as usual, keeping the border issue frozen while try to improve relations in areas wherever possible. On March 27, following the Durban BRICS conference where Xi met Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh, he told the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, that China and India should “strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible”.
On April 15, the Chinese army established a camp about eight kilometres inside Indian perceived territory in DBO. It is significant that within a period of less than thirty days, the Chinese presented three scenarios. This is uncharacteristic of Chinese diplomacy and strategic foreign policy.
Xi Jinping may be the new Chinese President, but he is also chief of the Chinese Communist Party, the main citadel of China’s power, and head of the military as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Xi is not a political novice either. He has been in the party’s Politburo and its standing committee for years and knows every bit of foreign policy.
So, what happened between March 19 and March 27, and March 27 and April 15 (or a few days earlier)? Had he transgressed on the established Chinese policy on relations with India and the border issue? Prior to this incident, the Chinese official media was promoting Xi as their new foreign policy czar. Xinhua is the Chinese Government and Party mouthpiece where all reports are vetted by policy mandarins before being published. What Xinhua publishes is generally taken as official position.
Can it be speculated that President Xi Jinping is one among equals and not first among equals, yet?
It is interesting to note that Chinese officials media has since been silent on the March 19 and March 27 statements, and April 15 incident has been dealt with very briefly only at the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson level.
The Chinese step has not only engrossed the attention of Indian observers but observers of China’s foreign policy across the globe are watching. The incident and the outcome will provide insides into the new Chinese leaders’ foreign policy, especially those in the Asia Pacific Seaboard.
The incident also threatens to damage the upcoming visit of China’s new premier Li Keqiang to India in the later half of May. This would be premier Li’s first foreign trip in his new position, and his first stop in India to convey a new and welcome move in bilateral relations. To note, Xi & Li are being projected by a section in the Chinese Communist Party as a partnership in Unison.
But if the hardliners in China have decided to send a strong message to India on the Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue, India-Japan relations, India-Vietnam relations among others, then the hope for stability could very well be eroded. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid is expected to visit Beijing soon to prepare for Li Keqiang’s visit. He would obviously try to diffuse the tension and smoothen Li’s visit. Normally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry team should be in India as preparatory diplomacy.
The immediate issue, however, is how India deals with the PLA camp in DBO. If the Indian Government decides to withdraw, it will be conceding defeat on its own territory. Nationally, the Government will not be forgiven by the people. In South Asia, Asia at large, and internationally India will lose all that it has gained. It will not even be a sub regional power. This is not a jingoistic position. It is a reality check.
By Bhaskar Roy